Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Girls Who Spoke For Themselves : Part 6 : What Did It Mean?

Eventually the Kennedy twins faded from the public eye and were largely forgotten. There is not much information about what their lives were like after Jean-Pierre Gorin's film Poto and Cabengo was released in 1980. I wonder how they got along in school, both in terms of learning and in terms of friendships? I wonder what their adult lives have been like?

The only clue is from a show about twins that aired on TLC around 2000, which reported that Virginia and Grace were still developmentally disabled. We are told this:
Now approaching 30, the twins continue to experience speech problems and mental delays. Grace, who has achieved a higher level of functioning than her sister, works at a McDonald's cleaning tables and mopping. Virginia works at a job-training center and performs assembly-line work.
One wonders what Grace and Virginia might have been capable of had their parents not mistakenly assumed that their daughters suffered from mental retardation, and if the girls had received proper attention and a healthy degree of social and emotional nurturing during their earliest, most formative years.

Many who write about the Kennedy twins accept the common assessment of their private language as manifesting nothing more than a lack of proper linguistic development. But this evaluation of the twins' speech, though it may be true as far as it goes, only tells part of the story.

The other, and more significant, side of the story is that Grace and Virginia Kennedy largely taught themselves how to speak. The fact that it was not the "official" language is beside the point. Of course they could not have been expected to master the Queen's English given their limited and oblique exposure to it.

Children's acquisition of language is always a wonder to behold. I experience this miracle on a daily basis with my own daughter. But what the Kennedy twins did is perhaps even more amazing. They took the meager scraps of English and German which fell their way and crafted them into a working and, to them, meaningful and comprehensible language. They taught themselves how to communicate, how to give voice and concrete form to the thoughts and ideas and feelings inside them, using those curious patterns of oral noise that we call words. They simply came up with their own set of linguistic tools, largely improvised from the scattered remnants of the official tongue, like children inventing a civilization out of the charred ruins of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

In so doing, Grace and Virginia Kennedy showed themselves to be incredibly resourceful, creative, and inventive, and their accomplishment will always stand as testimony to their high intelligence, asserting itself despite the tragically stunting conditions in which they had to spend their early childhood. Given their circumstances and what they had to work with, comparing their linguistic development to everyone else is not only utterly unfair, but entirely unreasonable, blindly expressing a bias for the validity of only "official" speech, and disregarding the myriad accidental ways that new forms of language can emerge from old ones.

Recently the New York Times reported that the younger generation in a certain remote and isolated village in Australia has developed a new language, adapted from English and the traditional tongue of the villagers. The Kennedy girls, I think, did something very similar, though on a much smaller scale. (It was the Times article, in fact, that made me remember them.) They didn't do it to be clever. They probably had no idea there was anything strange or unusual about it. They were just trying their best to talk, to use words, and to communicate. And if you ask me, they did a mighty remarkable job.


Grace and Virginia, wherever you are now, I wish you well, and I hope your lives are happy. I hope that you still talk to each other, in whatever language, and I hope you have others to talk to as well, friends with whom you can share the beauty that is inside you, through the vehicle of words.

What you made was not a mistake. The grown-ups in your life made the mistakes. What you made was a beautiful and amazing invention. It was a way of speaking that no one else had ever made before, and that no one else will ever make again. It was unique and unrepeatable because so are you. It only sounded strange to other ears because it was different, but it was perfectly natural to you. Like the drawings and crafts and stories that children make, it should not be dismissed as unaccomplished, but admired as the rare and wondrous expression of tender and precious minds--minds that, despite being considered hopelessly crippled, had something to say.

I for one will always admire what you did. I will say to your younger selves as I do to my daughter when she figures out, in her cleverness, how to do something new: "Good job!"


The enduring miracle of Grace and Virginia Kennedy is that these two lost little girls, without much help from grown-ups, somehow found their own way to give shape to their world through language. They found a way to give shape to themselves, to give themselves identities, and their own names. They found their own way to communicate, to share the thoughts and feelings they had inside, to express themselves. Although left outside of it, they found a way to be in the world, using the marvelous gift of speech.



  1. I discovered today Grace and Virginia ' s story. It was a beautiful, sad and full of interrogations.
    I can't believe it is "being retarded" to create 16 ways to say potato and of course i asked myself : where are they now ?
    What you wrote is the best answer i found online. Thank you for writing to them. Thank you for being clever and sensitive. I am an swiss artist living in Brussels and i am very grateful i discovered your blog.

  2. Thank you for your lovely comments. I am very glad you enjoyed the story and found it helpful!

  3. I loved this!!! So interesting!!!

  4. Fascinating story! I'm going to tell everyone I know about these two little girls! Thank you for your story.

  5. In 1978 I was a speech therapist teaching a special day class for language disabled kids at Beale Elementary School in San Diego. That was the year we got the Kennedy twins. I was Grace's teacher and Virginia was next door in another class. This was their first school experience and as I recall it, it went very well after their initial shyness. Grace learned quickly and I am surprised to read now that they are "still developmentally disabled". I hope that despite that, they have had a good life.
    Claudia Flint

    1. Hi Claudia, It is truly amazing and wonderful to hear from someone who personally knew Grace and Virginia. Thank you so much for your comment. I, too, hope that the twins have had a good life. --Steven