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Commentary.

Evil & Beyond
September 1999

Cries Unheard–Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell
by Gitta Sereny
Metropolitan. 401 pp. $26.00

Reviewed by Kay S. Hymowitz

IN 1968, a juvenile from a poor section of the decaying English industrial town of Newcastle-on-Tyne murdered two neighborhood children in separate incidents nine weeks apart. The case differed strikingly from the rash of juvenile murders that has erupted with such fury here, most recently in Littleton, Colorado.

For one thing, the killer was no glandular teenager out for revenge against cruel peers or a jilting lover; she was a clever and pretty eleven-year-old girl, and her two male victims were, shockingly, three and four years old. Nor had Mary Bell gone to violent movies like The Basketball Diaries or played video games like Doom; instead, she watched the 1950's-style Westerns popular on English television at the time, entertainment we associate with a safer and more innocent age.

Mary Bell's crime was different in other respects, too. She did not use a gun like today's child-murderers, whether from the affluent suburbs or the streets of the inner city; rather, she strangled the two little boys, and drew her initials on the belly of one of them, with her bare hands. Nor was Mary an alienated loner. Though her family was deeply troubled and her neighborhood poor, she was well-integrated into a community where children played in the streets and wandered in to purchase french fries and lollipops from local shopkeepers who would scold them if their hands were dirty or they said a bad word.

Gitta Sereny, an English journalist who covered Mary Bell's 1968 trial 30 years ago and has written a previous book about the case, has now returned to the crime with Cries Unheard–Why Children Kill. Sereny has long devoted herself to the subject of evil, seeking to explore its mysteries in earlier studies of Frantz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, and Albert Speer, Hitler's minister of armaments, both of whom she came to know intimately through intensive, probing interviews.

In her new book, Sereny appears to be working in the same mode. She spent five months talking with Mary Bell, who was released from prison in 1980 after serving eleven and a half years of a mandatory life sentence for manslaughter and is now a woman in her forties with a child of her own. Sereny's object was to revisit two interrelated and important, not to mention timely, questions: why do children kill, and what is society's appropriate response when they do?

THOUGH Mary Bell's crime does not resemble our recent high-profile cases, it does fit in handily with mainstream explanations of the causes of child violence: specifically, underclass dysfunction and sexual abuse. Mary Bell came from a poor family in a city with the highest crime rate, the highest incidence of alcoholism, and close to the highest unemployment in Britain. Her mother was a prostitute specializing in domination, a cruelly narcissistic woman incapable of much feeling for the daughter she bore when she was seventeen. "Take the thing away from me," she screamed upon being shown her newborn baby; indeed, it might have been best if that had happened.

On four different occasions during her early years, Mary "accidentally" ingested dangerous medications. At around the age of four, she was forced to act as her mother's professional sex toy as she was held down, sometimes blindfolded, and sodomized anally and orally. By the time of the murders, Mary was no longer subject to such torture, but she slept covered only by rags and without sheets or blankets on a sagging mattress that held the urine–for she was a persistent bed-wetter–into which her mother would rub her face.

As in a mystery story, Sereny reveals the horrific extent of Mary's abuse only in the last chapters of this book. But it is what informs her guiding thesis throughout: namely, that children commit violence only when, as a result of severe trauma, their "long pent-up anger and suppressed emotions" can no longer be contained. In Sereny's view, it is unjust to subject such children to trial and punishment, or even to think of their crimes in terms of evil; they are less actors than acted upon.

Unfortunately, Mary's fate was otherwise. In their singleminded concern with determining her guilt or innocence, the authorities made no attempt to discover the truth about Mary's horrendous home life. As a result, a child who needed the help of trained psychiatrists was instead put on trial before a jury "neither qualified nor required to deal with the pathology of disturbed children," was found guilty, and was punished. For Sereny, the outrage is that the very thing most relevant to this case–namely, Mary's past–was ignored, while the "almost irrelevant" facts of the two murders were elevated to center stage

THE INDICTMENT Sereny levels here is forceful but hardly novel. Interpreting misbehavior by reference to childhood sexual abuse is by now a soap-opera trope, and psychiatry, to which Sereny is passionately devoted, has long since been the partner of the juvenile-justice system. Still, she has written a fascinating book whose novelistic details keep bursting out of the neat frame into which she has vainly attempted to stuff them. Ironically, the story she tells ends up dramatizing the limitations of her own therapeutic worldview.

