The story of June and Jennifer Gibbons remains as confounding as ever — even with multiple on-screen and print iterations.
The identical twins spent most of their lives mirroring each other’s every move. They only spoke to each other, not even their family, in a language they stitched together on their own (a blend between their native Barbadian patois and English, spoken very quickly). While the sisters went to school, they never participated in class.
June and Jennifer were relentlessly bullied by their white school peers while growing up in England and Wales in the ’60s and ’70s. In response, teachers medicated them and therapists tried in vain to get the pair to open up to them. At best, the twins looked down at the floor in silence. At worst, one might try to hurt the other if she even considered uttering a sound.
They retreated even farther as they delved into their imaginations, writing novels, essays and poems. Though intensely dependent on each other, the sisters’ relationship often oscillated between adoring and supportive to contentious and unhealthy.
As the duo entered adulthood, they began wearing wigs and mismatched outfits, experimenting with drugs and sex and committing petty crimes in the early ’80s. The latter is what catalyzed their 11-year imprisonment in Broadmoor Hospital, a high-security psychiatric facility in England where they were overly medicated and further demoralized.
Jennifer’s death of acute myocarditis, on the day she and her sister were released in 1993, is still a mystery.
These are the details that have been well-documented for years before “The Silent Twins,” director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s new film about the Gibbons sisters starring Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance in the title roles, and based upon investigative journalist Marjorie Wallace’s same-titled 1987 book.
But the movie doesn’t bother to explain the context of these events in the twins’ lives, which defies how the highly-regarded book has been described. Rather, it retains the complexity of their story in ways that vacillate from baffling and frustrating to fascinating and inventive.
Where it succeeds, though, is in the two compassionate lead performances. The actors implore audiences to further research on their own the crushing true story of two young Black women who try to create their own safe space by receding from the racist, unforgiving world around them, only to end up being held captive by it.
That’s a version of the Gibbons’ story that even Lawrance didn’t realize before the script came her way. She, like many who have followed the case over the last few decades, had a very narrow understanding of the girls due to the dehumanizing way they’ve been portrayed in the media.
“I remember seeing their photos in a news article, seeing the pictures of them as younger twins, and hearing the name ‘The Silent Twins,’” Lawrance told HuffPost. “Assuming that they were serial killers or something, just because of the way that their pictures are depicted as mugshots.”
With their established moniker of “The Silent Twins,” June and Jennifer became what Lawrance referred to as “folklore,” characters in a strange narrative of their creation. She said didn’t understand the full scope of their ordeal until she delved more deeply into their story as she prepared for the role.
Lawrance read additional articles, the twins’ journal entries and watched the revealing 1994 BBC documentary “Silent Twins: Without My Shadow,” which features interviews with June following her release from Broadmoor. Its subtitle borrows from words June journaled during one of the many times she and Jennifer were at odds with one another while at the facility:
“I say to myself, how can I get rid of my own shadow? Impossible or not impossible? Without my shadow would I die? Without my shadow would I gain life?”
The heartbreaking context revealed in the twin’s journals deepened Lawrance’s portrayal of Jennifer and helped her to understand the twins’ co-dependence.
“I realized — oh, this story is way deeper and more complex than I realized and has largely been misconstrued,” she said. “Even some of my friends, when they heard that I got the job, made remarks like, ‘You’re playing those creepy twins’ or ‘Those murderers’ or something. I’m like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not who they are. Totally the opposite.’”
From Lawrance’s performance, Jennifer could easily be interpreted as the more dominant, possessive twin who might have even come up with the idea of not speaking. She’s often the one who initiates their fights in the film and is unable to handle June’s success, like when one of her stories gets the green light to be published.
But the actor saw it differently. “When I read the book, I really empathized with Jennifer because I feel that she was scapegoated as the bad one,” Lawrance explained. “I think a lot of the ways in which it’s reported is very binary — good cop, bad cop and all these things.”
She saw more mutuality in that contention. “It actually played both ways,” she added.
