true crime

The true story of 'The Silent Twins', who decided one had to die so the other could be free.

On October 24, 1981, 18-year-old twins June and Jennifer Gibbons watched as the tractor shop in their little Welsh town burned. They stared at the glowing building, as flames licked their way through the roof and thick smoke billowed into the night sky.

Later that evening, June opened her diary and began to write.

“I burned it down today, with the help of Jennifer, of course. The greatest moment of my life. We opened all the cans of petrol and spread it everywhere. Can you believe that I’m the arsonist of Haverfordwest?… My lovely glorious fire… a picture which will live in my mind forever — oh, what a sinful, evil, selfish mind.

“I know the Lord will forgive me. It’s been a long, painful, hard year. Don’t I deserve to express my distress?”

The blaze wasn’t the only one the pair had started in their tiny, grey market town. There were four in all, along with a string of vandalism, break-and-enters and thefts. Police caught up to them at one point, but they were silent during their interview — just as they’d been for most of their lives.

When Jennifer and June were ultimately arrested while attempting to burn down a local technical college, it was the diary entry that confessed for them.

Watch: The twins had lived their childhood isolated, together. But they wanted to find their voices.


Video via BBC

The teens’ five-week crime spree caught the attention of British journalists, in particular, Marjorie Wallace of The Sunday Times, who gradually unravelled their story. A tale of tormented sisters, so tired of being misunderstood they’d chosen not to speak at all; a choice that saw them bullied, analysed, institutionalised.

But it was their relationship that fascinated Wallace most.

Having trapped themselves in their silent world, Jennifer and June were desperately dependant on each other and saw themselves almost as one entity — “You are Jennifer. You are me,” Jennifer would say to her sister, according to Wallace’s book, The Silent Twins. But the only thing that seemed to torment them more than the fear of being apart was staying together.

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As Jennifer wrote in her diary, “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?”

She never found the answers to those questions. But June did.

Jennifer and June’s vow of silence.

Jennifer and June were born on April 11, 1963. Their parents had immigrated to the United Kingdom from Barbados three years earlier, and their father became a technician with the Royal Air Force.

The girls were late to speak. When they did, their words were muffled by the same speech impediment.

Their family had difficulty understanding them.

“[It was ] a bit frustrating,” June told BBC series Inside Story in 1994. “Because we had to still repeat ourselves, we didn’t speak and left it… [We decided] ‘You can’t hear us now, you can’t hear us ever.'”

They kept words for each other: “We had our own language. When me and my sister spoke we knew what we were saying; my mother had to guess.”

Image: BBC.
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Their silence, their dependence on each other and the colour of their skin saw them heavily bullied at school in Haverfordwest, to the point that they were allowed to leave five minutes early, so that they could walk home in peace.

They withdrew more and more. Speaking to The New Yorker in 2000, June said she and her sister developed a ritual in which they would kneel by their bed and beg God to help them communicate.

"We’d open the Bible and start chanting from it and pray like mad. We’d pray to Him not to let us hurt our family by ignoring them, to give us strength to talk to our mother, our father. We couldn’t do it. Hard it was. Too hard.”

In 1976, a doctor visiting the school to administer vaccinations noticed their strange behaviour. Neither girl spoke, they walked with heads down, almost synchronised, and appeared to be in a sort of trance. "They were totally expressionless. You spoke to them, they didn't react," Dr John Rees told Inside Story. "I'd never [seen] anything like it."

The pair was sent to a special school — Eastgate Centre for Special Education — the following year, on their 14th birthday. They were analysed and treated, the sessions recorded through hidden microphones and taped through a one-way mirror. The therapist soon noticed they spoke only when she left the room; their secret language, which she determined was a rapidly spoken mix of English and Barbadian Creole.

The psychology team attempted to break their self-isolation by separating them. Though they had written letters asking to be kept apart, to forge their own identities, the reality of it proved destructive.

