Friday, June 21, 2019

The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace (1986)

I read The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace when it was initially published in 1986. I then forgot about the strange, sad and compelling story of the Gibbons twins for many years. Perhaps even decades.

Recently, I was trying to recall things that were important or memorable to me in the 1980s.  The faces of June and Jennifer Gibbons swam up from my unconscious like pearl-divers desperate for air. I immediately ordered a copy of the book, which I had once owned, and re-read it.

The copy I had in the 80s looked like this

After finishing the book back in the 80s,  I spent a LOT of time looking at the photographs.  Studying their faces, I wondered how it would be to live their lives, to experience life the way that they did.  There are several pictures of June and Jennifer photographed together, as identical twins often are.

Photo originally published in The Silent Twins.

Not that I envied them.  The book is an account of their first 20 years: from their births in 1963 to 1983, at which time they were residents of Broadmoor, the oldest high-security psychiatric hospital in England.

One could argue that June and Jennifer Gibbons were ensnared in one of the most co-dependent relationships in recorded history.  Ironically, Co-Dependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie was also first published in 1986. The book became an instant self-help classic and the term "co-dependent" became part of our lexicon.  

Co-dependency, in a nutshell, is when your actions and decisions are based almost entirely on your partner’s anticipated response and your core sense of self gets lost.

Mutually co-dependent, one twin would attempt to control the other, then the roles would reverse.  They frequently synchronized their movements and sometimes one would eat for both of them. When forcibly separated, they were miserable and couldn’t function.  Yet both twins were tormented by this fact and desperately wished to be free of the other. They became so enmeshed that the outside world faded and they created a universe of their own.  They dropped out of school, becoming almost totally isolated. They seldom spoke to other people, not even to their own family. Other issues were undoubtedly at play, but their main problem seemed to be their relationship itself.

Jennifer (left) and June. Photos from The Silent Twins

As teens, the girls yearned for “normal” experiences and other relationships. Experimentation in the "outside world" combined with their ongoing emotional turmoil eventually led to criminally destructive behavior. A court found them to be psychopathic and ordered them institutionalized.  

Marjorie Wallace first reported on their case for a newspaper and made friends with them.  She gained access to their copious diaries, stories and drawings. After the publication of The Silent Twins Wallace maintained her friendship with June and Jennifer, visiting them regularly at Broadmoor.  She never accepted the court’s diagnosis.

Years passed. On the morning of March 9, 1993, the twins were transferred from Broadmoor Hospital to Caswell Clinic, a minimum security facility where they would have partial freedom.  Within hours Jennifer was dead due to sudden acute myocarditis, sudden inflammation of the heart. She was 29 with no known heart problems. There was no evidence that drugs, poison or a virus had killed her. Pathologists could not explain her death. June was released from Caswell a year later and now lives a quiet life near her family.

Seeing as how I hadn’t kept up with their story after 1986, I was a bit shocked to find out that Jennifer had died.  Upon reflection however, it is sadly unsurprising. Shortly before the transfer to Caswell, Jennifer told Wallace, “I’m going to die.  We’ve decided." After her sister's death, June confided, "We were war-weary. It had been a long battle. Someone had to break the vicious circle.”

(Information about June and Jennifer’s lives after 1986 was found in these articles by Hilton Als in The New Yorker and Marjorie Wallace in The Guardian.)

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