LOCKED UP WOULDN’T
ABOND between twins in a special one – but the one between June and Jennifer Gibbons must surely be one like few others. To the outside world they were silent. Mysterious.
They communicated only with each other – excluding even their parents and siblings – and in latter years wrote a huge amount of words in diary entries, novels and poems in their Pembrokeshire bedroom. They were smart and religious. And they spent their 20s locked away in Broadmoor high security hospital.
The extraordinary story of the twins inspired a Manic Street Preachers song, and raises some difficult questions about how they were treated by the authorities.
The twins’ parents, Aubrey and Gloria Gibbons, came to Britain from Barbados in the early 1960s, part of the Windrush generation.
Aubrey joined the RAF and was soon posted overseas – it was in a military hospital in the British colony of Aden that the twins were born on April 11, 1963.
Two cute little kids, part of a military family.
Surely no-one could have foreseen how their lives would develop, for it is more like one of the works of imagination and fiction the pair would go one to read and write than a real-life tale.
Later that year the family returned to the UK, and moved to the RAF base in Linton, Yorkshire.
The twins seemed to be happy, though they were late talkers.
They were described as being “inseparable” – not perhaps unusual in twins – and were noted by teachers as only talking to each other, and to their dolls.
But gradually they began withdrawing from their family too, apparently forming an ever-deeper bond with each other which saw them communicating in a “secret language” no one else could understand.
When they were eight the family moved to Devon after their dad was posted to RAF Chivenor. The twins were said to have been bullied at school and responded by becoming ever more insular.
Then in 1974, when the girls were aged 11, their father was transferred to an RAF base in Pembrokeshire, and the family moved to the Furzy Park housing estate in Haverfordwest.
The girls attended Haverfordwest County Secondary School with their older brother, David, but it was not a happy time for them.
Black twins were an unusual sight in West Wales in the 1970s and by all accounts the school environment was a tough one for the girls, with bullying and taunting seemingly commonplace.
At school they refused to read or write, and over time they excluded everyone – including their parents – from their silent world.
Yet seemingly nobody took the time or the trouble to find out what was happening.
That changed in 1976 when a medic arrived at the school to give the pupils their TB jabs. Curious at the twins’ impassive reaction to the injections, he contacted a child psychiatrist.
This was to be the start of the twins’ interaction with the authorities that would eventually see them spend a decade in Britain’s most infamous secure hospital.
From the psychiatrist, they went to see a speech therapist at Withybush Hospital. Though they rarely spoke to anyone save their sibling, the therapist was able to record them speaking and worked out their “secret language” was a mixture of Barbadian slang and English, spoken very quickly.
It was decided that the girls should be transferred to the Eastgate Centre for Special Education in Pembroke. But it seemed they fared little better than at their previous school, remaining silent during therapy sessions.
In 1977, the decision was taken to try separating them to see if that would make them open up. June was sent to St David’s Adolescent Unit but responded by apparently stopped moving all together – she would on occasions just lie in bed at the residential centre.
The experiment having failed, they eventually reunited at Eastgate.
Staff who treated them referred to the relationship as “controlling” – though it was not clear which one was controlling the other – and even of one twin “possessing” the other. Whatever was the case, nobody seemed to be able to get through to them.
They remained silent save with their twin and would often communicate with each other in the presence of others simply by eye gestures. Their movements often mirrored each other’s.
Journalist and mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace, who would later get to know the twins, described their relationship as a “sinister childhood game that got out of control.”
She said: “They had these rituals where they decided between them which one would wake first, which one would breathe first, and the other wasn’t allowed to breathe until the first one breathed. It was like some sinister childhood game that got out of control.”
When the girls turned 16 they left school and returned home to Haverfordwest, their extraordinary bond seemingly as strong as ever but now facing the added difficulties of adolescence too.
While they refused to communicate with the outside world, it seemed they poured out their thoughts in the written word – police would later discover a vast quantity of diaries, essays, poems, short stories and novels written by the girls.
One of June’s books, Pepsi Cola Addict about a student being seduced by a teacher, was selfpublished.
In one diary entry about the siblings’ relationship Jennifer wrote: “We have become fatal enemies in each other’s eyes.
“We feel the irritating deadly rays come out of our bodies, stinging each other’s skin. I say to myself, can I get rid of my own shadow – impossible or not possible?
“Without my shadow, would I die? Without my shadow, would I gain life, be free or left to die? Without my shadow, which I identify with a face of misery, deception, murder.”
In the summer of 1981 it appears they discovered alcohol, drugs, and boys – less than a year later they would be locked up in a psychiatric hospital.
After years of turning away from the world, in late October 1981 they suddenly projected themselves outwards, and went on a five-week spree of vandalism, burglary, thefts and arson in Haverfordwest which ended when they were caught trying to burn down Pembrokeshire Technical College.
The twins subsequently pleaded guilty to 16 counts of burglary, theft, and arson at Swansea Crown Court, and in May 1982 were sentenced under the Mental Health Act to indefinite detention at Broadmoor.
Journalist Miss Wallace would later say of the court case: “The unemotional legal pantomime went on around them without touching them.”
She would later write a book about the girls called The Silent Twins.
While on remand and then serving their sentence at Broadmoor, the twins continued to write copious diaries in prison notebooks.
In one entry Jennifer wrote an entry which showed the complexity of the pair’s relationship.
She wrote: “I really aim to be alone. Yet, I am deceiving myself. Can I stand being alone? My heart does not beat so fast now. It only beats fast when J is around.”
As well as prolific writers they were also voracious readers, consuming works by DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Emily Bronte, Mary Shelley and others.