Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell


What brings one child to kill another? In 1968, at age eleven, Mary Bell was tried and convicted of murdering two small boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Throughout her coverage of the sensational trial, Gitta Sereny never believed the characterizations of Bell as the incarnation of evil, the bad seed personified. If we are ever to understand the pressures that lead children to commit serious crimes, she felt, only those children, as adults, can enlighten us.

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What brings one child to kill another? In 1968, at age eleven, Mary Bell was tried and convicted of murdering two small boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Throughout her coverage of the sensational trial, Gitta Sereny never believed the characterizations of Bell as the incarnation of evil, the bad seed personified. If we are ever to understand the pressures that lead children to commit serious crimes, she felt, only those children, as adults, can enlighten us.

Twenty-seven years after her conviction, Mary Bell agreed to talk to Sereny about her harrowing childhood, her two terrible acts, her public trial, and her twelve years of imprisonment. Her devastating story forces us to ponder society's responsibility for children at the breaking point, whether in Newcastle, England, or Littleton, Colorado.

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Editorial Reviews

Francine Prose
In Gitta Sereny's competent hands, the faces of the guilty become distorting mirrors in which we are forced to acknowledge skewed but still recognizable versions of the faces we have seen, and lived with, all our lives.
New Yorker
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a searching examination of how children become violent criminals, and how the judicial system treats them, Sereny focuses on the case of Mary Bell. At age 11 in 1968, Bell committed the motiveless murder of two boys, ages three and four, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. The British tabloids demonized Bell as a "born killer" and "vicious psychopath." But Sereny, who extensively interviewed Bell, her therapists and social workers, portrays Bell, at the time of the murders, as a cauldron of repressed rage and anguish who lived in a grotesque fantasy world dissociated from reality. A prostitute's daughter, Bell was forced to watch as her mother was whipped by clients; she was also sexually abused by her mother's customers. Sentenced to life in prison but released in 1980, Bell, according to Sereny (who covered the trial in a 1972 book, The Case of Mary Bell), today feels profound remorse, sees a parole officer regularly, has a stable relationship with a caring man and is raising a daughter. Sereny's account of Bell's 12-year incarceration is disjointed and overwritten, but it offers a scorching look at British women's prisons as cesspools of drugs, abuse and coerced sex. Sereny (Albert Speer) proposes that children under 14 should not be held criminally responsible and should be tried by a specially convened panel instead of by jury. Her harrowing inquiry, marked by a rigorous and by no means easy exercise of sympathetic imagination, will compel people to rethink how to deal with children who kill or commit other serious crimes.
Alex Kotlowitz
After the first third of the book you will begin to ask, Is this girl, in fact, simply a "bad seed"? The remainder of the book will divest you of that notion....[T]his is an extraordinarily important and powerful work....[It] will throw you of balance. It will agitate, provoke and poke and prod your preconceptions. It will...make it impossible to look at children accused of violent crimes the same way again.
The New York Times Book Review
Kay S. Hymowitz
Though Mary Bell's crime does not resemble...recent high-profile cases, it does fit in handily with mainstream explanations of the causes of child violence: specifically, underclass dysfunction and sexual abuse.
Kirkus Reviews
An abused child who killed two toddlers is the subject of a lengthy profile that attempts to understand the root causes of such acts and pleads for a different approach to the treatment of youthful offenders. This study is Sereny's second book on Mary Bell, whose highly publicized trial she covered in 1968, and a continuation of her exploration of crime and conscience (Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, 1995; etc.). Working closely with Mary for two years, Sereny explores her feelings about her life as a child, as an adolescent in detention, as an adult in prison, and now as a mother trying to live a normal life outside prison. Sereny recounts the investigation, trial, and Mary's incarceration, including Mary's present-day reflections on past events. After being convicted of manslaughter, Mary, a clearly disturbed 11-year-old, was sent to a reform school for boys, a relatively benign environment where the staff was well-meaning but untrained in psychotherapy. At age 16, however, she was transferred to a maximum security prison for women. Seven years later, she was released on parole, poorly socialized and ill equipped for life outside. Under Sereny's persistent questioning, Mary reluctantly talks about her disastrous childhood and her love-hate relationship with her mother, a prostitute who had sexually abused her, had twice tried to give her away, and had made several attempts to kill her. Sereny, who has faith in the innate goodness of human beings and the healing power of therapy, argues that before the killings Mary was reaching a breaking point that ought to have been recognized by those around her and that children who commit serious crimes should be regarded not as evil butas severely disturbed. This book may not have the sensational appearl here that it had in England, where it was a bestseller, but this study of her case raises important—and very relevant—social and moral questions about responsibility, rehabilitation, and redemption.
From the Publisher
"Cries Unheard will throw you off-balance. It will make it impossible to look at children accused of violent crimes in the same way ever again." (Alex Kotlowitz, The New York Times Book Review)

