Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill, The Story of Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny, NY Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co., 1999. xxi, 382pp. $26.00 (Hardcover)

Reviewed by Henry Lawton

I am a psychohistorian. I devote scholarly attention to questions of why so that I might better understand our history. I am also a child welfare worker. For most of my adult life I have worked with emotionally troubled, often delinquent, children. If I am to find out how to help them, it is important that I know their lives and problems well enough to have an understanding of why they have gotten in trouble.

Cries Unheard is of interest for me both as a child welfare worker and a psychohistorian. It should also be read by anyone concerned about the welfare of troubled children in today's world.

Mary Bell is a real person. She lived in the town of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. In 1968, two little boys ages 3 and 4 were found strangled Their murders occurred 9 weeks apart. There was no apparent reason for the crimes. It took the police several months to find the killer and hold a trial. The case caused a major uproar in England, for the murderer wa! Mary Bell, age 10. Another girl, age 13, was tried with her but acquitted. Mary Bell was tried as an adult, found guilty of double murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The child "was demonized across the country" by the English press "as the 'bad seed,' inherently evil."

Certainly her crime was appalling by any standard of morality one might use. So what should be done with children like Mary Bell? While not common, child murderers are not the isolated aberrations we mightlike to think they are. Witness the recent school shootings in America.

There has been a lot of soul searching about the reasons for such outrageous acts, thus Sereny's book is a particularly timely contribution to the debate/confusion about violent children. The author is a journalist and has followed this case for 30 years. This book is based on months of in-depth interviews with Mary Bell. Sereny wisely allows Bell to speak for herself throughout much of the book to give us a first hand sense of the pain she has caused and experienced.

Mary Bell was born into poverty, but we should be clear that class is not really an issue in such cases. The school killers from Colorado appear to have been from upper-middle class backgrounds and their crimes were far more extreme. Bell's mother was an emotionally disturbed prostitute who never wanted her and repeatedly rejected her.

There is indication that her mother made several failed attempts to kill her when she was little. In addition, mother and some of her customers subjected Bell to extreme traumatic sexual abuse. Here we have an intelligent, sensitive child, who grew up in an atmosphere of gothic physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect. The family occasionally came to official attention but there was never anything that could be pinned down. This is a very common problem. Though Sereny and Mary are unable to precisely show us how, it seems clear that the child finally snapped and killed.

Both author and subject are clear that there is no excuse for the crimes. Mary Bell lives with the guilt of what she has done every day and will have to do so for the rest of her life. She will never, and can never, be free of the guilt, which is probably as it should be. Bell was sentenced to life in prison. In point of fact, she was imprisoned till she was 21 and then released on probation for life.

There was no effort made by the system to understand the reasons for her offenses; there was no real effort made to help her therapeutically; there was no real concern about preparing her to be a functional citizen. That she has achieved some measure of functional life was due largely to the dedicated efforts of a few helpers here and there and her own inner resources, rather than the system. She could have very easily fallen into a life of repeated crime.

Sereny does not oppose punishment for such children, but it should not be punishment for its own sake. Attention has to be paid to helping re-habilitate the person as well. She shows very well how the English system routinely fails troubled children like Mary Bell. Make no mistake about it; her insights are equally applicable in America.

A child like Bell should have been in a secure facility that could address her severe emotional problems, yet such places are few and far between. No one seems to know what to do about the problem of juvenile crime. In America, virtually no one who has wondered about the Colorado school killers seems to have looked to their family lives. Rather the answer is sought everywhere else but where we should start. The same was true for Mary Bell, who was branded as a monstrous incarnation of evil then and now.

Psychohistorians who care about the fate of children in our world should and must be interested in such issues. I know from personal experience that our "social service system for children" fails kids every day, despite the efforts of many good people to do otherwise. Sereny and Mary Bell show us this reality in heart-breaking detail, but I doubt that society will learn much from what they have to tell us.

It is much easier to blame and deny than to face up to what needs to be done. Child workers are a tough bunch; we are routinely overwhelmed in our work, with little or no support, confronted with emotional pathologies that can be and often are truly horrifying, with far too many cases, and never enough resources and services. Many of us burn out, some do not. We try to help people and sometimes succeed. But not always.

I have a kid that I am working with, in trouble for a variety of fairly serious crimes. I have been trying unsuccessfully to find a way more effective than jail to help him. Recently he told me that we could send him to jail, but "I will come out bigger and more angry." The Mary Bells of the world are part of our future; if we fail them, they will grow up and remember. Think about it. . .

The reviewer has been a public child welfare agency social worker for 28 years and works with emotionally disturbed teen agers and their familes to see if out of home placement can be avoided. Henry Lawton has been an independent scholar for 25 years in psychohistory and a contributing editor of the Journal of Psychohistory since 1977. Founder and Director of the Group for the Psychohistorical Study of Film, from 1989 to the present, he is also the author of The Psychohistorian's Handbook. He has published and lectured on a wide array of psychohistorical subjects in various publications, conferences, and universities all over the world.

The review originally appeared in the Fall, 1999 issue of The Journal of Psychohistory.

Return to the Regression Therapy Book Index
Return to Lloyd deMause and Psychohistory's Menu of Articles