The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace (1986-2008)
The Silent Twins directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska (2022)
This is a true story about twins June and Jennifer Gibbons who form a codependent relationship. At a young age they begin a game of sorts where they be as still and quiet as possible and whoever moves or speaks first, loses. This escalates to the point where their teachers suggest they be taken to a special school for disabled children. Here the teachers try to communicate with them, and try separating them, but when separated they get even more closed off. When they are young, a surgery is performed on their tongues in hopes it would help them speak, but it doesn’t and the girls are resentful of having to undergo a painful operation-this is left out of the movie.
They eventually stop going to school at all and stay in their bedroom the majority of the time. They are very imaginative and create elaborate stories about the dolls they make and once they are in their teens, they begin to take a mail writing course and submit various stories to be published.
When they are 17-18, they decide they want romance in their life and start following around two American boys. The older boy loses interest in them, but the younger brother who is unstable hangs out with them and they each lose their virginity to him. He is abusive to Jennifer, and in general is a bad person.
The American family ends up moving, and they then hang out with these teens that are even younger and start a relationship with one of those boys as well.
They then turn to theft and arson as a way to bring excitement to their lives, which ends up getting them arrested. They are then sentenced to a mental institution for life.
While there, they meet Marjorie Wallace who has taken an interest in them. They still don’t talk much, but over time they open up more. They are incarcerated for eleven years, and when they are to be released, Jennifer dies under mysterious consequences. It seems though she had wanted to die, to sacrifice herself so June could live a normal life.
I didn’t really touch on their love/hate relationship in that summary but I will get into that more later.
This book was first published in 1986, but the copy I read had chapters that were added all the way up to 2008. Some of those “chapters” being a magazine article that Wallace had written about the twins. One of these in particular was annoying, because the article summed up what I had just been reading for the last 250ish pages, and in the context of a book, doing this is pointless and I just skipped over that section until I got to the end where she said something new.
I don’t know why this was published in the ‘80’s because there wasn’t much of an end, or a point to it all. Well, I guess the point was to show how they didn’t receive the proper care, proper diagnosis, or proper sentence. Wallace wrote it initially to shed some light on the twins, and to show how mental health isn’t treated the right way.
Anyway, I’m glad I read this now, rather than back then because a lot happened after the book was initially published.
I do wish their story had been told by someone who was a better writer of creative nonfiction. I didn’t think Wallace told the story in a way that really put us there with Jennifer and June and most of the book I felt more detached. It also had a creepy vibe, but again, I think someone else could have really captured the eeriness, as well as the touching moments, the sad moments. It should have felt more powerful, but it didn’t leave me feeling as much as I would have liked.
There are a lot of sections from the twin’s journals and sections from some of their short stories. I thought they were amazing writers, and that made me wish the book had been put together in a way that used more, and better utilized their journal entries.
June wrote a book called Pepsi-Cola Addict and the sections from the book made me want to read the whole thing! I read that it will be re-printed next year so that will be cool.
Overall, I really liked this movie and it was a very powerful and emotional theater experience. I was planning on recording this video later in the evening after seeing it, but the movie was pretty emotional draining and I couldn’t muster up the energy to film!
They use stop motion animation to act out the stories June and Jennifer write, and this is very effective, and also creepy because the dolls are creepy looking. I also loved the fantasy/dream sequences which were so much more vibrant than when we are in their real life.
The two actress’s, Tamara Lawrance and Letitia Wright are amazing and have great chemistry. If I am being nitpicky, I will say the twins were identical, but Wright and Lawrance don’t look much alike at all. However, what was more important than them looking identical, was having two actors who had that close bond and chemistry and they certainly had that.
They also talk in this tight way, which was sometimes hard to understand. I wasn’t sure if they spoke that way because of the tongue surgery or not, but the movie never address’s the surgery.
Their love/hate relationship
“June and Jennifer emerge, through these diaries, as two human beings who love and hate each other with such intensity that they can neither live together nor apart. Like twin stars, they are caught in the gravitational field between them, doomed to spin round each other for ever. If they come too close or drift apart, both are destroyed. So, the girls devised games and strategies and rules to maintain this equilibrium.”
The movie touches on these rules they had; one of the first scenes we see the two talking after their mom has left the room, one telling the other that she lost because she moved slightly while the mom was there. We also see Jennifer giving June her food, telling her it is her day to eat. In the book we learn more about their eating habits because they were both anemic and bulimic. They had rules where for a time one would eat her own meal plus the others, while the other ate nothing. Then they would switch.
