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Killer Children

It is clear that the process of collaboration was long and difficult for both Sereny and Mary Bell, and that to revisit the memories of her crime, trial, and detention was a fearful ordeal for Mary. If Sereny had made no payment to her, she would have been accused of making an unholy profit herself. If she believed, as she does, that we can learn from what happened to Mary, she was right to publish, and right to pay. It is true that, as she says, “Not one word Mary Bell has ever said to me, not one word I have written, can be interpreted as an excuse for what she did.” The author’s sincerity and compassion cannot be doubted. Nor, it seems at first sight, can her suitability for the task. She became a social worker during World War II and after the war cared for children in displaced persons’ camps. She has written books about Albert Speer and about Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, so she has traveled further than most of us in the realms of moral squalor.

Yet she remains a sentimentalist—not about Mary herself, but about the world around us. Newcastle, she tells us on the first page of her preface, is a “lovely” city. Somber, grand, dignified are words that might apply: “lovely,” never. They are a “friendly lot” in that city, with their “virtually incomprehensible” dialect: presumably they were not very observant, in the days when Mary ran free in the streets, but Gitta Sereny attaches no blame to them for the little girl’s plight. Rather, we are all guilty, because we have lost our spiritual values. Nostalgic for a lost Eden, Sereny writes of “a fracture in the bulwark of security with which earlier generations protected children from growing up prematurely.” Not every reader will agree to join her in sighing for the good old days, when children were kept safely employed in mill and pit.

Again, whether she is writing about the court system, or the welfare system, or about the sad and damaged child at the center of her narrative, her writing is of a maddening imprecision. Mary was not, as she states on the first page of her preface, found guilty of murder. She was, as Sereny states clearly on page 82, found guilty of manslaughter with diminished responsibility. Sereny knows the difference between these verdicts quite well, but continually uses “murder” as a synonym for “homicide” or “killing.” She seems to confuse Mary’s mental state at the time of the killing, which was certainly addressed by the court, with Mary’s “motive,” which she thinks the court ought to have established—despite the fact that, after almost thirty years of work on the case, her own insights into Mary’s “motive” are shadowy and partial. “The whole problem,” she says, “of trying children in adult courts is that the entire judicial process is based solely on evidence…. The only thing that should count is human evidence—the answer to the question ‘Why?”’ By “human evidence” she means the opinion of experts trained in therapeutic disciplines of which she approves.

Few people, in England anyway, are easy with the way children who commit serious crimes are dealt with by the courts. Some of the most pitiful pages in Gitta Sereny’s account of the Bell trial are those in which Mary tells of her fear that, if convicted, she would be hanged, or if released, she would be beaten to death by her mother. No one communicated with her in a way that she could understand, and it is important that the insights Gitta Sereny has gained from talking to her be used by those who have temporary care of children during judicial proceedings. The Bulger trial has opened the way to public discussion, and in England reform is almost inevitable, since aspects of the trial and sentencing procedure have been judged to breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

It may be that reform will work along the lines Gitta Sereny suggests, with the age of criminal responsibility raised from the present ten years. She would like new procedures, so that children under fourteen who are accused of serious crimes are dealt with not in public but before a specially trained judicial panel. Children would be questioned only by the judge. There would be no jury, for juries are not trained, they are not experts. The court would be in charge of investigating the child’s social and psychiatric background and throughout these investigations the child should be placed in a “psychiatrically orientated children’s facility.” Their eventual place of detention would have specially trained therapists; trained, that is, in the current orthodoxies. The parents of offenders—whether they like it or not, presumably—would be “worked with simultaneously.”

And now we have arrived at what Gitta Sereny thinks is wrong with the world: not enough psychiatry. She discusses the intellectual climate of the late 1960s and suggests that one of the reasons Mary Bell’s “cries” went “unheard” is that professionals had not taken on board the tenets of psychiatry and were not sufficiently aware of the importance of early childhood experiences in forming the personality. (Sereny thinks of the tenets of psychiatry as being like the laws of thermodynamics. She has lived for a long time in a world where they are the givens.)

The present writer would like to suggest that, in England, a different factor was at work during those years, and that a mind-set prevailed which allowed damage and abuse to go unrecognized. They were the years of scrupulous professional regard for what was thought of as “working-class culture.” In their numbing desire to be “non-judgmental,” educated people in the welfare trade did not “talk down” to the economically disadvantaged nor teach them how to live their lives. This was admirable in theory, but in practice there was a drawback: these professionals had no idea how ordinary working-class families lived, because they only saw families who were in trouble. So the dysfunctional became a model, and their expectations for their clients—of stability and routine in child care, for example—were low. They had every bit of jargon at their fingertips, and liberal clichés bubbled on their lips; it was just in practical observation that they were deficient.

When children are accused of serious crimes, Gitta Sereny would like the experts to go to work before the verdict, during the process of investigation and trial. This creates a difficulty. In a paper in the collection Children Who Kill,* Dr. Norman Tutt, a former director of Social Services, quotes a case in which three young men had been convicted of murder and arson. They admitted the arson but said that the body found in the burned house was already dead when they came upon the scene.

