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.

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.

This Issue

May 20, 1999