The haunting story of the Silent Twins: They stopped speaking aged four… then spent 11 years in Broadmoor alongside Ronnie Kray and the Yorkshire Ripper for a senseless crime spree. Now a new film reveals their astonishing talents
- The Silent Twins were imprisoned alongside Yorkshire Ripper and Ronnie Kray
- They remained at Broadmoor under maximum security from 1982 for 11 years
- New film of June and Jennifer Gibbons’ lives is to be released in UK later this year
June Gibbons dressed with care the day she was taken to Broadmoor. She and her twin sister, Jennifer, were — bizarrely — excited at being admitted to the notorious hospital for the criminally insane.
The girls had just pleaded guilty to a five-week crime spree in West Wales, including 16 counts of burglary, theft and arson. To say they were troubled teenagers barely describes how odd and anti-social they were: most people found them spooky, even sinister.
The twins’ attitude to Broadmoor was by no means the only unusual thing about the identical 19-year-olds: since early childhood they had refused to communicate — even with members of their own family.
The Silent Twins, as they became known, lived in a weird, intense world in which they were utterly entwined.
They had become imprisoned in that world. Now, in the summer of 1982, having been sentenced to be detained indefinitely — a word they did not understand — they believed they were being offered treatment that could set them free them from their mental torment.
They imagined themselves at Broadmoor ‘sitting in the summer sun on a lawn, with nurses dressed in white around’.
So, June put on her flowered skirt and smart, black jacket that morning in 1982 in a spirit of optimism — yet as well as recording what she was wearing, she wrote in her diary: ‘One day I will look back on Monday 21st June and what will I see? My sister and I, as vulnerable as flowers in hell.’
The Silent Twins, from west Wales, stopped speaking aged four then spent 11 years at Broadmoor alongside Ronnie Kray and the Yorkshire Ripper for a senseless crime spree. Now a new film reveals the astonishing talents that lay hidden in their voiceless world
At Broadmoor, the twins were banged up alongside the likes of the Yorkshire Ripper and Ronnie Kray. Instead of the ‘year or two at most’ they expected, they were to remain there, under maximum security, and almost forgotten, for the next 11 years.
What no one imagined, as they were sentenced at Swansea Crown Court, was that behind their stubborn silence and robotic demeanour, the twins had a rich and vivid inner life.
Back home in their bedroom in Haverfordwest lay hundreds of pages of diaries, poems, short stories and full-blown novels, written by the twins and discovered by Marjorie Wallace, an investigative journalist who was intrigued by the case and contacted June and Jennifer’s family.
Her landmark account of the girls’ life story, The Silent Twins, was published in 1986, the same year Majorie founded the mental health charity SANE.
Now, The Silent Twins has been made into a movie. Letitia Wright, star of Marvel’s Black Panther series, plays June, alongside Tamara Lawrance (Prince Harry’s revolutionary girlfriend in the TV adaptation of King Charles III) as Jennifer.
The Silent Twins was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May and described by Screen Daily as ‘a wilfully challenging, sometimes abrasive drama’. It will go on release in the UK later this year.
Agnieszka Smoczynska, the film’s Polish director, says adapting the story for the screen was very moving: the heart of their story was ‘the clash of their two worlds. Reality, juxtaposed against their imagination; full of colour and full of energy’.
So who were The Silent Twins? They were born in 1963, the daughters of Caribbean parents who had come to Britain as part of the Windrush generation.
Aubrey, the twins’ Barbadian-born father, was a technician in the RAF. He and his wife Gloria already had two small children — Greta and David — when the twins arrived, and went on to have another daughter, Rosie, four years later.
June and Jennifer were born in Aden, where Aubrey had been temporarily deployed, then moved to various bases around England and finally —when the twins were 11 years old — to Haverfordwest, in South-West Wales.
By the time they arrived in Wales, their parents were already concerned by their strange behaviour. The twins had been late to speak and had a speech impediment — a sort of lisp, which made it hard to understand what they were trying to say.