One young man in particular denied murder, and I have on file report after report from psychiatrists who said “We will not be able to treat this boy until he admits his offence.” In the end the Court of Appeal decided he had not committed the offence. Now you can see the dangers here. If the young person is pleading not guilty, it is very tempting to start talking to them about the offence and almost persuading them that they must be guilty, and that, if only they told you they were guilty, then you would be able to assist.

The collection of papers cited above, which includes an essay by Gitta Sereny, contains accounts of how accused children are dealt with in different European jurisdictions, though it does not deal with the US, where the process varies, of course, from state to state. Most European countries have set the age of criminal responsibility higher than England, and there is not much in common between the various systems. Norway has perhaps the most welfare-oriented approach; allegations against children under fifteen are investigated, but the accused do not appear in court. “Once the police have decided that the child has committed an offence, there is no way of disproving the police’s view…. In Norway no one finds this very remarkable.”

Gitta Sereny does not propose a system quite so divorced from the reality of the complex, distrustful societies of the UK and the US. But she is more interested in the welfare of the individual child than in the cold abstract business of justice, and she takes it for granted that everyone will accede to her view of what welfare is—even though, in Mary Bell’s case, it was not treatment by experts but the simple passage of time that made her learn to control her impulses and live within society. Libertarians will argue that, in our desire to protect and understand child offenders, we are in danger of creating systems which work to their disadvantage, systems in which they have fewer rights than adults. The problem seems almost intractable: it is certainly true that children do not know what is happening when they are being tried in an adult court, but anyone who has sat in a public gallery for a day will ask themselves whether adults understand what is happening in adult courts. There is no evidence, only a presumption, that children tried by special courts for young offenders find themselves any more comfortable or articulate there. If we were to decide, with Gitta Sereny, that an inquisitorial system is better for children than an adversarial system, what would be the justification for withholding its benefits from adults?

Again, there is a problem with the private nature of the hearings which Sereny proposes. We do not make trials public so that putative criminals can be cruelly exhibited, but so that justice can be seen to be done. We associate secret tribunals with totalitarian regimes. We would not accept that psychiatric treatment should be forced on adults, except in very rare circumstances, and where the need is proven. But it seems that Sereny is prepared for us to make assumptions about child offenders that would not be countenanced in the case of adults—assumptions that all of them are damaged in some way, that they are damaged in a way that psychiatry can repair, and that “treatment” should therefore begin even before a case has been tried. She shows little appreciation of the intrusive nature of psychiatric treatment, or of the fact that it is subject to fads and fashions like other disciplines. It may be argued that psychiatric investigation cannot serve up “truth.” It can only make an untestable version, a plausible story that fits together. It allows us to make metaphor, and myth. And that, if we are exact about the nature of the enterprise, is what Gitta Sereny has done in the case of Mary Bell.

To question how well she has made her story is not to question her empathy and compassion. The problem is her determination to use a unique case history as an “example or symbol.” The problem is also the nature of memory, the passage of time, and language itself, the language of the many versions, and the meaning that slides away between them. “I must have done, I must have known, I must have thought…,” says Mary, reporting on her state of mind as she killed Martin Brown. I must have… The eleven-year-old child speaks through the mouth of a woman of forty. It is hard not to think that Mary is a giant translation problem. If we could solve it, would we hear a language that means anything to us? Is Gitta Sereny correct to extrapolate what she has learned about Mary and apply it elsewhere, to the “countless thousands of children who are in prison in Europe and America…”? Can we really draw lessons about childhood violence and social breakdown from the very rare instances of killing of children by children?

In England, the Bell case and the Bulger case (which are quite dissimilar) have acquired a grotesque, overblown metaphorical significance. It is the more routine adolescent malfeasances—bullying, vandalism, substance abuse, vehicle crime, and petty theft—which degrade the fabric of communities. We feel threatened by these offenses, and we use them to prove to ourselves that the world is getting worse; they tell us about the failures of social policy, of educational opportunity, of community supervision, and raise difficult, divisive, political questions.

Yet our imaginative interest, to which Gitta Sereny caters, is in the singular, horrifying act of killing. An element within us craves the Sadean fix, or the oubliette: forget the murderous children, they are unnatural, they are nothing to do with us. But part of us wants more information—which again Sereny provides—to feed our fascination and fear. What is it that we fear? Not the loss to the victim, but the loss of innocence in ourselves; not Mary outside, but Mary inside; not her loss of control, but the fragility of it in ourselves. We can, as Gitta Sereny suggests, “use” Mary, less to confirm our faith in society than to confirm the daily wonder that we believe in society at all. We can, with effort, see Mary not as alien, but Mary as kin, as a stained and transgressive being like us: with the malady of being human, and with no hope of a cure.


Growing Up December 2, 1999

  1. *

    Children Who Kill: An Examination of the Treatment of Juveniles Who Kill in Different European Countries, edited by Paul Cavadino (Winchester: Waterside Press/British Juvenile and Family Courts Society, 1996).

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