"A profoundly philosophical and reflective psychological study of culpability and innocence, conscience and redemption." (Francine Prose, The New Yorker)

"Even resolute believers in the throw -away-the-key school of criminal justice will find their convictions shaken by this powerful book." (Elizabeth Bukowski, The Wall Street Journal)

"The recent spate of school killings has raised the excruciating question, Why do children murder? In this acutely insightful portrait, Sereny comes perhaps as close as one can get to the answer." (Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly )

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805060676
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/13/1999
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Gitta Sereny has written four previous books, including Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, which received the 1995 James Tait Black Biography Prize and the 1995 Duff Cooper Award. She lives in London.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Preface xiii
Prologue 3
Part 1 The Trial: December 1968
The Court 31
Mary--Reflections 41
The Investigation 47
Mary--Reflections 2 66
The Prosecution 72
Mary--Reflections 3 84
The Verdict 92
Mary--Reflections 4 121
Part 2 Red Bank: February 1969 to November 1973
Forgetting 141
Betrayals 161
Remembering 177
Part 3 Prison: November 1973 to May 1980
Setback 193
Rebellion 216
Giving Up 235
Defiance 259
Transition 278
Part 4 After Prison: 1980 to 1984
A Try at Life 295
Part 5 Return to Childhood: 1957 to 1968
"Take the Thing Away from Me" 323
A Decision 332
The Breaking Point 336
Part 6 Beginnings of a Future: 1984 to 1996
Faltering Steps 351
Conclusion 367
Postscript 378
Appendix 381
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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Court

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is ten years old (eight in Scotland). Children between ten and thirteen, however, until the passage of the Law and Disorder Act in 1998, were presumed in law to be doli incapax, incapable of criminal intent, and this presumption had to be rebutted before a child could be convicted. The prosecution had to prove that the child not only had carried out the alleged acts but knew at the time that what he or she was doing was seriously wrong. The I998 act has abolished even this safeguard, and anyone ten or over is considered to have the same moral awareness of right and wrong as his or her elders. The trial of Regina v. Mary Flora Bell and Norma Joyce Bell uniquely highlighted the problems of doli incapax and of trying young children in adult courts, but there was never any doubt that it would take place.

    Judicial procedure in any country is bound by its own firmly established rules, but however and wherever a trial finally takes place, it is preceded by a police investigation and the arrest of a suspect, who, except in cases of murder, in Britain at least, is either granted bail or held in detention. In Britain the decision as to whether a case goes to trial has traditionally been made by the Director of Public Prosecutions, the government's chief legal executive. Cases of murder, however, almost invariably end up before a judge and jury, and, until 1972, this meant that cases outside London would be heard at a session of the Assizes— the courts to which High Court judges made their "circuits" several times a year, traveling across the country in closed-off railway carriages and living in virtual seclusion in judges' residences in all the major cities where they dispensed justice.

    The purpose of any criminal trial, whether conducted under the accusatorial system (as in the UK and US, where the prosecution must prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt) or by the inquisitorial Napoleonic Code (as in most European countries, where the judge plays a much more active role), is to establish guilt or innocence. In theory, facts alone determine this end, although judges can affect the outcome both by their questions and by their interpolations, which more often than not indicate their own position and without doubt influence juries. Equally, the judge's summing up will weigh heavily on any juror's mind and, as this case would so classically prove, judges, too, are only human, are subject to emotion, and can be swayed by appearances.

    The circumstances in which a trial is conducted, however, can be predetermined, and in Newcastle in 1968 provision had been made for frequent breaks in the proceedings and for the children's relative comfort. The police officers and court staff on duty had received special instructions to keep the atmosphere quiet and treat both the children and their families gently. Nonetheless, a jury trial for murder is a fearful matter, deliberately grave in its procedure and awesome in its effect.

