‘I’m trying for you’

A.L. Kennedy

  • Cries Unheard by Gitta Sereny
    Macmillan, 393 pp, £20.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 333 73524 2

In December 1968 two girls, one aged 11 and the other 13, were put on trial for murder. They were accused of killing two very much younger boys. For nine days in a Newcastle court, evidence showed how apparently normal youngsters might murder without warning. The older girl was acquitted of both charges. Nevertheless, this pretty and patently likeable child was revealed as more than a passive bystander at one murder and a participant in a chain of other destructive, if not sadistic, acts. The younger girl, Mary Bell, was equally pretty but eerily self-controlled and thought to be the more intelligent and influential of the pair. Bell was found guilty on both counts of murder. She was described as ‘psychopathic’ and ‘very dangerous’. Referring to the second murder, she said in the open, adult court: ‘I was full of laughter that day.’

Parallels with the killing of James Bulger by two young boys in 1993 are unavoidable and a continuing media fascination with both cases has condemned the details of each to an uneasy half-life, nourished by lurid headlines and a range of speculation from the well-meaning to the utterly prurient. Private grief has been overshadowed by a public and often morally ambivalent need to pore over the crimes. When we look closely at murder, our motivation is often intentionally obscure. Perhaps we hope that if such acts can be thoroughly understood they can be avoided. Perhaps we hope that if we are sad now, outraged now, disgusted now, when murder has not touched us directly, then we can foreclose any possibility of future injuries to our own families, our own daughters and sons. Perhaps we hope that by making a definitive dissection of evil-doing, we can assure ourselves of our humanity and identify the dangerously less-than-human when we meet it. Perhaps we intend to satisfy our curiosity.

For those who choose to study children who murder children, there is now a sad abundance of information. The United States is currently convulsed by an escalating series of child-killings perpetrated by children. Adults are being forced to think about the danger of arming juveniles before they have a full comprehension of the finality of death. Meanwhile the question of how best to deal with, treat or punish these offenders, which was left almost entirely unanswered in 1968, seems no nearer a solution now. And, while information may be abundant, considered responses to, or even basic analyses of that information are not. In Britain, any mention of violence or abuse directed against children (including acts committed by other children) provokes outrage. The concepts of persistent danger and persistent guilt (if not actual evil) have merged. Our society, we are asked to believe, has no need of forgiveness, no desire to think beyond condemnation and punishment. Paedophiles who feel they still present a danger to children on release from imprisonment are more likely to be hounded underground than given the kind of help that would keep them and their potential victims safe.

This is the backdrop against which Gitta Sereny’s book is set. Sereny is also the author of The Case of Mary Bell (1972), which, as its title suggests, is specifically concerned with the details of the murders and the 1968 trial. Cries Unheard, we are repeatedly assured, has more sophisticated, timely and laudable aims with which to confront our confused and intolerant times. It is an attempt to investigate the fabric of Bell’s life before, after and at the time of her crimes. Sereny set out, she tells us, to ‘use’ Bell as a means of gaining a unique insight into the forces which may bring a child to kill. The title refers to the unheard cries for help which, had they found a response, might have prevented Bell and other desperately abused children from committing desperate acts. At the same time, the book is intended to point up the necessary changes to legal systems which try and imprison child killers as if they were simply small adults.

The ambitious scope of the project and its subject-matter are characteristic of Sereny. Her earlier work also deals with individuals who seem to have stepped beyond the bounds of morality. In her last book, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, she gives an account of the way in which Germany was ‘morally extinguished’ under the Nazis; her portrait of the Nazi leadership and of Speer himself is unblinking. Readers have become accustomed to her unflinching lucidity and her belief in the resilience – even the eventual goodness – of human beings. Armed with this certainty, she faces monstrous facts, perhaps even monsters, on our behalf.

And yet Cries Unheard is, from the outset, troubled by uncharacteristic ambiguities and unanswered questions. Indeed, its very legitimacy is at issue. The grief of the two boys’ bereaved families – Martin Brown’s and Brian Howe’s – weighs heavily against what good this book might do. Sereny’s second examination of this crime must therefore be established as an irrefutable necessity. Any failure here may bring into question the ability, and the right, of a reputable author to write on delicate or controversial topics (which in turn may leave the field open to far less reputable authors). Cries Unheard tells us, without further comment, that the pain of those who have been touched by the murder of a child is made worse by the public attention focused on any similar crime. Sereny’s faith in human resilience may have made her a poor judge of whether to proceed with her work.

Perhaps because of these external pressures, the book is peppered with justifications and mission statements. Yet another purpose of Cries Unheard is to ‘discover what effect imprisonment has on children growing into adulthood and how the way they are dealt with by society equips them for the future’. Sereny asserts that the truth about Bell will help us ‘look very closely at the nature of the communication we maintain with our children, both within the family and in society as a whole’. Elsewhere, she urges us to ‘rethink the way our present system deals with children who kill or commit serious crimes’. Mary Bell’s story, then, is not meant to be about Mary Bell, but about its own moral and symbolic significance.

This tension between literal and intended focus persists from the Introduction to the Conclusion, without ever being properly resolved. Why attempt to address such monumental concerns with only brief reference to other child killers and an almost complete reliance on the facts of Bell’s life – intensely particular facts from which transparently general conclusions must then be drawn? Bell’s life offers an informatively long timescale, but is nevertheless that of one extraordinary individual. Given the wide availability of information on other children who have committed similar crimes, and endured similarly extreme events, this seems, to say the least, a curious course. To distil convincing universal truths from Bell’s very personal recollections and the verifiable details of actions which, in many cases, took place decades ago, is almost impossible.

Misgivings only increase when we consider that Bell’s narrative properly belongs to Bell – it is a record of her past and, as such, it has an impact on her present. Sereny continually dodges round the dangers of this book for Bell and makes only brief mention of her collaboration fee. We are told that ‘the media, both British and foreign ... have pursued Mary for years just as assiduously as she has tried to avoid them’ and that – on her release under a new identity – she has remained only one or two steps ahead of discovery. In one incident she recalls, a mob hounded her out of a town in the North-East of England. Yet, although this book is very much concerned with the process of its writing, it consistently avoids mentioning its almost inevitably disastrous effect on Bell’s daily existence. It amounts to an encouragement – and a teasing map – for anyone with a mind to find Mary Bell: a fact that makes the many references to her struggles in a hostile, post-release world and her massive efforts to maintain a degree of domestic normality seem disingenuous. Descriptions of Bell’s daughter ‘whom Mary loves with every fibre of her being, and to whom she is determined to give a happy childhood’ are more disturbing still. The existence of Cries Unheard and the publicity that surrounds it have, of course, meant that Bell’s daughter (described as the book’s ‘raison d’être’) has had to be told that her mother is a murderer. Whether this, too, amounts to a form of child abuse is not something the book is willing to discuss. Sereny, who has proved herself to be a remarkably intelligent writer, must surely have been aware of the consequences of her work, and of the issues and ironies to which it gives rise. Yet the book is recurrently flawed by oblique analysis, or by lack of analysis, and a sense of Sereny’s own (partially obscured) culpability.

What is not obscured is her own presence. Sereny may avoid all except the briefest forays into self-criticism, but she is the indisputably dominant character in her own work: the scale and the voice against which all other participants must be measured. Every step of the way, through interviews with relatives, teachers, probation officers, policemen and a range of interested professionals, she keeps us informed of her intentions and observations. While the words of others appear in quotation marks, complete with pauses and grammatical embarrassments, Sereny’s responses and enquiries are given as prose – serene, as it were, and considered. Apart from being slightly confusing, this has the effect of endowing the author with unquestionable authority.

Sereny maintains this high profile in interviews with Bell herself and there is more than a passing sense that she finds in her subject a mirror for certain aspects of her own personality. She may, however, be revealing rather more than she intends. Her thumbnail sketch of the cheery, working-class eccentricities of the Geordie dialect of Bell’s childhood is patronising and unhelpful. The secrecy concerning the book and Mary’s whereabouts is described as ‘a heavy load to carry, not only for Mary, but also for me’, without any acknowledgment of the disparate risks the two women faced. Billeted in the author’s study, Mary shows her nervousness by being untidy and scattering about, among other things, ‘a litter of ill-assorted, obviously haphazardly packed clothes’. The disdain in the choice of language is unfortunate. Discussing the early part of her relationship with Bell and the first steps towards publication, Sereny announces, with alarming candour: ‘she had never known anyone like me, or the world in which I live. And what she was proposing to do, even if she didn’t yet understand the dimensions of it (and she didn’t), was a huge step outside the very specific boundaries of her life, and it demanded courage.’ Mary’s courage often seems to have earned her intrusive and condescending treatment. Another claimed objective of Cries Unheard is to allow Bell to face up to her crimes and then grow beyond them. The process of confession involved in the many taped interviews may well have been therapeutic, but we find ourselves hoping that Bell never reads the book. Sereny’s faith in resilience – other people’s – shines through once again.

Even when Bell is deep in despair, finally reliving the dreadful events of 1968, Sereny cannot resist repeated references to her own place in the scheme of things. Bell struggles to speak: ‘I’m trying ... trying ... ’ Sereny adds: ‘at times I felt as if she was saying, “I’m trying for you.” ’ This, like all the other interpolations, merely interrupts the flow of what should be the ‘story’. Time and again, moving, absorbing, fascinating and horrifying narratives from Bell and those intimately involved with the case are cut and spliced with the author’s asides.

If Sereny is a specialist in the depiction of people under pressures which edge them into morally compromised actions, then perhaps it’s permissible to see the prominent role she plays in her own work as a kind of confession – another, barely audible, cry. Might she not, in these interpolations, be presenting other, less comfortable, motives for the appearance of the book: a writer’s curiosity, thirty years of waiting for this story, restless compassion, even a need to be needed by Mary Bell? This, inevitably, is speculation; only a greater degree of narrative transparency could have helped us here – and saved Sereny from appearing like the self-indulgent grande dame she is, almost undoubtedly, not.

Cries Unheard is its own most vociferous apologist. It begins with an epigram exhorting us ‘to read well: that is, to understand’. This is followed by two pages of generous acknowledgments of friends, family members, advisers and co-operating professionals for their ‘sense of humour and passion for human beings’, for ‘their unfailing encouragement and their love’ and for their ‘intelligence and understanding for what I am trying to do’. By the end of the Introduction, the tone is firmly set: this is a book with a desperately important mission, produced with the assistance and the blessings of good and humane supporters. It may be bitter-tasting and controversial medicine, but we must swallow it down. The implication is that any shortcomings can only be those of the reader. Our obligation is to understand – and allow ends to justify means.

At some point in the production of Cries Unheard – no doubt as a pre-emptive reaction to the controversy it was bound to generate – the idea of the reader understanding Mary Bell herself was allowed to slip away. Sereny’s fragmented narrative style and the book’s own identity crisis continue to obscure the fact that Bell’s is a success story. We are never allowed to approach her personality closely enough to appreciate fully the remarkable details of her rehabilitation, effected against all odds. Terribly damaged as a child, she committed two terrible crimes and was then drawn into a system of justice largely ill-equipped to deal with her or, indeed, do anything other than exacerbate the damage already done. Despite this, since her release, Bell has been a danger to no one. She is now in a stable relationship and has been a good and loving mother to her child. She is never quoted as commenting on this: nor are we given any sense of her ever spending time in a mundane, ordinary kind of way. She appears in short, intense spasms of emotion and confusion. Sereny never stands back long enough, or far enough, from her subject to allow her coherence. Such a missed opportunity is particularly baffling if we consider Sereny’s understanding of the book form as an essentially collaborative medium. She excels at a format which relies on the reader’s sustained consent to be drawn deep into areas and states of mind he or she might not otherwise wish to face.

Cries Unheard is subtitled ‘The Story of Mary Bell’, and it is in the area of pure story that it is perhaps most deeply flawed. Sereny says that she found the book ‘difficult’, that it called up in her an uncharacteristic crisis of confidence, borne out by the nervous arrangement of its sections. The reader is carried forwards and backwards in time, and jarred between relatively neutral sections of description and brief, immensely affecting, eye-witness recollections of events. The logic is hard to fathom. Once again, we lose an opportunity to gain a real understanding of Mary Bell, unable as we are to follow the journey she makes from denial, or avoidance, of her guilt to admission and confession.

The text is also dogged by smaller, technical difficulties. Sentences tend to ramble; sub-clauses with slightly erratic punctuation stack up like dominoes. Lengthy footnotes are clumsily appended when they might, without too much effort, have become part of the main text. For a book which took years of preparation and which represents decades of interest on the part of the writer, Cries Unheard has about it an air of haste. Its completion in March allowed mention of the shooting of children by children in Jonesboro, but has also left the text seeming particularly pressed. The Introduction and concluding chapters – I would guess, the final sections to be written – bolt between points which are either oddly over-expanded or only glanced at. To what extent a change of editor, or media and legal pressures are responsible for the absence of Sereny’s usually assured finish, readers cannot tell. But in the wake of the killings in Newcastle, Liverpool, Jonesboro and now Springfield, Oregon and Pearl, Mississippi, we very much needed the book this almost was.