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Killer Children

It happened, once upon a time, that the Marquis de Sade was in a good humor. He wrote a novel Aline and Valcour, in which he created a utopia. In Tamoë there was no capital punishment. If society had to take measures against a murderer, it put him in a boat with a month’s supplies, and launched him on the tide to meet his fate: to become, perhaps, someone else’s problem. At any rate, the people of Tamoë did not have to think about him again, and were able to return to their sun-soaked, caring-and-sharing South Pacific lives.

When children kill other children, we come close to wishing for a Sadean solution. They come near to the top of the list of what society would prefer not to think about. We cannot kill them, but how can we bear for them to live among us? Under what circumstances can they do so? Without the dark dungeon and the lock, how can we withstand the assault on our own shreds of innocence? We would, if we could, launch them on dark waters of forgetfulness; simply rub them out, as monstrous blots. But since they cannot be made to disappear, we unite in moral panic. Their acts, their persons, provoke a hysterical vigilante reaction. The bereaved family’s desire for revenge is vented again and again through the national media. Their private suffering becomes a public spectacle.

Outrage is mixed with bewilderment. Something in our language itself seems violated. “Innocent” and “victim” make a pair. The words are close-coupled. “Innocent” and “child” also make a pair. We are half-accustomed to the idea of guilty victims; courts throughout the world have been trying women for years for the crime of being raped. But “innocent offender”? No system of justice can accommodate the idea, and no system of law or welfare is designed to deal with crimes that are so rare.

Gitta Sereny has been involved with the case of Mary Bell from its origin in 1968, when two young girls, aged eleven and thirteen, were tried for the killing of two small boys, three and four years old. The girls were Mary and Norma Bell—they were neighbors, but not related—and the dead children were Brian Howe and Martin Brown. Both the victims were known to the girls, and to most of the district. They were children who toddled from house to house and played in the streets, in their working-class area of the northeastern city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

When Martin’s body was found in the rubble of a derelict house, it was unmarked, except for the blood and saliva that had run from the mouth. Poisoning was considered and rejected, and it was decided that the child had met with some strange accident. Nine weeks later the body of Brian Howe was found on waste ground. The pressure marks and scratches on his neck indicated that he had been killed, but so little force had been used that the suspicion was raised at once that the killer was a child. An officer on the case made the connection with the earlier death, and it did not take long for the police to find their way to the doors of Norma and Mary Bell. Norma, at thirteen, was believed to have a mental age of eight or nine. She was known for picking fights, especially with black children. She was one of eleven children in a chaotic but apparently loving family, who would comfort and support her throughout the ordeals to come. Mary, on the other hand, was shaping up as one of the neighborhood’s bad girls. She was small and dazzlingly pretty, her blue eyes alight with intelligence. Her character was histrionic, impulsive, and aggressive. She was—as the whole district would have known—the daughter of a prostitute.

Because of the seriousness of the alleged offenses, Mary and Norma were tried in an adult court. Norma, whose shyness and fright made a great impression on everyone who witnessed them, was acquitted. The more self-possessed Mary was found guilty, not of murder, but of manslaughter with diminished responsibility. The trial judge wished to make an order under the Mental Health Act, confining her to a hospital for treatment, but no suitable institution could be found. There was no choice but to sentence her to indefinite detention. She was sent to Red Bank in Lancashire, to a secure unit within a reform school; initially she was the only girl among a shifting population of some twenty boys. She remained the subject of media prurience, and tidbits of information were fed to the world by her mother, toward whom Mary was intensely ambivalent; she was not able to cut off from her, but maternal visits caused her evident distress.

At Red Bank Mary was not given the psychiatric help that Gitta Sereny would have wished for her. All the same, she thrived under the care of a headmaster whom she liked and respected. One of the psychiatrists who had seen her at her trial suggested that she might be ready for release when she was eighteen. Unfortunately, at the age of sixteen, she was put into the adult prison system. She was released in 1980, a confused and helpless young woman of twenty-three. Her aftercare, as Gitta Sereny describes it, was insufficient and badly planned, but she did succeed in building up warm relationships with one or two people. Against all the odds, it seems, she has made a sustainable life for herself and her daughter, and now lives under an assumed name.

