In fiction there are lots of scary twins. Just think of those creepy little girls in The Shining. In the real world, most twins consider themselves lucky to have a companion who shares their genes and their history. But for some twins, like Jennifer and June Gibbons, that unique bond becomes more of a curse. In the end, June and Jennifer decided one of them would have to die so the other one could go on living.
It was an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times named Marjorie Wallace who first brought their story to the world. She befriended the girls in 1980, chronicling their strange connection and its stranger end in her 1986 biography .
The girls were born in 1963 to Barbadian parents and grew up in a small town in Wales called Havefordwest. June was born first, but it was Jennifer who developed into the stronger, more dominant one. In fact, one medical expert said it seemed like Jennifer at times “possessed” her sister. Even the girls themselves described themselves as switching selves, bouncing back and forth between being Jennifer and being June.
Their lives did not begin happily. They were the only black children in their town and the ostracism and bullying was so severe school officials allowed them to leave ahead of the other students so they could reach home in peace.
They responded by withdrawing into their own world. They stopped speaking to anyone else. They communicated only with each other in a private language only they could understand. A close study of their speech revealed it was a rapid-fire mashup of English and Barbadian slang.
Therapists decided separating the girls might force them to reenter the world. It didn’t work. The girls were sent to separate boarding schools where they retreated into full-blown catatonia, neither speaking nor moving.
When they were reunited, they retreated to their bedroom, refusing even to come out for meals. But they used their imaginations to build a huge world in that small space. They invented complicated names and stories for their dolls. The fantasies included a certain ghoulishness, with the demise of the dolls recorded in an official notebook, each with a specific cause of death.
They were now 16 and surviving on public assistance. They chronicled their lives in detail in separate diaries. Those diaries record a heartbreaking transition in their relationship. Instead of finding comfort in their closeness, they began to turn on each other. “We have become fatal enemies in each other’s eyes,” Jennifer writes. “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?”
One entry from June: “She wants us to be equal. There is a murderous gleam in her eye. Dear lord, I am scared of her. She is not normal … someone is driving her insane. It is me.”
They began writing novels. Again, the subjects were dark: an American boy addicted to Pepsi-Cola who was seduced by his teacher; another boy whose surgeon father transplanted a dog’s heart into his body.
Their dark fantasies led to dark behaviors. They started drinking and using drugs. They broke into houses, smashed windows, and started fires. That behavior led eventually to their arrest. They were committed to the infamous , the high-security prison mental hospital where some of Britain’s most notorious serial killers were sent to live out their lives.
In her biography, Wallace reports that in Broadmoor the twins decided one of them would have to die so the other could live. Jennifer, the stronger twin, agreed to be the sacrifice in this fatal pact.
The girls endured Broadmoor Hospital for 11 years. When they were nearly 30, they were finally released to a less-restrictive hospital in Wales. On the bus to their new home, Jennifer laid her head on June’s shoulder and said, “At long last, we’re out.” That night Jennifer died. The cause of death was an undiagnosed infection of the heart.
June was released from the hospital a year later. In 2000, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als traveled to Wales to meet her. In , he describes a normal woman living a normal, if lonely, life. She was in a halfway house when Als visited, but has since moved to her own apartment. And she visits her sister’s grave often. It is inscribed with a poem written by June:
We once were two
We two made one
We no more two
Through life be one
Rest in peace.
Read more about June and Jennifer Gibbons in The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace.
Featured photo via Cover of "The Silent Twins" by Marjorie Wallace via Vintage Publishing