But nothing could have prepared Marjorie Wallace for the relationship she was to forge with Jennifer and June Gibbons, the Silent Twins.
Their story was touched by isolation, bullying, racism and the legacy of imperialism, but ultimately it was about the mysterious, secret relationship between the identical twins and the private world they constructed. Their deep bond was to prove turbulent and highly destructive.
Jennifer and June spent 29 years together then made a fatal pact: one of them had to die in order to set the other free. They agreed that the one to be sacrificed should be Jennifer, as she was in some ways weaker, and June would be more likely to make something of life alone.
They even agreed on which day she would die, and so it happened. On that day Jennifer suddenly collapsed and died from a massive inflammation of the heart whose specific causes were never discovered. June grieved and missed her sister but she was then free “from the dark sister robbing me of sunlight”.
The twins were 18 and in a remand centre in Wales on various charges including three of arson, when Marjorie Wallace heard about them. The daughters of Aubrey, a well-educated RAF technician and Gloria Gibbons, West Indian immigrants, the little girls were inseparable. They found school traumatic and became ostracised and bullied.
They resisted attempts to get them to communicate with the outside world and their own idiosyncratic language became more and more intense and impenetrable. Sending them to different schools didn’t work, only serving to make them more withdrawn. Even highly skilled therapists couldn’t crack the code and get them to speak.
“I travelled to meet their parents and an educational psychologist, and saw the bedroom where they had been living reclusively for years, with their mother delivering food and leaving it outside the door,” says Wallace, who is, these days, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE.
“Their father gave me a bin bag full of their writing, a treasure trove of stories. They’d locked themselves away, had done a creative writing course by correspondence and had even published their work.”
Among the writing was June’s novel Pepsi-Cola Addict, in which a high school hero is seduced by a teacher, and Jennifer’s Discomania, a story about how the atmosphere of a disco drives revellers to violence. Their family didn’t know at this point that both had been published.
“The twins had built this power base of silence which intrigued me,” says Wallace.
“They went to prison and I visited them there. They looked like two mummies, sitting in silence with eyes downcast, but when they moved they both did it together, with complete synchronicity.
“I told them I’d read their work and June said, ‘Did you like it?’ Then they both started to speak to me. They began to keep diaries, writing around 3,000 words a day and I began to visit them regularly.
“They would pass me the diaries, which were written in microscopic handwriting. I had to use a magnifying glass to make it out; it was like a tapestry.”
Wallace had a full-time job as an investigative journalist on The Sunday Times, and was also bringing up four children while spending every spare moment transcribing the words and lives of the troubled Gibbons sisters.
The twins would read each other parts of these journals, but only Wallace was seeing the whole of both diaries, which in a very real sense took her inside the minds of these two young women and their love-hate relationship.
“It had a huge impact on my life. I was living and breathing their world. The descriptions were harrowing – some of it about life in prison, but a lot of it about each other and how they couldn’t live with or without each other, with lines such as one twin calling the other ‘...my one and only torment’. They fought regularly and had to be separated.
“The diaries were not just about being twins with this strange relationship,” says Wallace. “They were also writing about something that was universal in relationships where lives are too closely entwined and become destructive.”
The twins were keen to have some acknowledgement of their writing ability and Wallace became their voice. With the approval of Jennifer, June and their family, she went on to write the bestselling and acclaimed book Silent Twins, a close-up account of their life and the intolerable dilemma they found themselves caught in, based on the vast mound of material she’d accumulated from conversations and the twins’ own writings.
A film based on the book was made later in the US, and Polly Teale and Linda Brogan have co-written a play about the Silent Sisters’ childhood, which is visiting West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds this week.
Looking back, Wallace says: “In the end the relationship led to one twin’s possession by the other. I think they both felt they were possessed by the other. The development of the twins’ relationship was very difficult for the family and for a long time they had pretended to the world that the girls were normal because Aubrey and Gloria didn’t want the neighbours to know.”
One day, when the twins were 29 and due to be released any day from Broadmoor to a rehabilitation centre near their home, Wallace and her 10-year-old daughter visited them on a Sunday afternoon. After the usual cups of tea, Jennifer leaned over and whispered: “Marjorie, I’m going to die. We’ve decided.”
They had agreed that even though they would in future be freed to live a more normal existence, that could not happen for either if they were both alive. They felt that, even if they lived far apart, each would be haunted by the presence of the other being somewhere else in the world.
“It was very chilling and disturbing and difficult to believe. But 10 days later, 10 minutes after they were driven from Broadmoor, Jennifer slumped on June’s shoulder, and died later that day in intensive care. One of the doctors involved said at the inquest that he had never seen such an inflamed heart, but no-one knows to this day how it came about.”
June was stricken for a while, but also liberated, and talked of how “battle weary” by their mutual bondage she and her sister had become. She now lives a quiet, reclusive life near her family, and has not made much of her writing career since, says Wallace.
She feels the authors of Speechless, the play inspired by her book about Jennifer and June, have given a very faithful portrayal of the early part of the twins’ life.
“It tells the story as though through their eyes and is done very powerfully. Jennifer and June’s life shows in a way how any relationship where two people become so dependent on each other that they each cut themselves off from the world, be they intense lovers, in a marriage, or a very close friendship, it can become extremely unhealthy.”
Speechless is at West Yorkshire Playhouse from October 19 to October 22. 0113 213 7700. The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace is published by Vintage, £6.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0513232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk