‘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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in