They did everything together, and as we see in the movie, when they would sign up for different mail courses, they would sign up as one person. In the book it is said that Jennifer was the “stronger” twin and was the leader who would say whether or not June was allowed to say or do something.
“There was a sort of game going on. I could see June dying to tell me things. Then something would happen. Jennifer was stopping June. She never moved. I watched and could barely detect the slightest eye movement, but I know she was stopping June. It was strange. Like extrasensory perception. She sat there with an expressionless gaze, but I felt her power. She made all the decisions. The thought entered my mind that June was possessed by her twin.”
When in school, they were asked about being separated and both wrote a response and said they think it would be good to be apart. However, once they were separated, June in particular kind of fell apart and they were reunited.
The movie shows how they loved each other and fed off each other, but at the same time hated the other and wanted to be their own person.
Once older they realize that they are a bad influence on each other and can’t seem to have a healthy balance for long. They each bring something bad out in the other. An entry from June’s diary reading,
“Something like magic is happening. I am seeing Jennifer for the first time like she is seeing me. I think she is slow, cold, has no respect and talks too much; but she thinks I am the same. We are both holding each other back. She does not want jealousy, or envy, or fear from me. 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. She is having a nervous breakdown. Someone is driving her insane. It is me.”
Yet, as the book and movie show, they supported each other and had a bond which made it impossible to live apart-unless one were to die.
In book and movie, multiple times they attack each other and almost try and kill the other. In the book, June pushes Jennifer into a river, jumps in after her and holds her head under water. But then releasing her and getting them on shore and apologizing and saying she loves her. In the movie, June tries to strangle Jennifer, before stopping, and doesn’t have her push her into the water.
I think the book showed their drama even more than the movie had. But when the book was first written, Jennifer was still alive. I think with the movie they focused on the strength of their bond moreso then how damaging it was, partly because Jennifer is now dead so why make her out to be the “villian” the way the book did at times. I don’t think we need to see the deceased through rose colored glassed, but I think they do deserve respect and ultimitley it seems Jennifer chose to die for June’s sake and it would be wrong to paint her as this bad person who was “possessing” June.
I did want to address the way the book was going for a creepy vibe at times, and making it seem like they were eerie and inhuman or something. If this was fiction, then sure, make it something more supernatural. But the reality of it is, they were just two girls who formed certain coping mechanisms and had some kind of disorder, at least temporarily, that made them act strange. When it comes down to it, it is a tragic story. I think it’s wrong to paint it as something creepy and supernatural, which the book definitely was going for at times. And initially I liked that and wanted more; however after thinking about it it just started to rub me the wrong way.
I think the movie does a great job at showing they were just two humans who were struggling. It does show how they held each other back, but I think it could have given more examples of that though.
Carl and Wayne
In the book we learn more about how they were obsessed with American culture and dramas. So when there was an American boy in their school, they were both interested. It wasn’t til later that they followed him, leaving him notes and calling, and eventually breaking into the home.
The twins would also just wait outside for hours and hours waiting to be let in, and at some point, the parents had had enough of it and the family ends up moving.
The parents were pretty oblivious to their kids, they realized they were “hellraisers”, but they put up with an awful lot and didn’t seem to try to discipline the boys. A section of the book desribes the family saying,
“[the stepmother] was in her mid-twenties, petite with oriental features inherited from her Japanese mother. She was much in love with the handsome sailor and the price she had to pay was four fun-loving stepsons, only a few years younger than herself. Jerry, Lance, Wayne and Carl were all born just over a year apart. Their own mother, a Cherokee Indian, who had lived with them while they were first based at Brawdy in the 1970s, had committed suicide by blowing out her brains when three of her boys were in the house. Such a violent act had its repercussions. The boys grew up with an arrogance and indifference to society which made them careless with other people’s emotions and self-centred in their own. George concentrated all his attention on his new wife, leaving the boys very much to themselves, with little in the way of guidance or discipline.”
Carl is the one in real life who had relationships with both June and Jennifer, and he was only like 15 or 16. When he has sex with Jennifer first, in the book it happens in a church they break into, whereas in the movie it is in their garage. In both, when the twins write about their sexual experiences, they make it seem romantic, when in reality it wasn’t, which the movie does a good job showing.
They put up with abuse from the brothers, but they seemed to think that was what they deserved.
And again, when Carl moves, they hang out with some other bad kids and one of them has sex with one of the boys who is even younger than Carl had been, and they are 18 by this time.
Their “crime spree“
In the movie, it seems like they just robbed and burned one building, but in real life they went on a bit of a “spree”. When they were arrested and put on trial the book says, “Every detail of their five-week spree of crime was framed in language which made the often trivial nature of the crimes take on heroic dimensions. ‘I felt quite proud,’ said Jennifer. ‘To tell you the truth, I was rather enjoying it. It was a day to remember for when I’m old. Me, in my sweet youth.’”
