The bad seed

In "Cries Unheard," Gitta Sereny wants to prove that children are not monsters. She only partially succeeds.

Published April 14, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

A few days before Christmas 1968, 11-year-old Mary Bell sat in a British
courtroom and listened as the jury foreman pronounced her "guilty of
manslaughter because of diminished responsibility," first for the killing
of Martin Brown, a blond and "sturdy" 4-year-old, and second for the killing a few weeks later of Brian Howe, who was just
3 years old, still pink-faced and cherubic when his life met its
grisly, unprovoked end.

Mary was a pretty girl, slight of frame, with blue eyes and a heart-shaped
face. Unlike Norma Bell, the anxious, cowering 13-year-old neighborhood friend (no relation)
who was accused but not convicted of the crimes, Mary had given a
bewildering performance in court -- keeping her back straight and her face
alert; yielding to paroxysms of delight when, for example, the judge
appeared in his formal red coat or the barristers bowed solemnly in their
funny wigs. Two toddlers were dead, two families were shattered, a
neighborhood grieved openly, and there sat Mary Bell with her
perfect posture and her brightly lit eyes, hardly showing a flicker of
remorse. She was a monster, in the minds of most. A bad seed. Evil
incarnate. She was sentenced to detention "for life."

Among those present in the courtroom that day was Gitta Sereny, a reporter
who did not then and would not ever succumb to the opinion that Mary Bell
was a soulless freak. "From day one," writes Sereny, "with her obvious
lies and fantasies, her puzzling but indicative movements with her hands and
fingers, her strange intelligence, her stillness and isolation, she appeared
to me nothing so much as a horribly confused child to whom something
dreadful had at some time been done." Sereny went on to write a book about
the trial, then acclaimed biographies of Nazi war criminals Franz Stangl and Albert
Speer. She became known for her decidedly anti-Augustinian (and certainly
anti-Judith Harris) view that human beings, at birth, are intrinsically
good, that they are pure vessels that subsequently become whatever their
environments (and parenting, to Sereny, is crucial) conspire to make them. Three
decades passed, but Mary Bell continued to haunt Sereny's mind.

In 1995, Sereny was given the chance to do what she had longed to do for 27
years: sit down with the notorious child killer. Mary was 41
years old and a mother by that time, a woman in a stable relationship with a
man. She'd lived through 12 years of detention - first in a locked
educational establishment (where she was the only girl among some 20 boys),
then in a maximum-security women's prison. At 23, "like most adolescents
sent to adult penal institutions," she was granted conditional freedom,
subject to a recall upon re-offending. Sitting down with Mary, Sereny
believed, would bore a beam of light through the thick wall of darkness that the trial had not penetrated. It
would give not just the writer but society the evidence that is needed to
change the way children accused of terrible crimes are both perceived and

"Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell" could have been
just another titillation on an already burdened shelf of crime-as-spectacle
books. But this is Sereny at work, and she has a purpose -- and as absolutely abhorrent as her subject is, she reels you in. Not with
fancy language, and not with subtlety, not with much more than transcript
juxtaposed against fact. Sereny reels you in by bringing Mary -- her horror,
her revelations, her torment -- to life, by putting you right there with the
inexpiable thing that she did. How did Mary kill, why did she kill, what
could have saved the children she murdered? What did she become in the
aftermath of her crime? How does she live within the knot of guilt and
shame? If you want to know, Sereny says, listen and listen well, as the
child killer bares her soul.

"Cries Unheard" quickly became both a bestseller and a hugely controversial book in England, not just because Mary was
paid an undisclosed sum for her participation in the book's making but also
because any book that delivers a victimizer's monologue necessarily silences
the victims and their families. As Sereny's book sweeps us into
Mary's sordid childhood and her mutilated psyche, taking us across a threshold into Mary's aching adult
self, we are brought closer and closer to the stuff of Mary, until Martin
Brown and Brian Howe and their incurable gone-ness somehow fade from view. One has to wonder if reading this book and thereby entering Mary Bell's mind is a betrayal of the very children whose voices can no longer be heard.