The Newcastle Assizes were held in the Moot Hall, an early-nineteenth- century stone building on the south side of the city where, until a new building was recently constructed, all court proceedings were conducted. The public gallery in the center of the court, and the two side galleries, reserved on this occasion for the press, were only full on four days of the nine-day trial: day one, when the prosecutor, Rudolph Lyons, presented his case; day six, for Mary's examination-in-chief; day eight, for the judge's summary to the jury; and day nine, for the verdict. On those four days—the next day's schedule was posted in the press room at the end of each day's proceedings—there were reporters from all the main papers and many foreign ones, and there were lines from early morning for the public seats. On the other days, however, much of the public gallery was almost empty and most of the reporters stayed away.

    This obvious aversion to the case, in Newcastle and in the country as a whole, indicative of the difference in public attitudes between the sixties and the nineties, was also reflected in the conduct of the trial and the atmosphere in the court throughout it. The court—the judge and the lawyers—and the psychiatrists, a number of whom attended in specially assigned seats from which they could observe the children, were of course intrigued, but the members of the public (who, twenty-five years later, would line up at dawn on every one of the seventeen days of the so-called Bulger trial) and the national press backed away from the case: in 1968 troubled children were not yet in vogue, and "evil" was best ignored lest it might infect. Although the trial's progress was briefly reported on news programs, and commentaries appeared in the quality papers after the verdict, the BBC, in consideration of young viewers, prohibited any mention of it during the six o'clock news, and, more surprisingly still, the Sunday tabloids, all of which a quarter of a century later would dwell for weeks on the Bulger case and pay large sums to members of the Bulger family for their stories, rejected it altogether. During the trial, one tabloid, the Sun, specifically refused the story of Mary Bell's life as offered for sale by her parents.

    Major trials were usually assigned to Court One, the largest in the Moot Hall, but in this case the trial had been transferred to Court Two, a comparatively small room paneled in dark oak. It was considered less forbidding and had an adjacent waiting room and lavatory, which would make it easier to take care of the two children. It had no dock and thus allowed them to be seated in a row between their legal advisers in front and their families behind them, which made them feel and seem less isolated, and it had excellent acoustics, which would permit them to be heard even when—as frequently happened—they whispered.

    Despite the careful provisions made for the two girls, neither of them had been prepared for the solemnity of the court proceedings. For nine days two mutually incomprehensible languages would be spoken in that ancient chamber. One was the language of adults, and formal language at that; the other was the language of two highly disturbed children, the workings of whose minds were a mystery to virtually everybody present. ("Nobody told us anything," Mary would tell me later. "Not about people coming in to watch, either.") Nor had they expected the crowds who attended the opening day of the trial, and both girls—Norma reacting just an instant after Mary—laughed with excitement when three knocks preceded the usher's "Be upstanding in court!" ("We didn't talk ... hardly at all during the trial even when we could have," Mary said. "But, yes, I remember: we laughed. I can't think why and what about, but whenever we looked at each other, we laughed." And twenty- five years later, in another courtroom, I noticed the two boys in the Bulger trial doing exactly the same almost every time their eyes met.)

    I was sitting in the gallery above but just across from the two girls and noted how the difference between them—Norma's terror against Mary's apparent fascination—showed up almost immediately. As the judge in his red coat entered in slow and measured steps, the bewigged barristers and court officials bowed deeply, and the many police officers spread throughout the court stood stiffly to attention, Mary could hardly contain her pleasure at the spectacle. Norma, however, her whole body expressing bewilderment, turned round to her parents, her face reflecting the mixture of nervous smile and incipient tears that would become as familiar to the spectators as her mother's shake of her head and gentle movement of her hand, which propelled the child back to face the court.

    Norma, too, was a pretty girl, her hair also dark brown and as shiny as Mary's. Every day both of them wore immaculately clean and ironed cotton dresses, white socks, and polished shoes. Taller and physically more developed, Norma had a round face that looked perpetually puzzled and large, soft brown eyes. One felt worried about Norma almost all the time, sorry for her often visible distress and concerned for her obviously caring parents and numerous relatives, who, sitting behind her, attended every session, stroking and petting the desperate child the many times she burst into tears. Her ten brothers and sisters, ranging in age from her handicapped sixteen-year-old brother down to a baby in arms, waited outside the court every day of the trial, waving to her enthusiastically whenever the door opened. And at every recess they rushed in and down the steps to what Mary, years later, would describe to me as "the dungeon," the arched vault in the basement of the court building where, until the fifth day, when the judge ordered the girls to be kept in separate rooms, the two groups huddled at opposite corners of the huge chamber during breaks in the proceedings. There was love and determined gaiety around Norma from the beginning to the end of the trial. And nobody in court could have thought for a single moment that anyone in her family believed that little girl capable of murder.