What is most compelling in Cries Unheard is the tale of how a morally conscious adult emerged from a half-conscious, damaged girl. Like the Littleton killers imagining that, on completing their high-school massacre, they would hijack an airplane and crash it into the Empire State Building, the young Mary lived in a dream world of cops and robbers in which she was on the lam, "living with horses in the wilds of Scotland." Lost in her grandiose reveries, she could not comprehend fully the finality of death. Four days after one of her murders, she arrived on the doorstep of the victim's family and grinningly asked to see the little boy in his coffin, to make sure he was really dead. It was as if other people were play figures in her mind, and death a mere plot device.

Nor did moral consciousness arrive with adolescence. Even at sixteen, upon learning she was to be transferred to a prison from the exemplary reform school where she had spent the previous five years, she asked: "Why? What have I done?" But her native intelligence was stirring–and, with it, an inchoate moral sense. After another six years in prison, where she made the first close friendships of her life, Mary gradually came to share society's view of the "absolute enormity" of her crime and to feel the reality of other lives.

"Basically it has hardened me," she wrote in 1976 about her stint in prison, "and at the same [time] softened me. I feel . . . softer because maybe I have an insight into how others feel . . . getting involved with some people makes one softer." This ability to accept the actuality of others–and to grasp the anguish the loss of them would bring–climaxed when she gave birth to her own child. Today, though she remains moody and chaotic, she is, according to Sereny, a devoted mother and at least a functional citizen who ponders daily the pain she has caused the families of her two victims.

IN ENGLAND the age of criminal responsibility is ten; here, it varies from state to state, though some have proposed setting it as low as ten. Cries Unheard successfully provokes serious questions about this. Eleven-year-old Mary Bell was hardly a deliberative individual, and giving her an adult sentence, whe ther of life in prison or even twenty years, utterly fails to take that fact into account. Nor can we pretend that a jury trial is a useful means of fostering a child's moral reckoning. Though highly intelligent, Mary understood little of what was happening to her; she did not know what a jury or a verdict was, or the meaning of rules of evidence. No one tried to explain to her the alien language and rituals of a trial or, for that matter, the seriousness of what she had done.

Still, the argument against subjecting children to adult-style justice would be more convincing if Sereny herself showed any understanding of the broader social purposes of criminal proceedings. As her only concern is the personal development of the child, which she is convinced can come about successfully with the help of psychiatrists, she utterly ignores the outrage to moral order that murder represents, and the need of any society to address that outrage.

Further undermining Sereny's argument is her own problematic engagement with her subject. In her previous books on Stangl and Speer, she came close to giving herself a starring role in a kind of psychological melodrama. She was the confessor, in whose intelligent and sympathetic presence an evil man could finally relieve his conscience and accept personal responsibility. So, too, in Cries Unheard, her interviews, she hints, played a vital role in Mary's healing. Repeatedly, Sereny's own finely honed compassion intrudes into the narrative. When she first sees Mary, she embraces her–"an impulsive gesture, not at all because it was expected or even appropriate but because I suddenly felt like it"–much as, years earlier, she had brought soup to Frantz Stangl, a monster who presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands, because the two of them had become friends.

WHATEVER ELSE one might say about Sereny's predilection for assuming the role of redeemer, it does tend to cast a shadow of doubt over certain of her facts. Thus, although there is good evidence that Mary's mother behaved monstrously and even murderously toward her young daughter, ultimately we have nothing more than Sereny's own over-involved–and biased–interviews with the grown Mary Bell, who incidentally was paid for her cooperation in doing this book, to prove the specific charge of sexual abuse.

More importantly, however, Sereny's self-dramatization prevents her from confronting another fact, even though it stares her in the face: without benefit of effective psychiatric treatment, Mary Bell still became, in Sereny's own words, a "morally aware adult." The juvenile-justice system Sereny sets out to criticize may have bungled in important respects, but it was more humane–and more edifying–than she can bring herself to admit.

Mary was convicted not of murder but of the lesser charge of manslaughter precisely because it was understood that a child cannot have adult-like moral understanding. She was placed in a civilized and well-appointed reform school, under the direction of a highly gifted educator. Even prison, for all its degradations, helped teach her to share society's horror at her crime. And though given the life sentence required by law, she was released when she was only twenty-three, young enough to pursue a normal life. In about as happy an ending as could be expected under the circumstances, a severely violated, disturbed, and cruel child emerged a morally aware citizen and a loving mother. Evidently there are more paths to decent humanity than can be dreamt of in Gitta Sereny's philosophy.

©1999 Commentary

 


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