Still, as adults in a world in which childhood violence spirals ever upward, we are accountable -- are we not? -- for wrestling with the confounding issues that Mary's story raises. How profoundly does a child understand the finality of death? At what age, and by whose teaching, does she acquire the concepts of right and wrong? How much should we know about the criminal herself before we stand in judgment of her crime? Sereny doesn't just leave us with these questions. She answers them, with near-alarming assurance: "For children, for whom there is a wide separation between what they should know or are believed to know and what they do feel and understand, the evidence that proves their crimes, once obtained, should become almost irrelevant. The only thing that should count is human evidence -- the answer to the question 'Why?'"

"Cries Unheard" is ostensibly about the consequence of not paying attention
-- about what happens when too many people look the other way, or do not
look at all, at a precarious family structure; about what happens when a child repeatedly sends up unheeded flags that she is not just in danger but a
horrific danger herself. Mary Bell was the product of a most heinously
abusive mother -- a young (16 when Mary was born), volatile prostitute who not only "tried repeatedly to rid herself of this unwanted child" but forced her young daughter to service her clientele in
the most despicable, unimaginable, horrific fashion. While Mary's physical life
was saved by a concerned posse of nearby relatives, the sexual abuse went
undetected, sending her emotional life into a tailspin. No one heard Mary
cry out.

Moreover, in the weeks surrounding the two murders, Mary, often in Norma Bell's company, "either behaved conspicuously or actually offended the law" 13 separate times. She threw her 3-year-old cousin John over an
embankment. She was accused of attacking -- indeed, trying to strangle -- three girls at play in a sandpit. She was heard screaming, after Martin's death, the bone-chilling words "I am a murderer." But again and again, her trips to the police amounted to little more than knuckle rapping, with John's
precipitous fall decreed an accident and the sandpit incident going
unsubstantiated and the self-declaration of murder chalked up to the stuff
of childhood games. "Children are always squabbling around here," a social worker explains the laissez-faire stance to Sereny. "We have to be very careful not to intrude too much on families. It is easily resented and then we can do nothing with them. We need their trust."

Finally, Mary Bell, once arrested, tried and convicted, was not given a
safe, therapeutic environment in which she might venture to tell the
truth, either about the crimes visited upon her by her mother or about the
crimes she herself had committed. Mary made a career out of denying that
she had killed Martin Brown and insisting that her role in Brian's death was
secondary. She never, for fear of maternal repercussions, admitted her own
history of abuse. The "who" of Mary Bell was left unexplored by a system
solely intent upon the "how" of the crime and the housing of the criminal.
Nothing, Sereny contends, was ever done to give the child her voice, to
enable her to grow into an accountable, self-knowing adult. "To leave
children who have gone through the trauma of committing serious and often
horrific crimes without the opportunity to confront what they have done
seems to me synonymous with 'cruel and unusual' punishment," Sereny, who is decidedly pro-psychotherapy, declares.

Children, Sereny says, are brought to a breaking point, and it is not
their fault but ours. "The uncertainties of our moral and -- yes -- spiritual
values have caused a fracture in the bulwark of security with which earlier
generations protected children from growing up prematurely," she says. "Far too few parents now accept the necessity for children to grow up slowly, nor do they realize their own pivotal importance to the development, which only they can nurture, of the child's self-image. It is, I think ... the
interference with the creation or, worse still, the corruption or
destruction of this self-image in the early years of childhood that plants
the seeds of serious troubles."