“When I read Jennifer, in my notes, I lifted everything she said about herself. She shocked me as someone that was insecure, and insecurity manifests itself in different ways. Some people’s insecurity makes them shrink and some people’s insecurity makes them be domineering.”
Wright, who plays June, suggested that the sisters’ lack of social development and decision to isolate themselves from everyone else also contributed to their often detrimental dynamic.
Their constant need to mimic everything about each other, a synergy the actors perfected through many conversations as well as dialogue and movement coaches, further exacerbated their relationship. When one person gained some success, the other was livid.
Or when one found a boyfriend, the other needed to as well. They either both moved forward or stayed put. There was hardly room for anything in between.
“I think it’s like a love-hate relationship in a way,” Wright told HuffPost. “Because they are each other’s everything, but also they need different interactions. Because of what they went through in the school system — and not having friends, really — it caused them to just be tied to each other.”
Wright went on to say: “There is that sense of control. There is a balance as well.”
But there is something even more concerning about what happens to June and Jennifer that could use more exposition in the film. The system unjustly handled issues the sisters were barely navigating on their own, such as expectations to adapt to white, racist spaces.
The twins were committed to Broadmoor at 19 years old, making them its youngest-ever patients (before their arrival, the youngest patient was 27). And this is mostly due to their lack of cooperation, essentially choosing to withdraw from an environment that did not serve them. That, plus their speech impediment, branded them despite their best efforts.
For Wright, who sometimes conducted research alongside Lawrance, this truth jumped out at her almost immediately.
“We found that there’s this huge topic of the adultification of young Black women in the ’70s,” Wright said. “No one’s understanding that they were labeled schizophrenic. They actually weren’t. They were falsely diagnosed.”
Anyone else might have gotten “a slap on the wrist” and a far more lenient penalty, Wright added. But because they were Black, and fell outside of what was considered normal, they received severe punishment.
That is why Wright and Lawrance approached the material with such empathy. They didn’t want to perpetuate the narratives about the sisters that had already been well established over the years.
“We wanted to normalize their experience and show the outside world as being actually the weird ones,” Wright said.
“The doctors are weird. The psychologists are weird. But in June and Jennifer’s minds, they’re literally just trying to exist and they’re going to school and being bullied and dealing with racism at 6 years old. It’s like, ‘come on, dude.’ Of course, you’re going to go within.”
It’s easy to understand why the twins recede from the world around them, but a lingering question the movie never answers is why the sisters didn’t speak to their parents. Though, one could discern from this 2000 New Yorker article, for which June was interviewed, that their parents might not have been interested in discussing issues of race.
Their father Aubrey was described as someone who had “lost his dream of assimilation.” June also pointed out in the interview that even though whiteness had penetrated their family deeply, she dreamed of a Black family of her own.
“All my family are married to white people — David, Greta, Rosie,” she told the New Yorker. “All the kids are mixed race. Kinky blond hair and pale skin. I want Black kids. I want a Rasta man with Rasta hair, like Bob Marley. My mum says, ‘Oh, no, they’re low class — they’re not decent people.’”
This sense of feeling ostracized within your Blackness, and for your love of Blackness, is something with which many Black women can relate. Certainly, Lawrance and Wright, who like the real-life people they portrayed, grew up in London and were raised by immigrant parents from predominantly Black countries (Jamaica and Guyana, respectively).
“I think as a Black woman telling this story, I have an affinity to what it feels like to be misunderstood or misjudged in a society that in many ways doesn’t understand my voice,” Lawrance said.
After wrapping the film, she said she had to take a lot of time off to process the entire experience, especially the Broadmoor section, which she described as “very disturbing.” But one of the many things she appreciated about working on the film was being able to go through it with Wright. The two became each other’s support network.
“Because there were many days in which it’s like, it’s hard,” Lawrance said. “There’s a lot of duty and responsibility in depicting people who have really lived. We wrote a lot of poetry. It was nice to be able to probe the experience and turn it into something that is separate from me.”