    Mary, much smaller, with her heart-shaped face and those remarkable bright-blue eyes, was not alone either, though the members of her extended family who attended appeared unable to hide their anxiety and distress. Her grandmother Mrs. McC., Betty's thin, fine-boned mother, was there every day, with a white, tired face, straight-backed and silent. And her aunts, Betty's sisters, Cath and Isa, and Billy's sister, Audrey, came, and so did Audrey's husband, Peter, and Cath's husband, Jack; all of them respectable and quiet, avoiding contact with anyone around and, during the breaks, directing (what one Newcastle police- woman described to me as) "forced-like cheer" and "desperate affection" toward Mary.

    The person who was most conspicuous, however, and impossible to ignore, was Betty. Anything but silent, she exclaimed volubly, sobbed wildly, and time and again, the straggly blond wig that incompletely covered her jet-black hair askew, demonstrated her indignation at what was being said about her child by stalking furiously out of the court on her high clicking heels, only to return, just as ostentatiously, shortly afterwards.

    Billy Bell, tall and handsome, with black hair and red-blond sideburns, sat hunched over with his elbows on his knees and his hands supporting his head, for much of the time hiding his face. I never saw him speak to anybody, though the policewomen who guarded Mary would tell me that he was gentle with her during breaks and, while so taciturn in the courtroom, worked quite hard downstairs to make Mary laugh. Except for an almost obligatory kiss on leaving, her mother never comforted her unless she noticed someone watching. But Billy hugged and kissed her every time he came and went, and she, who several of her relatives said had never allowed herself to be kissed by any of them and "always turned her head away" when they tried, clung to him.

    Mary told me later she was very frightened of her mother during the trial. "She became more and more..." More what? I asked. "... Angry with me," she said.

It was a long time after the trial that three social workers told me about their first experience with Betty Bell. Before the case finally arrived at the Assizes, the two children had appeared in court four times for the extension of their detention. Billy Bell and Audrey, with Mary's grandmother, had attended the first remand hearing in Juvenile Court on August 8, the day after the arrest. But to the fury of the Newcastle Children's Department, Betty was absent. The social workers were disgusted, they said, and on the late afternoon of the day before the second remand hearing on August 14, three of them, signing themselves out on a half-day holiday for the purpose, drove up to Glasgow. "Officially, of course, we weren't allowed to do this. But it was bad enough that we knew so little about that child, we weren't going to have her be unsupported by her mother for one more day." They found out Betty's pub and her "stand," as they put it, in a Glasgow street. "We just went and grabbed ahold of her and bundled her into the car and drove back to Newcastle in the night. She screamed and yelled, effing us, the department, and the court, but she was going to be there to support that child in the morning if it was the last thing we did."

    It was an interesting act, less of compassion than of principle, for all three admitted to me at the time that they didn't "like" Mary and that in fact she gave them "the willies." (And all these years later, Mary, searching her memory, would add what she remembered about seeing her mother the first time after her arrest. "She came to see me, I think it was in the cells at West End police, and she went totally hysterical, shouting at me, what had I done to her this time, having people track her down... It was my fault and what a shameful thing I was in her life.")

As the two children sat through the proceedings in court, Norma's attention span, we would see very quickly, was short: she would listen carefully for a few minutes, then begin to squirm, look around the court, and turn to speak to her mother, who invariably turned her head back to face the judge. One would then see her obvious effort to listen until, seconds rather than minutes later, her eyes would again begin to swivel up and down the room and the galleries and yet again she would turn her head back to her mother, who, with infinite though one felt weary patience, repeated the process of directing Norma's attention to whoever was speaking.

    Mary, on the contrary, was astonishingly attentive. She hardly appeared to notice her mother's dramatics, nor did she seem puzzled or particularly distressed. The general impression she gave was one of intense interest. Her face, intellectually alive when she spoke either in whispers to her solicitor, David Bryson, who sat next to her, or later when she testified, had a perpetual listening quality though it was, except in anger, emotionally blank. Mary's body was almost completely still; her nerves were in her hands. Disproportionately broad, they moved constantly, as if a separate part of her. Apparently absentmindedly she stroked her dress, her hair, herself, and constantly had a finger, though never a thumb, in her mouth. Every few minutes she took it out, wiped her lips with the back of her hand, and then rubbed first the back of the hand, then the finger lengthwise dry on her skirt only to immediately put it, or another one, back in her mouth. (And twenty-five years later, under almost identical circumstances, I would see a repetition of this extraordinary manifestation of disturbance, when one of the two ten-year-olds who murdered James Bulger demonstrated similar, sometimes identical mannerisms. He too sat much of the time of the trial with a finger, or in his case usually his thumb, in his mouth or in his ear, and he too, off and on, absentmindedly wiped it dry on his trousers only to immediately reinsert and move it around or to and fro in his mouth.)