Back in 1968, Gitta Sereny attended the trial in Newcastle to report for the magazine section of the Daily Telegraph. She could not have known that she was about to begin half a lifetime’s engagement with one of the accused children, but she was shocked by the newspaper reports that described Mary as “evil” and “a bad seed.” She was also disturbed by the process she saw unfolding over the nine days of the trial, which, she says,

gave me serious misgivings about a judicial system that exposed young children to bewildering adult court proceedings and considered irrelevant their childhood and motivations for their crime. It seemed very obvious to me that there were elements of Mary Bell’s story that were either unknown or hidden from the court.

She first aired her misgivings in The Case of Mary Bell, published in 1972. It was reissued in 1995 by the Pimlico Press, with a new preface and appendix, soon after two ten-year-old Liverpool boys had been convicted of the murder of the two-year-old James Bulger. This new case of killer children seemed to impart a fresh relevance to the questions Sereny had raised.

Gitta Sereny’s ambition, which she achieved, was to talk to Mary Bell in adulthood, get a firsthand account of her childhood, and assess how her time in detention had affected her. Sereny’s disposition is to presume that a child when it is born is intrinsically good, and that something done to the child by other human beings makes it capable of wicked acts. Her first question is: What are these things that are done? Her second question concerns the transformative, redemptive process. How can goodness be destroyed and then rebuilt, within a single personality? She stresses that her purpose in writing is not only to urge judicial reform. She wants to “use” Mary and her story to make us look closely at how we rear our children, and to teach us to attend to the “cries unheard” of their early years. She wants to help Mary answer her own question: “How did I become such a child?”

Mary Bell was born in 1957, when her mother, Betty, was seventeen. Betty’s first reported reaction to her child was “Take the thing away from me!” Ten months later she was pregnant again and married Billy Bell, who was then registered as Mary’s father. Later, when Mary asked the identity of her real father, her mother—portrayed by Sereny as hysterically obsessed with religious images and artifacts—would tell her “you are the devil’s spawn.” No candidate for fatherhood is produced by Sereny’s book, and the reader will draw his or her own conclusion as to how close to home he might be found. It is safe to say, at any rate, that he lived somewhere closer than the infernal regions.

Throughout her childhood Mary was under threat, and her survival seems something of a miracle. At a year old she was found to have taken pills prescribed for her grandmother, which were kept in a place the baby could not have reached by herself. Next, her mother tried to give her away to friends. There was another alleged poisoning attempt when she was three, and a few months afterward she narrowly escaped a fall from a third-floor window. Days later, Betty took her to the offices of an adoption agency and tried to give her away to a total stranger. Add into this picture the routine beatings, and Mary becomes no longer a demon but a victim. The demonization is transferred to her mother, who refused to tell Gitta Sereny her side of the story. The rest of the family emerges from the account as blameless. The reader may be skeptical on this point.

The innermost secrets of Mary’s childhood are yielded up slowly and with difficulty. She gave Gitta Sereny at least four versions of events, “the last of which I have decided is probably as close to the truth as her memory could manage.” It appears that Mary had been subjected to extreme and prolonged sexual abuse. Betty was a prostitute who specialized in whipping her clients. At the age of four or five, Mary was present as her mother worked. She allowed her clients to sodomize Mary and introduce instruments into her body. She restrained her while clients ejaculated into her mouth. She allowed clients to whip her, to hood or gag her, and Mary was choked so that she briefly lost consciousness. The implication is that she had been picked up by the throat in a manner similar to the way in which she picked up or gripped the little boys she killed. She had survived; she thought the little boys would recover as she had. She describes her state of mind before the killings as “beyond rage, beyond pain.”

There are, of course, people who think Cries Unheard should not have been published. At the end of her book the author describes how an outcry in the press followed the revelation that Mary had been paid for her collaboration. “Disgust at Story of Mary Bell the Child Strangler,” announced a story in the upmarket Observer, while the tabloids revived their “evil monster” headlines. Mary and her daughter were traced and temporarily driven out of their home. They were taken to a place of safety by the police, their heads covered with blankets.

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