They had stopped speaking at all around the age of four except when they were alone in their room and could be heard talking to each other in what appeared to be a private language that no one else understood.
Aubrey remembered later that ‘if you asked one a question they would look at the other’ before trying to reply, as if seeking permission.
Though he was reassured by well-meaning friends and teachers that the girls were shy and would ‘grow out of it’, by the time they got to secondary school they were utterly withdrawn.
A move to a rural area where there were no other black children was probably the worst possible thing for them and they were soon being called ‘freaks’.
Both pupils and teachers found their silence and their uncanny habit of moving in unison sinister.
Their refusal to engage in lessons made assessing their intelligence impossible: no one was even sure whether they could read or write.
Haverfordwest County School’s headmistress, Beryl Davis, recalled later: ‘They stood one behind the other, as in a queue. They would look at your chest, straight through you, and not answer. It was most unnerving.’
The twins’ odd behaviour and, very probably the fact that they were the only black children their classmates had ever encountered, resulted in them being bullied — so much so that they were allowed out of school five minutes early every day so they could get home safely.
‘They picked on us,’ said June, later. ‘They’d say “can they speak English?”’
The Silent Twins has been made into a movie. Letitia Wright, star of Marvel’s Black Panther series, plays June, alongside Tamara Lawrance (Prince Harry’s revolutionary girlfriend in the TV adaptation of King Charles III) as Jennifer. Pictured, Leah Mondesir Simmons (left) and Eva-Arianna Baxter playing the twins when they are children
Even the teachers wondered about that: if the girls were ever overheard speaking to one another (as they did when they believed they were alone) what they were saying was unintelligible. One teacher assumed it was ‘some sort of African “click” language’.
Diagnosed as ‘elective mutes’ they were sent to a special school, where Cathy Arthur, a special needs teacher, recorded them and on slowing down the tape discovered they were speaking English, a ‘sped-up’ version, with odd pronunciation.
It was a breakthrough, of sorts, but still they refused to communicate: most of the time they sat or stood sullenly still, like statues. No one could have guessed at the intense power struggle raging behind those blank expressions.
The twins had a love-hate relationship, both feeling suffocated by their closeness but unwilling to let the other have a separate existence.
‘J and I are like lovers,’ June wrote later. ‘She thinks I am weak. She knows not how I fear her… I want to be strong enough to split from her.’
Jennifer wrote: ‘She should have died at birth. Cain killed Abel. No twin should forget that.’
Jennifer was moved to another boarding school as a last-ditch attempt to see if separating the twins would encourage them to interact with other people but, without the other, both became catatonic. It took two people to get June out of bed.
Out of school at 16 and able to draw the dole, the twins spent the next two years in a creative frenzy. Something in them must have wanted to connect with the world: their mother discovered later that they had ordered a correspondence course called The Art Of Conversation, a guide to making small talk.
They also registered (as one person) for a distance creative writing course. June explained in a TV documentary made in the early 1990s that they wanted to become famous writers: ‘We thought if we couldn’t speak, we’d do it a different way. We’d be bestsellers and make our family proud of us.’
Unsurprisingly, their writing had unusual themes. In Jennifer’s Discomania, the atmosphere of a local disco incites dancers to acts of violence. In The Pugilist, a doctor who wants to save a child’s life kills the family dog to obtain a heart for transplant.
June’s novel Pepsi-Cola Addict sees a high school hero seduced by a teacher, then sent to a reform school.
They became so absorbed in their poems, stories and reams of diaries they no longer came downstairs to eat.
If they wanted to communicate with their parents, they did so by letter: ‘We want to see Top Of The Pops tonight at 7pm. Please leave living room door open.’
As adolescence took hold, the girls’ relationship with the outside world took a new turn.
In their last year at their special school, they had struck up an unlikely friendship with an American boy, Lance Kennedy (not his real name but the one used in Wallace’s book), who had defended the girls when other pupils attacked them. Lance had returned to America but his three brothers still lived nearby. Suffocated by the physical and mental closeness of two years shut in their bedroom — and perhaps wanting to translate some of the energy and romance they put into their fiction into real life — the girls took a taxi to the Kennedy home one day.