Even though nothing they had done was bad enough to warrant a life sentence, for some reason that is what they got.
Neither book or movie delves into the racial aspect of this, but the Gibbons were from Barbados and one of the only black families in the area. I wonder too if the fact that they were female played a part in their sentencing. If white boys had been caught doing what they had done, maybe it wouldn’t be surprising and they would have been given a lighter sentence. But since they were two black girls who wouldn’t speak-they were given a harsh sentence.
In the movie they are at Broadmoor the whole time, but in the book, they were at one hospital and were waiting for a retrial where they would be moved to a nicer facility. The trial kept being postponed time and time again, but after a while the trial finally happened and they were moved to what they hoped would be nicer facilities.
The movie shows June imagining what Broadmoor will be like, imaging it very elegant and special, and this is how they envisioned the second hospital.
June also journaled how she wanted to go to the other one so she could get better treatment and therapy and become the person she wanted to be. Jennifer would also journal about how she wanted to be, but something was holding her back.
Once they are in the new hospital, they start dating some of the men there. But everyone there is in because of something they have done so the men they date are murders and rapists-and here are Jennifer and June who just stole some stuff and burned a building.
The movie does have the part where Jennifer gets a guy to give her his semen in a cup and she plans to inject it and get pregnant. She gets caught though.
About their institutionalization the book reads, “June and Jennifer could never come to terms with the fact that they had been given what amounted to a life sentence for vandalism and three counts of arson, when other teenagers guilty of far more serious crimes, often involving bodily harm, would spend, at most, a few months in prison. Aubrey and Gloria Gibbons [their parents] were equally bitter. For the twelve years since the twins’ arrest, they had felt their daughters had been taken from them. Like so many relatives of people with mental illness, they had been left out in the cold; they were given little information about the conditions in which their daughters lived, or the drugs and other treatments administered to them.”
In book and movie, Jennifer tells Marjorie and June that she is going to die. Then, right when they are to be released, she dies in the van. In the movie, this is an emotional scene, but we see how because she has been “released” from that relationship, June is able to live her own life. In the book, June says that Jennifer’s death, “Now that I have faced it, it has been a sweet release.” When reflecting of when she pushed Jennifer into the water, she didn’t feel bad but rather almost wished Jennifer had died then and that way June could have “started” her life even sooner.
It really is so tragic, because they helped each other and were closer to each other than anyone else-yet at the same time that was the problem.
The movie shows June living a better life, but it doesn’t show that she was grateful in a way.
I wonder if their parents had made them interact with other kids more, maybe they would have been okay and had a heathier relationship. Though in the book they were close to their younger sister, who isn’t in the movie at all. She took part in the plays they had with their dolls and was close to them up until they got older.
The movie has the part where their older sister tries to reach out and goes to see them and shows them her baby. They had been upstairs preparing to come down, but when the sister unexpectedly comes upstairs, they freeze. This scene in the movie was really well done and shows what a strain it was on their family. But also showing how the twins wanted to be more interactive, but it had to be on their terms, otherwise they would freeze up. Later in the book, one of them journaled about how upset she was they didn’t move when the sister was there, because they had both been so excited to see and hold their niece.
They also talk about how much they love and care about their parents. Yet they don’t seem to know how to show their love.
In the movie, when the parents tell them they are to be released, the twins hold each other and are excited. While the parents stand there. This had been an emotional experience for them, but the twins were just in their own orbit and not always very aware of others’ emotions.
One point Wallace is making in the book, which the movie leaves out, is how the twins were misdiagnosed and therefore not given the proper treatment. She doesn’t think they had psychopathic disorder, nor schizophrenia, which they were later diagnosed with. Wallace started her own organization to bring more mental heathy awareness which allows people to get proper help.
Book vs movie
While the book does give us more details, I would actually say the movie wins. It is an emotional and beautiful film, but it lacks some depth and could have delved deeper into certain issues. It really focuses on their relationship, which I loved, but I think it could have delved into racial issues and their misdiagnosis and show more of their time in the hospital. Because suddenly we flash-forward and they have been in there eleven years and are doing better, but we haven’t seen what has happened. In the movie we see June has a suicide attempt, and in the book it is said that through the years they both had suicide attempts at various times. The book though just had its own issues, and while it did provide more facts and may have delved deeper on certain things the movie didn’t-it didn’t do so in a way that was as interesting as I would have liked and I felt detached.