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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Funny Games

The story of the 'Silent Twins' fascinated me as soon as I came across it, probably through one of the Sunday Times pieces on the topic by journalist Marjorie Wallace. Her luxuriously long and detailed accounts were expanded into her first book on the twins. Their unresolved story continued, and a new updated version of her book, The Silent Twins, has just been published by Vintage (£6.99). The tale has not lost its capacity to shock.

June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins, were born into a black family in Wales in the early 1960s. Although clearly highly intelligent, from the age of three they refused to talk to their parents, older siblings, or anyone else. A younger sister came along, Rosie, who was the only person they would condescend to communicate with - for a time. They spoke to each other in what sounded like a made-up language. Rejected by, and rejecting the outside world, by the age of 16 they were living on benefits, spending most of the day cooped up in the bedroom and writing obsessively. They wouldn't eat with the family, or share their rich fantasy life.

When puberty struck with a vengeance, they began to leave their safe haven more and more frequently, to pursue boys, or rather stalk them. They fell in with a tough crew of brothers who introduced them to sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeing themselves as special, determined to make the world notice them, they embarked on a crime spree of theft and arson. (Before reading this book, I hadn't realised how serious their crimes were - they weren't mucking about.) The court case made headliines all over Britain. Still teenagers, and immature at that, they were deemed to be psychopaths and given a 12-year sentence to be served at Broadmoor. With this they lost all dignity and privacy; it's truly painful to read their diary accounts of, for example, their sexual experiences, frustrations and longings.

The great value and interest of Wallace's book lies in showing what happens after a court case and sentencing, after the public forgets the story. The twins weren't prepared for Broadmoor nor it for them. They had been left to their own devices by their parents, and by teachers, who all assumed they would 'grow out of it'. Psychiatric professionals were no more enlightened. Wallace followed the case and befriended these two weird girls.

Mining their diaries for clues, Wallace looked for explanations. What began as a childish game very quickly got out of hand. June writes about being in the grip of her sister's dominance, longing to connect with her family, feeling the world passing her by, but all the time unable to raise or eyes or speak until given the 'secret signal' by her twin. Obsessively they wrote in their diaries about their mutual dependence, love and hate.

The very few pictures of them showing any emotion show them to have been attractive little girls, but in most pictures they seem sulky, surly, deliberately obstructive. A telling family photograph is reproduced in the book, showing their elder sister's wedding. It's a conventional line-up of bride, groom, and bride's family, but to the right of the group is a strange sight: two identically dressed and posed young girls, chubby-faced, eyes downcast, hands hanging strangely in front of their thighs. For the whole of the celebrations they apparently stood stiffly like this, refusing to acknowledge anyone.

What always fascinated me most about them was their aspiration to be published novelists. June wrote and self-published 'Pepsi-Cola Addict', and Jennifer wrote 'Discomania', 'The Pugilist' and 'Taxi-Driver's Son' (if nothing else, they had a great knack for titles). But how, I wondered, could you possibly cut yourself off from the world and other people, and expect to write novels - that most generous and humanist of art-forms? You could work on mathematical formulae, write music, paint or solve chess problems; but surely not write publishable novels. They had imagination, a certain self-insight and superlative verbal skills. But could that be enough?

The Brontes are most often invoked in the case of the Silent Twins, as a group of lonely sibliings who were similarly absorbed in their private fantasy worlds. But there's no real analogy. Most biographers have now refuted the notion that Haworth was a dreary backwater and the Bronte children were devoid of intellectual and societal stimulus. And they were anything but silent. Wallace remains convinced that the girls were geniuses.

As to how the whole tragic story plays out, I'll leave it to you to read the book. It's thoroughly gripping and has been endorsed by Oliver Sacks. You only wish that Supernanny had been around when they were three years old. If their funny games had been nipped in the bud, the outcome might have been very different.

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