It was empty — so they let themselves in, made peanut butter sandwiches and examined the boys’ clothes. When their parents came home and caught them, they were shocked, but felt sorry for the twins (whom they had very probably heard about) and let them go. It was the first of many visits.
‘They were American boys, white boys,’ June said later. ‘Good-looking, like . . . do you know that boy Leo DiCaprio? We’d take a taxi, all in make-up and short skirts and high shoes and wigs and lipstick, like ladies, like film stars. We were trying to entice the boys, make them like us.’
In the Kennedys’ company, the girls discovered whisky and drugs: ‘We sniffed glue and lighter fluid. We were different then, laughing and talking,’ June recalled. ‘We were so relaxed and laid-back.’
Jennifer lost her virginity to Carl Kennedy, the youngest brother, with June watching. Two weeks later, June also had sex with Carl.
Marjorie Wallace, an investigative journalist (pictured centre with the twins) who was intrigued by the case and contacted June and Jennifer’s family. Her landmark account of the girls’ life story, The Silent Twins, was published in 1986, the same year Majorie founded the mental health charity SANE
June wrote in her diary that ‘something magic is happening’; Jennifer that she could ‘feel the intense hotness of his eyes slowly studying my body. At that moment I felt like a very beautiful girl’.
The boys felt quite different: they regarded the girls as no better than two barely tolerated dogs who sat at their feet, waiting for attention, Wallace wrote.
When the Kennedy family left Wales to return to the U.S. the twins were distraught — and determinedly went off the rails.
They tried to join a local gang but were rebuffed, so they embarked on a life of anti-social behaviour alone, stealing bikes, smashing windows and daubing graffiti on walls.
‘I’m planning to make petrol bombs,’ June wrote as their ambitions gained strength. ‘I’m going to burn down the whole damned town.’
They set fire to a tractor store, then were caught by the police smashing a window at Pembroke Technical College, just about to start another fire. Within 48 hours they were in a remand centre and were later persuaded to plead guilty to their crimes on the basis that they would be sent to a hospital — Broadmoor — where they would get help. They and their parents assumed they would be there for a year or two at most. Instead, they were over 30 by the time they left the institution.
‘Juvenile delinquents get two years in prison . . . we got 12 years of hell because we didn’t speak,’ June said later. ‘We lost hope, really. I wrote a letter to the Queen, asking her to get us out. But we were trapped.’
Would the twins’ fate have been different today? Almost certainly. Their physical and psychological problems would have been picked up much earlier and, as society is more racially tolerant, they would not have felt so acutely alone.
‘You might have expected them to get a warning, or community service. To be locked up for petty crimes is in itself unusual,’ says Emma Citron, a consultant clinical psychologist based in North-West London. ‘I hope that would be different today. Elective mutism is not the child being difficult.
‘It must have been very, very stressful to be ethnically isolated, culturally isolated.
‘Because of difficulties they’d experienced in their upbringing they felt “it’s us against the world, we’re not going to cooperate, we’re not going to play this game,’ and that, tragically, seems to have backfired because that was used against them as part of their “madness”. Twinship was the making of them — and the unmaking of them. That’s what’s so curious and tragic.’
The lifelong power struggle between them had to be resolved. Just before they were due to be transferred from Broadmoor to an open clinic, where they would prepare for a return home, Jennifer told a visitor she had decided to die.
In the 24 hours before they left Broadmoor in March 1993, she seemed lethargic. On the journey to Caswell Clinic she lay asleep, with her eyes open, across June’s lap. A few hours later she was dead, apparently from acute myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart.
June was eventually released, to live quietly, away from the public gaze, back in West Wales.
‘I wake up and think “one more day for me, one more day for my sister”,’ she said.
‘I thought I’d never get over her death but it’s made me stronger. I feel I’m living for her.’