Mary Bell: Monster or Victim?

Now that the clamour has subsided a little and there’s a chance to read Gitta Sereny’s book in relative peace, it seems worth-while taking a backward glance at the arguments advanced by (among others) the yellow tabloid press, the solemn broadsheet newspapers, the radio and television pundits and the callers-in to phone-ins, the instant moralisers on the Tory benches in Parliament and – rather unusually on this kind of issue – alas, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

These advanced a number of points, of which few were seriously challenged or debated. It was asserted that –

“Mary Bell (MB) made a disastrous error in accepting money from Gitta Sereny for collaborating in the preparation of the book, and Sereny an equally disastrous error in offering and giving her that money, since it is repugnant that a criminal should benefit from his or her crimes”;

“MB and Sereny should have realised that the publication of a new book about the MB case would unleash a tabloid frenzy and a manhunt to track down MB and her 14-year-old daughter”;

(a slightly different point:) “by collaborating in the preparation of the book MB forfeited any right to the preservation of her and her daughter’s privacy and anonymity”;

“If Sereny had had any consideration for the pain and feelings of the parents of the two small boys killed by MB 30 years ago, she would not have embarked on a new book on the subject, given that such a book could only pander to the public’s sick preoccupation with sex and violence, in order to earn money for Sereny”;

“In publishing extracts from the book ahead of its publication, The Times newspaper has been motivated by cynical and brutal avarice.”

In my opinion, not a single one of these points is valid.

I offer some basic propositions:

a. A deed performed by a child of 11 (actually M Bell was still 10 when she and the other, older girl killed the first of the two boys) can’t be classified as a “crime” in the way that the same deed performed by a mature adult would be. Even our antediluvian courts accepted that MB was “not guilty” of murder by reason of diminished responsibility due to her being a child. (Contrary to much of the media and other coverage, MB has never been convicted of murder and ought not to be described as a murderer or murderess.)

b. Questions of guilt, retribution, penalty, punishment are not applicable. The only valid objectives in confining an 11-year-old in an institution, whatever he or she may have done, are to remove her from a situation where she might do it again, and to rehabilitate her so that she can in future lead a normal, valuable life.

c. The evidence suggests strongly that society failed MB twice: first, in leaving her to the mercies of an obviously abusive mother, by whom she was so badly damaged and disturbed that a disastrous outcome became highly likely; and secondly, in transferring her after only (I think) six years to an ordinary adult prison where no specialised rehabilitation or psychiatric therapy of the kind she clearly needed was available. The fact that she was sexually abused, apparently with the connivance of the staff, at both her penal institutions compounded this failure. The children who were killed, and their parents, weren’t the only “victims”.

d. Despite this frightful background MB does seem to have emerged as a rehabilitated, intelligent and stable person who has lived a law-abiding life ever since her release. There can be no justification for imposing on this innocuous 41-year-old woman continuing penalties or restrictions in respect of the terrible things done by an utterly different small girl 30 years ago. The essence of rehabilitation is that the person rehabilitated is free to make a fresh start.

e. “Crimes” committed by small children are a legitimate subject of study and analysis by serious sociologists and writers, just as other aberrant forms of behaviour are. We are entitled to investigate the background to such events and to try to identify the circumstances which tend to produce them, not only (or even mainly) to help us to spot and prevent similar occurrences in future, but more basically so that we can have a better understanding of our own common humanity and the dark side of each of us. Gitta Sereny has established impeccable credentials as a serious and responsible analyst of the dark side of humanity. She had attended MB’s trial and already written about her; to produce a fuller study covering the background to the killings, MB’s subsequent management by our penal authorities and its adequacy and appropriateness or otherwise, and the kind of person who has emerged from all this, was manifestly a legitimate and valuable thing to do, and one for which Sereny was uniquely well qualified.

f. Sereny has said that she could not have produced this study without MB’s collaboration, and that MB was very keen to collaborate, evidently seeing it as a possible way to lay her dreadful ghosts – and perhaps also to try to encourage a wider public to question the validity of its perception of her as a monster, an embodiment of evil. Both Sereny’s and MB’s motives seem to have been absolutely unimpeachable. Others who have been convicted of serious crimes and have been “punished” and/or rehabilitated have written and published their accounts of their experiences. There is absolutely no argument for asserting that MB should have been denied the right to collaborate with someone who was doing the same thing.

g. MB spent many long and arduous, distressing days with Sereny, delving into agonising memories, providing an input into a work of literature-cum-sociology from which Sereny herself and her publishers naturally expect to profit financially. If Sereny had refused to give MB even a relatively small share of her publisher’s advance to compensate her for her time, effort and pain, she would have been “using her”, to use Sereny’s own term. In the light of the horrors visited on MB and her daughter in the last couple of weeks by our unlovely media and our cowardly politicians, it is wholly ludicrous to talk of MB “profiting from her crimes” by accepting payment for her collaboration in a useful and legitimate project.

h. Sereny warned MB that her collaboration and the resulting book would re-ignite public interest in her case and might prompt the tabloids to renew their efforts to find her and expose her new identity. MB judged this a risk worth taking (see (f) above). Neither she nor Sereny could have foreseen that the collaboration, the payment for it, or the start of publication of the result would cause the tabloids, elements of the serious media, political leaders and much of public opinion to hunt down MB and her daughter, to turn them into possibly permanent fugitives, to wreck their new lives, and to renew the hysterical demonisation of her which she had hoped to begin to ameliorate.

i. MB had planned to tell her daughter who she was and what she had done when the daughter turned 18. How does one tell a child of under 18 such a thing? MB was entitled to assume that the court injunctions protecting her daughter and the efforts of the Official Solicitor who is supposed to be responsible for protecting her daughter’s interests would prevent even the most vicious and greedy of the tabloids from exposing either her daughter or herself. In fact the injunctions, the Official Solicitor and the authorities generally, egged on by two senior ministers, surrendered without a shot fired to mob hysteria and cynical tabloid frenzy.

j. If the book is a worth-while and potentially valuable project (see (e) above), so is its serialisation by a generally serious newspaper such as The Times – much as I hate to defend Mr M.

Does anyone seriously reject any – or perhaps all – of these propositions, I wonder? Please e-mail me.

2 Responses

  1. charlotte banarse says:

    I agree with everything you have wrote.  This reminds me of another murder, the James bulger boy and the boys who killed him.  I have had a few heated debates about this case with other people.   I firmly believed that the two boys should be released and given a chance in society.   Other opinions were that they should be locked up longer by being transfered to a prison at 18.  The two boys also had social problems in their lives and I think this  has had a big influence in thier behaviour.  If they has not been released i think that by being transfered to a prison it would have done them more harm than good.  They have not reoffended since their  release and now are good citizens.  I am studying chilhood and youth studies and cases like this are always recieving negative and evaluative statements.  as you said you do have to look a bit deeper .  I enjoyed reading your article, I will use this as a source for my essay many thanks

  2. EvaLis says:

    It’s always easier to throw stones than to think that it could have been yourself. Who were the monsters in this case? Mary Bell or the people who abused her and who obviously didn´t care what she was going through? And why should her identity be released according to some if not for the sake of some people desiring revenge? Thus behaving way worse that what Mary Bell did since she was a child and those people are probably adults.

    Take it from someone who knows what it´s like to grow up in misery!

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