Self-image is one thing. Understanding the eternal consequence of
death is another. Sereny believes that before punishment can be attached to
child murderers, their ability to comprehend death's abiding finality should
be scrutinized and assessed. Sereny "helps" Mary recall her own confusion
on this point. "I didn't understand the concept of death [being] forever,"
Mary sobs. "It was unreal, incomprehensible. I had nothing against Martin or him against me. I didn't mean to kill him forever ... I think to me it was: You'll come around in time for tea." All of this sounds plausible, of course, until one remembers Brian Howe, killed nine weeks later, when Martin clearly had not come around for tea.

It is Mary - intelligent, guilt-stricken Mary - who
consistently leads the conversation toward the thicket of its true
complexities. What made her so buoyantly enamored with the idea of finding, with her best friend Norma Bell, the "most dangerously naughty things" that could be done? What made Mary take Martin, a child she just simply happened upon, and "press ... press ... press" her hands against his throat? What made her show up at Martin's door four days later and, with a giggle, ask to see the boy in his coffin? What made her not only strangle her neighbor Brian Howe to death, but return to his body and, with deliberate care, razor-blade a letter "M" across the skin of his stomach, clip his hair, cover his body with grasses and little flowers? What made me who I am, Mary wants to know. What made me capable of evil?

It's the mother, Sereny insists. The mother, Betty Bell, who -- with her
misfitting blond wig covering her pitch-black hair, her tall heels clicking
against the courtroom floor, her histrionics exploding throughout the
proceedings -- was the most conspicuous member of the trial audience. Betty Bell, who left her daughter a documented emotional mess following sporadic visits through the detention years. Betty Bell, who kept the tabloids fed with stories about her daughter long after the case had been closed. Betty Bell, says Sereny, is the "why?" of this story. Betty Bell triggered the murder of innocents.

Over five months of intensive grilling, Sereny stokes the fires of memory,
taking Mary, Sereny believes, closer to the flame, forcing Mary to acknowledge the childhood abuses that "forced" Mary to become the monster she was. But the more Sereny pushes, the more Mary's mind starts blanking. The more Sereny insists, the more Mary holds out, wondering: "It's one of the things I worry about now. I think that what I felt then and remember, and what I've been told since, is mixed in my head and I wonder whether that is what is meant by 'selective' memory. How can one know this? What is memory? I'm trying to tell you and to find in myself the truth, about ... about ... about a hundred things. But what is truth, if it is mixed with truths about fantasies?"

Sereny's conviction that children are the helpless victims of their
environments, that Mary was led to her crimes by factors outside her
control, disables her from taking this discussion where it needs to go. In
the 1990s, according to Sereny, 910 American children between the
ages of 9 and 15 have been tried for murder. Every day, in every
schoolyard, meanness finds its target. A cat gets drowned, for the sake
of a dare, in a neighborhood creek. Or a child lies. Or a child cheats. Who led these children to the trough? Who made them do the cruel things they do? Who sullied their innocence? Where can we shuffle the blame? And weren't the adults Sereny faults for all of this once, themselves, children, too? When did they cross the line from blamelessness to blameworthy? When did their backlog of personal childhood demons no longer become relevant to their misdemeanors, their bad decisions, their impulsive moments, their crimes? Where does the chain of accountability begin?

From the instant we find our way onto this planet we are at risk for a life
of collisions, bad choices, irreconcilable instincts. To suggest, as Sereny
does, that children are empty vessels that merely become what others make
them, that "why?" is the only meaningful line of inquiry in the face of
reprehensible behavior, is to negate the power of personality,
predisposition, character. It is to go frustratingly deaf to those who
suggest that evil, like goodness, is a force - palpable, devastating, real.
It is to ignore St. Augustine and the concept of original sin, to sidestep
biology and genes. It is to trivialize the larger debate by declaring, de
facto, that any child raised by the most noble cast of characters would never take a moral misstep, throw a self-centered tantrum, aggress for the mere sake of aggressing.

