Friday, March 6, 2009

Cries Unheard

Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny was originally published in 1998. My hardcover copy has 412 pages. This is a heartbreaking account of the British child killer, Mary Bell, but more importantly, it makes a case for the reform of the justice system when dealing with children. Bell agreed to talk to Sereny 27 years after her conviction. Sereny tells us about Bell's horrific childhood, the murders, her public trial, and her years of imprisonment. Apparently this book was quite controversial in Great Britain when it was first released. Although the information about the treatment of children in the justice system and protective custody is a bit dated now, it still makes a compelling argument for reform. Cries Unheard is not a typical true crime novel, so if that is what you are interested in, this might not be a good choice for you. It would also be helpful to read Sereny's 1972 book, The Case of Mary Bell, or research the murders before reading Cries Unheard. This book is recommended, especially for those interested in child psychology.

Synopsis from the Publisher
What brings a child to kill another child? In 1968, at age eleven, Mary Bell was tried and convicted of murdering two small boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Gitta Sereny, who covered the sensational trial, never believed the characterization 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, Sereny 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 terrible acts, her public trial, and her years of imprisonment-to talk about what was done to her and what she did, who she was and who she became. Nothing Bell says is intended as an excuse for her crimes. But her devastating story forces us to ponder society's responsibility for children at the breaking point, whether in Newcastle, Arkansas, or Oregon.

A masterpiece of wisdom and sympathy, Gitta Sereny's wrenching portrait of a girl's damaged childhood and a woman's fight for moral regeneration urgently calls on us to hear the cries of all children at risk.

"Briefly then: In the course of nine weeks two small boys, aged three and four, were found dead. Some months later, in December 1968, two children, both girls, were tried for their murder; Norma Bell, age thirteen, was acquitted; Mary Bell (no relation) was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The case caused an uproar, and Mary Bell was demonized across the country as the 'bad seed,' inherently evil." pg. xiii

"The central account here, the story as Mary Bell told it to me (almost all of which I was able to subsequently check against the knowledge of others), is intended not as biographical literature but as a document that might serve as an incentive to all of us who care about children's well-being. If Mary's painful disclosures of a suffering childhood and an appallingly mismanaged adolescence in detention succeed in prompting us - whether as parents, neighbors, social workers, teachers, judges and lawyers, police, or government officials - to detect children's distress, however well hidden, we might one day be able to prevent them from offending instead of inappropriately prosecuting and punishing them when they do." pgs. xx-xxi

"And in the first four years of Mary's life her mother had tried repeatedly to rid herself of this unwanted child. Time and again she attempted to hand her over to relatives and, twice, to strangers. Four times she tried to kill her." pg. 12

"Mary's case, and her life since her release in 1980, has raised an extreme and, to her, deeply disturbing amount of media interest." pg. 13

"...there are two entirely distinct parts to her. One is the attractive, warm, and unconditionally loving young mother....The other chaotic, almost incapable of organization and discipline, and....often very sad." pg. 27

"....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." pg. 33


samantha.1020 said...

This sounds like an interesting but disturbing book. I think that I'll have to check it out sometime.

Unknown said...

I found this book such an extraordinary read. It provoked so much thought about 'civilised society' and the way all of us fail the children who are born into situations that harm them. I thought Sereny did an excellent job of telling a difficult story, without sentimentality, allowing the account of Mary Bell to be the strongest voice. Without a doubt, this book is one of the most disturbing I have read. I would encourage everyone to read it. We need to think more about the issues it raises for reform and child protection. Mary Bell often crosses my mind when I watch the news. Such a sad story.