Day 893: The Weird Cocoon-Like Prison Of The Gibbon Twins

originally published June 11, 2014

Growing up as an only child, whose only companions were the top-notch offerings of prime-time network television, I always wanted a sibling. But beyond that, I was downright fascinated with twins. That unspoken connection – some even say psychic communication – poked at the crusty, ashen embers of my imagination with a tempting stick. I always wanted that intrinsic bond, and I just wasn’t finding it with Mr. Belvedere.

Researchers have found that as many as one in eight pregnancies starts off as a twin pregnancy. One in eight. Sometimes one of the little zygotes dies so early in the pregnancy it isn’t detected, other times they might fuse together and form a single embryo. That’s a creepy thought, that there’s a real possibility that I might be made up of two pre-people.

But I’m interested in actual twins, those who split the rent on their womb with a view. And there’s a particular set of twins that has piqued my interest today, a pair of Barbados-born, Welsh-raised girls named June and Jennifer Gibbons. Their story grabs hold of the symbiotic closeness of twin lore and twists into something remarkably strange.

Language development in twins has always been of interest to those who like to poke and prod at young’uns. There is a higher rate of delay among twins in grabbing hold of language, and not because of any hiccup in their cerebral wiring. Twins often exhibit something called idioglossia, which is a made-up language (okay, I suppose all languages are ‘made-up’ if you want to be picky about it) spoken by only a few people, sometimes only one.

Jodie Foster babbled in idioglossia in that movie Nell. Kids often invent their own idioglossia on sleepovers – though my friends and I preferred to simply quote Star Wars dialogue to one another. But twins are notorious for inventing their own coded language, isolating themselves from the outside world with a sophisticated form of conversation that no one else can interpret. June and Jennifer Gibbons concocted their idioglossia with astounding care and detail.

June and Jennifer were born in Barbados to two loving parents who moved to Haverfordwest, Wales. As West Indian kids, June and Jennifer’s dark mocha pigmentation led to some distinctly intentional alienation in school, but it was more the quiet and deliberate patois between the girls that made them permanent outsiders. No one outside their immediate family could understand what the hell they were saying.

It was a form of cryptophasia, a language in full-on code that grew to become their standard mode of speech. It wasn’t so much that the twins spoke in a made-up language to one another, it’s that they refused to speak to anyone else, apart from their parents and their little sister, Rose. Their actions mirrored one another. Their antisocial tendencies were frighteningly identical. Between this self-imposed bubble of communication and their dark skin, they were the targets of such extreme bullying, the school would release them early so that they could make it home free of torment from their peers.

This little coded language of theirs was not helping matters.

A parade of therapists couldn’t break these girls free from their chosen bond to one another. They weren’t stupid kids – in fact they were quite creative – but they refused to communicate with the outside world. At 14 they were sent away to separate boarding schools, at which point both girls became even more withdrawn, to the point of becoming catatonic. Nothing was getting through.

Once they were back together again, the girls came alive, staging elaborate ongoing storylines with their dolls, even recording them on tape as a present for Rose. They began writing stories. Their stories were not the blasé pap one might expect from young ladies in a small Welsh town without the desire to even speak to anyone outside their tiny inner circle. They were tales of teachers seducing students, of elaborate crimes, curious violence and real human desperation. They put out their work via a self-publishing press called New Horizons, and tried to get stories published through traditional means.

When that didn’t click right away, they began along a very different path. A notably dark one.

I’ve written about this place before: Broadmoor Hospital. When someone in the UK is found not guilty by means of insanity, this is often where they’ll end up. After a failed attempt at romance with a pair of US Navy brothers, June and Jennifer turned to a life of crime. They dabbled in theft and arson, and without any skills at deviance – apart from a staunch refusal to communicate – they were picked up and charged. Their sentence was an indefinite term at Broadmoor, where they’d be treated as anyone else who’d been labeled criminally insane.

Whatever might have plagued their collective psyche before being committed was amplified inside the hospital walls. They were loaded up with buckets-worth of antipsychotic meds and left to wander the halls for fourteen years. Jennifer came to develop tardive dyskinesia, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive body movements. They’d given up on creative writing, and the meds were taking their toll on the girls.

That’s when it was decided that one of them had to die.

According to Marjorie Wallace, a journalist from The Sunday Times who had followed the story since the girls’ trial, the girls had made an agreement that if one of them were to die, the other would begin to speak and have a normal life. After fourteen years within the frightening confines of Broadmoor, Jennifer offered to sacrifice herself so that June could carry on with her life. In March of 1993, both were transferred to the more casual and less horrifying Caswell Clinic in Bridgend, Wales. When they arrived there, Jennifer wouldn’t wake up.

There was no poison in her system, and no trace of any drugs. The official cause of her death was acute myocarditis, or a sudden inflammation of the heart. There is no logical reason why she died. It wasn’t suicide, it wasn’t murder, and she possessed no known medical condition that could have precipitated such a catastrophe. Perhaps she’d offered herself as the sacrifice and simply willed it to happen.

As promised, June came out of her shell – a self-imposed shell that stretched back beyond her earliest memories. “I’m free at last, liberated,” she told Marjorie Wallace, “and at last Jennifer has given up her life for me.” She now leads a normal life, free of therapists, psychiatrists and heavy medication. It’s as though the spell had been broken.

Wow. Maybe being an only child wasn’t so bad after all.

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