What’s so frightening about identical twins?
By Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
Growing up in England and Wales in the 1970s, the identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons spoke to each other all the time. They chattered and laughed, and whispered. They were prolific readers and wrote stories that showed great creative promise. They had ambitions to become famous authors.
But throughout their childhood, they had experienced racist bullying at school, which became particularly bad in Haverfordwest, Wales, where they and their brother were the only Black students. They became selectively mute, a condition generally caused by severe anxiety. Eventually, they rarely spoke to anyone but each other.
Later in their teenage years, this behavior, alongside incidents of petty theft and arson, would ultimately lead them to Broadmoor, one of the most notorious psychiatric hospitals in Britain, for nearly 12 years.
Only one of them truly left the institution — Jennifer died of inflammation of the heart on the day of their release, at 29.
Marjorie Wallace, the investigative journalist who first reported on the story of the twins in the 1980s and campaigned for their release from Broadmoor, wrote about them in her 1986 book, “The Silent Twins.”
“I loved their sense of humor,” Wallace said. “Very ironic, very perceptive. They saw the funny side of everything, as well as the tragic.” She first met the twins when she was working as a journalist for The Sunday Times. Although they didn’t engage with her at first, she persuaded them to speak to her by reading their writings: from Jennifer, for example, a novel titled “Discomania,” and from June, a novel titled “The Pepsi-Cola Addict,” alongside diaries and other texts.
Wallace quickly realized that June and Jennifer had incredibly rich, complex worlds under the surface of their silence. “It’s a bit like deep-sea diving,” she said. “And you suddenly come across this Technicolor world that they wrote.”
Over the years, June and Jennifer’s story has been used to sustain ongoing narratives about the dangers of twins that are often seen in films and on television. Think of the creepy twins in “The Shining,” for example, or a recent Netflix hit, “Echoes” (which presents its lead twin characters, who swap lives once a year unbeknown to their family and friends, as borderline psychopathic), where tropes of fascination, intrigue, fetish and horror abound.
“The Silent Twins,” a new movie about June and Jennifer starring Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) and Tamara Lawrance (“Kindred”) as the teenage and adult twins, aims to buck this trend.
Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska (“The Lure”), the film hopes to capture the rich, tragic palette of the twins’ lives. It makes clever use of stop-motion animation and original music inspired by their writings.
“I wanted to tell this from their point of view, from the inside,” Smoczynska said. “And just to introduce them as beautiful, sensitive, very funny, intelligent sisters.” She was drawn to the story having grown up among a “constellation” of her mother’s sisters in Poland.
Wallace said it was a calculated choice to work with Andrea Seigel, who wrote the screenplay, and Smoczynska, who she felt would do justice to her reporting. “There have been many, many people who have come to me with synopses and scripts,” Wallace said. “One of them was about two white girls in Mississippi who were drug addicts and went to crazy raves.” Wallace worked as a consultant and co-producer on the film and is still close with June, who Wallace says gave her blessing to the film but is intent on living a private life.
While Wallace said the new film is “not entirely maybe what I would have done” (she wrote the screenplay for the original BBC adaptation of her book in 1986), she described Wright’s and Lawrance’s portrayals of June and Jennifer as “remarkable.” “At some points in watching the film, I honestly thought I was back in Broadmoor,” she said, highlighting a phrase June used while imagining that institution: “My sister and I, as vulnerable as flowers in hell.”
Alongside reframing June’s and Jennifer’s lives and paying tribute to their acts of creativity, Wallace hopes that the film will have an impact on the portrayal of twins on film and TV in general.
“If you look at the old movies, and in fact, any current movies, they either make twins out as evil killers or freaks,” Wallace said. “Or they make them comic, or they use their identical image to be able to manipulate and play havoc.”
Lawrance and Wright, who are producers on “The Silent Twins,” became incredibly close during the course of the filming, staying up all night talking and planning their scenes, and even moving in next door to each other. Lawrance felt deep empathy for the sisters and said she knows what it’s like to feel voiceless because of her race and gender. “I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, as a Black woman, there have been many times in which I have felt isolated within an institution that was so much bigger than me.”
For Wright, who was brought onto the project first and already knew of June and Jennifer’s story, she said it was important that she and Lawrance had creative control behind the scenes as the only Black women on the production team.
The director “understood early on that she doesn’t have all the answers, she’s not a Black woman, so she was willing to listen, she was willing to learn from me and Tamara,” Wright said in an interview. “And immediately I told her, if I’m going to join this project, whoever’s going to play my twin, we have to have a seat at the table, we have to be executive producers or producers: pick one. We have to have a say because this is our story.”
Lawrance and Wright worked intensively with movement and voice coaches to attempt to replicate the sisters’ behavior and appearance onscreen, despite looking nothing alike. They also spent a lot of time considering the differences in their characters. Wright views June as a “caged bird,” with the maturity to understand that the twins’ way of life couldn’t last forever, but had deep love and loyalty toward her sister.
Lawrance thinks that Jennifer was more insecure than June, which made her slightly more obsessive. “Watching the documentary and reading the book, I really felt for Jennifer, because I felt like media coverage of the past depicts her as the evil twin,” she said. “The one that is possessing June.”
Just as the stories of twins in mythology stretch back thousands of years, that film and TV will continue to be fascinated with twins is inevitable: Coming movies featuring twins include the horror “Goodnight Mommy,” and a comedy musical inspired by “The Parent Trap.” Could “The Silent Twins” have a small but lasting impact on their portrayal?
Smoczynska reflected that after a screening, a mother came up to her, very moved, and said that she had gained a much greater understanding of her twins.
“This is the reason why you make the movies,” Smoczynska said. “So that somebody can find himself or herself and understand life, and heal.”