    Mary appeared to listen to every word, even when she quite clearly could not comprehend the formal language. But in marked contrast to the other child, she seemed isolated from her surroundings. Except for her young solicitor, who three or four times during the nine days responded to questions from her, no one talked to her. And except for the few times when, obviously tired, she fidgeted and received a sharp tap on the back of the head from her mother, and for the day of the verdict, when she began to cry and David Bryson for a moment held her, no one touched her.

By the time of the trial, the two children had been in custody for four months. Court-appointed solicitors prepared the case for each child and instructed barristers who would represent them at the trial, all paid by legal aid. Norma was represented from the start by a highly reputed barrister, R. P. Smith, QC, one of the youngest and (so I was told) brightest silks in the country, who within days of her arrest had persuaded a judge in chambers in London that she should spend the period of the remand as a patient at a nearby mental hospital being "observed" by nurses and doctors.

    Mary was represented by a distinguished older barrister, Mr. Harvey Robson, whose long legal career had included several terms as Attorney General in the Southern Cameroons, and after that many criminal cases in the northeast of England, though none for murder. Mr. Harvey Robson, I was later reliably told, had not tried to obtain a hospital order for Mary's remand. (Her solicitor would later tell me that was because he considered it a hopeless endeavor.) She was sent first to an assessment center in Croydon, near London, and then to a local remand home in Seaham, closer to home in County Durham, run by the prison department for girls between fourteen and eighteen, among whom, because of both her age and her alleged offense, she immediately figured as a star.

    In cases of children accused of serious crime in Britain, it is very unusual for psychiatrists to be involved before a trial except to establish that the accused minor is capable of distinguishing right from serious wrong and that the child was mentally responsible for his or her acts at the time they were committed. To this day, any other kind of psychiatric attention before a trial is held to risk adulterating the evidence. It was astonishing, therefore, that permission was given for Norma to spend the months of remand in the children's wing of Prudhoe Monkton hospital under the supervision of a psychiatrist, Dr. Ian Frazer.

    While both Norma's hospital and Mary's remand home were benign places, and neither of the children appeared unhappy, the difference in the arrangements that had been made for them—a medical environment for Norma, a quasi-punitive one for Mary—became known very soon.

    It is almost impossible nowadays for people, however disciplined or determined, not to be affected by what they read in our aggressively intrusive press or see on the ever-present screen. Considering the amount of public interest cases such as this are bound to attract, there is a measure of hypocrisy in continuing to rely on the objectivity of juries or even of the courts. And thirty years ago, too, the inevitable publicity—at the death of the two toddlers, the arrest of two (at that point unnamed) little girls on suspicion of murder, the conditions of their remand (first rumored but then disclosed at the trial), and finally on the occasion of the trial itself—all no doubt considerably influenced the eventual attitude of the court and, arguably, the outcome of the trial.

    It was before the jury was seated and the children were brought into court that the judge, Sir Ralph Cusack, asked the defense lawyers whether they wished him to prohibit the girls' names from being published. Both barristers replied they had no objection to the publication of the names. Their reason, unconvincing to me at the time, was that the identity of the children was already known in Scotswood and that, unless the two girls were named, a slur could conceivably remain on other children whose names would come up in the course of the trial. Twenty-five years later, it was the precedent set by the Mary Bell case that persuaded the court in Preston to allow publication of the names of the two ten-year-old boys accused of killing James Bulger. That decision has caused the same damage to the boys' families and will reverberate in their own lives as has the one taken by Mr. Justice Cusack in 1968 in Mary's and in Norma's lives.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2005

    cries are still unheard

    Definitely worth reading. A good book that shows how evil is created, not born. A reminder to all of us to ask questions when we hear crying. And a good argument for overhauling systems of 'justice for crimes' instead of help for people. One thing I did not like was the author's style of breaking up sentences to add an emphasis and then returning to the sentences. It happens reapeatedly on every page and is annoying after a while. But aside from this style, I much enjoyed reading a book that gives one deep insight into how 11 year old, fifty pounds girls can become murderers.

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