Pure is not who we natively are. Nor are we, categorically, bad seeds. The very child who tucks his sister in at night is the child who the
next day taunts a classmate. The boy who pulls the legs off the frog is the
boy who stays awake all night to comfort his dying father. The neighborhood girl who brings you gentle poetry is the not-yet-a-teen suspended for selling drugs. We are tormented souls. We soar and we sink. But most of us do not systematically and with glee go about rending the whole cloths of others.

Maybe what disturbs me most about Mary Bell and her crimes is her behavior after the fact. She was all denial and delighted horror, eager to pin her crimes upon others. Had she not been caught, it seems, she no doubt would have done it again; "naughtiness" was the stuff that Mary lived for. Denial became a way of life -- not until she was an adult with a child of
her own would she come to terms with the magnitude of her crimes. And even though Sereny provides an explosion of explanations for why Mary could neither admit to nor mourn the killings of Martin and Brian for so very, very long -- Mary was afraid of her mother's reaction, Mary was deprived of good therapy, Mary was only a child when the crimes occurred -- it is difficult to see Mary as a victim and nothing more.

There were, after all, other influences in Mary's life. There was her
stepfather, Billy Bell, who, though a thief, was a loving presence, a man
who Mary remembers for his gentleness, his devotions, his comforting touch.
There were Betty's mother and sisters -- also loving, consistent, lifetime and
courtroom presences, who shielded Mary as best as they could from
Betty's physical neglect and abuses, who were, Mary remembers, "desperate
for me and probably about me, too." There were Mary's siblings, whom Mary treasured and loved. Later, in detention, there were those who showered Mary with unconditional love; who gave her every fair chance, a room full of books, an education, an opportunity, safety.

There were, in other words, forces of good in Mary's life, vessel shapers
of another variety. While I do not in any way intend to discount the
devastation that comes with living with a mother like Mary's, I do mean to suggest that "why?" is not the only relevant matter here. Mary Bell destroyed two families. Finding sympathy for her own sordid circumstance, crafting therapies to bring her peace, giving her a shot at moral regeneration is simply not enough.

Mary Bell's remorse for the murders of Martin Brown and Brian Howe is clear and ever-present. No one reading this book will fail to acknowledge the
extent of her despair. As an adult who needs the world to be a safe haven
for the daughter she is (by all accounts) impeccably raising, Mary Bell
knows now the magnitude of her actions. "That was a time when it all came at me, I couldn't stand it," she says toward the end of the book,
remembering a "terrible spell" in 1993. "Martin and Brian were on my mind every day, any day, any ordinary day, something would just trigger it off, anything: the sun, a beautiful evening, the word Gillette, my feeling about being a mother and what about their parents, what had they felt because of me, oh God ... It will never be enough, it will never change ... the
weight of it. I'm sorry, I'm sorry ... sorry ... But it's words ... isn't
it? Just words ..."

But if Mary's burdened conscience makes her a far more attractive criminal,
it should not distract us -- or Sereny -- from the question this book puts before us: Why do children kill? An answer has been promised by Sereny's
self-assured subtitle, but I'm not convinced that an answer has been found.
If it is because children, even those approaching adolescence, do not understand right from wrong or that death is forever, what are we to make of the murder of Brian Howe, dead nine weeks after Martin? If it is because children, intrinsically good, are broken by their environments, what are we to make of Norma Bell, the little girl with whom Mary shared her darkest fantasies and who apparently egged Mary on during Brian's murder, yet who grew up in an admirable household of truth-tellers and love? If it is because Betty Bell made Mary who she was, what are we to make of Betty's other children, who remain conveniently in the shadows in "Cries Unheard," but who are not accused, so far as we are told, of any crimes? Even Mary herself seems to protest Sereny's rush of excuses and explanations. "There are many unhappy, very disturbed kids out there who don't end up robbing families of their children," she observes.

Gitta Sereny has brought us an important, aching, soul-searching book, but
she has not brought us an answer. Maybe that's because the madness and the meanness that once were Mary Bell are ultimately impossible to explain.

By Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

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