The lives of twins Jennifer and June Gibbons were the story of two sisters completely bonded, so completely, that the outside world couldn’t fathom their depths. As an only child, I can only imagine what their bond felt like. For years, they refused to speak to anyone but each other. It was a childhood game that became an obsession. When they went through teenage rebellion, their actions landed them in the courts, where they were sectioned to Broadmoor Hospital for 11 years.
What makes the twins so interesting is that in the midst of their mental struggles, they wrote. Both twins kept diaries. June even published a novel called ‘The Pepsi Cola Addict’ which has been out of print for decades but is finally being re-released in May. I put in my preorder, because I have been dying to read it ever since I first learned of them many years ago.
I also kept diaries while I was in the psychiatric hospital. They’re mostly tangled, illegible scrawlings, but when I re-read them, I get back in touch with that stubborn part of my brain that refused to be rational. It was those diaries that allowed me to put together ‘5150’ and the other books in the series. They were fragments of memories that, like the broken pieces of a succulent or a dismembered starfish, could be grown into a fully formed memoir.
The quality of ‘The Silent Twins’ that I admired most was the filmmaker’s commitment to portraying the psychiatric hospital exactly as it is. There were no crazed patients flinging poo or dancing to silent music. If you heard shrieks, they were well-explained and downright heart-wrenching. When the main characters walked into the hospital for the first time, nobody ran up to them shouting something cruel and unintelligible. The hospital was depicted as it should be: a lot of sedated people doing their best to keep it together in an unpleasant place.
For this portrayal of the psychiatric hospital as a quiet prison rather than a dance at the Carnival of Souls, I award Director Agnieszka Smoczynska the first annual Stiggie Award, for artistic work that reduces stigma. I don’t know how to reach her, but if you do, please tell her that a grateful former patient, frustrated by exaggerated film depictions of psychiatric care, has bestowed this honor upon her.
I avoided spoilers. The plot points I discussed are all well-known facts. I first learned about them on a documentary series called “Evil Twins.” I watched the whole sensationalist piece that made the girls out to be ghouls, rather than the misunderstood and terribly introverted twins they really were. I remember scratching my head and saying, “Yeah, but what about them was evil?” They committed a few nonviolent crimes; nobody was killed, injured, or even lightly scratched by the girls. To call them ‘Evil’ was a deeply stigmatizing and hurtful interpretation of their struggle for mental wellness.
The film is streaming on Amazon Prime. I can’t recommend it enough. If you are a fan of my writing, you will appreciate this film in ways that most people cannot. To portray a mental disorder with calm, steady dignity is a difficult task. This film did it.