"June had stopped eating, she'd stopped moving, stopped dressing herself," Cathy Arthur told Inside Story. "She'd sit crying in a sort of cationic state... Obviously, we had to say, enough's enough.'"

They were reunited, and they slipped back into their same silent mimicry.

Facing the end of their time at Eastgate, psychologist Tim Thomas was deeply concerned about their lack of rehabilitation. "My feeling was of impending disaster."

A world beyond their room: boys, drugs and arson.

Jennifer and June left school at 16, and retreated once again to their room. They played richly imagined games with their dolls, devoured books and absorbed themselves with writing. Each penned an entire novel. June even paid to have hers — The Pepsi-Cola Addict — published.

The girls spoke only to their youngest sister Rosie, but even that stopped eventually.

They were lured back to the outside world at the age of 18 by their infatuation with a group of local boys, brothers, who had recently moved to the town from America.

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After watching them from afar, even breaking into their home when they were out, they eventually began seeing them regularly. These boys introduced them to drugs, alcohol and arson. Their inhibitions began to melt, and they began to speak.

Each lost their virginity to the same brother within a week.

"That created tremendous instability," Marjorie Wallace told The Chicago Tribune. "Their relationship, normally tempestuous, was punctuated by murderous fights. Jennifer tried to strangle June with a cord. June tried to drown Jennifer in a river. The boys abandoned them, and they were left with nothing but mounting rage and terror."

And so began their crime spree.

Broadmoor and the pact:'Jennifer has got to die.'

At their trial for burglary, arson and theft in May, 1982, both Jennifer and June pleaded guilty.

Having been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorder (a ruling which has been disputed by their school psychologists and Marjorie Wallace), they were sentenced to indefinite detention at Broadmoor, Britain's most secure psychiatric facility.

At 19, they were its youngest-ever inmates.

"We wanted to get away from our life," June told The New Yorker. "We thought Broadmoor was going to be like paradise."

Instead, they found themselves sharing walls with cold-blooded killers. They were given antipsychotic medication and routinely tranquilised. They spoke, but year after year they were deemed to have not made enough progress to be released.

Marjorie Wallace with Jennifer and June. Image: Getty.
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Wallace, who visited them regularly during their imprisonment told The Chicago Tribune at the time, "In a sad way, Broadmoor has helped them somewhat. It is highly structured. They go to classes, earn privileges, attend socials with their axe-murderer boyfriends. They spend hours with each other each day. They joined the hospital choir".

Finally, in March 1993, a month before their 30th birthday, the twins were approved for transfer to a medium-security clinic — their first step to freedom after 12 long years.

Wallace visited them one last time before they were moved. The conversation was jolly at first, Wallace told NPR, but then in the middle, Jennifer told her, "Marjorie, I'm going to have to die".

"She said, 'Because we've decided.' At that point, I got very, very frightened because I could see that they meant it. And then they said, 'We have made a pact. Jennifer has got to die.' Because they said the day that they left Broadmoor, the day that they were free from the secure hospital, one of them would have to give up their life to really enable the other one to be free."

Wallace told NPR  that she later heard from Broadmoor staff that the pair had been violently quarrelling about who that would be.

Jennifer's death.

On the bus to their new facility, Jennifer, who had been feeling lethargic and unwell, lay her head on her sister's shoulder. As the gates closed behind them, she said, "At last, we're out of Broadmoor".

There, leaning on her sister, her shadow, Jennifer slipped into a coma.

She was pronounced dead that evening due to undiagnosed acute myocarditis, a rare disorder that causes inflammation of the heart. It's rarely fatal.

June was released on parole the following year. Though "hysterical with grief" at first, she told Inside Story that she found strength in surviving it, in learning to live for her sister, in finding her own voice.

But, she said, Jennifer is still with her. She'll always be.

"She might be not here anymore, but I was born a twin and I'll die a twin," she said. "That's the way it goes."

Featured image: BBC.

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