A LIFE OF CRIME; interview

Gitta Sereny's fascination with writing about the perpetrators of 'evil' has led to her cruelly being identified with villains rather than victims. What, asks Will Self, lies behind her insatiable curiosity?
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The Independent Culture
THE AUGURIES for our encounter were upsetting and yet oddly propitious. On the morning I arrived to speak to Gitta Sereny at her flat near Olympia I'd just dropped my two older children at their schools in Hammersmith. Three days previously a prominent television presenter had been murdered a mile or so away from there; two days before that a nail bomb had exploded in London's East End; and two days before that two teenage boys had gone on a killing spree at their high school in Colorado. At one point during the three hours we spent together, I referred to "us" - who did I mean? Society? Me and her? The whole world? - as being "between nail bombs", a ghastly piece of accidental prophecy, as another nail bomb was to go off in Soho the following evening.

Gitta Sereny, some would say, has spent her life steeped in violence. She has written books on Franz Stangl, the commander of the Sobibor extermination camp; Albert Speer, Hitler's architect; child prostitution; and, most notoriously, two accounts of the life and crimes of Mary Bell, who in 1968 when she was 11 years old killed two small boys on Tyneside in 1968. A scion of Hungarian landowners, Sereny was born in Vienna, the daughter of a beautiful, capricious and charming actress. (Her father died when she was two years old.) Educated in England, she spent the Second World War in France working with child refugees from occupied Europe. After the war she tried to help the children who came out of the concentration camps. She met the American photographer Don Honeyman in the late Forties and married him. Eventually, in the late Fifties, after spells in Paris and New York, they settled in London and have remained there ever since.

Sereny is well known for the following: she will not discuss her childhood, her private life or her family in any detail; and she has a reputation as a formidable and authoritarian presence, lecturing, at length, attendees at her book launches and engaging passionately in the public controversy her books have engendered.

Breakfasting at the Hammersmith Novotel, and reading over the snippets of information about her life that she has divulged to journalists, I was struck by the bizarre capacity Sereny had throughout her early life to be in the right, or perhaps the wrong, place at the apposite time. She witnessed a Nazi rally in her early teens and then read Mein Kampf; she saw the Anschluss at first-hand before her flight to England; she was in France during the occupation; and she was present at the Nuremberg Trials, where she first caught sight of Speer. Even setting to one side the whole of a remarkable writing career, this woman had led enough life for three ordinary people. What could she possibly be like?

She was like a whirlwind. I took the lift up to the second floor of the comfortable and elegant block of Sixties flats and before I'd touched the buzzer I could hear a loud, Central European-accented voice from within, unguarded and laughing. The door was wrenched open and there she was. Ken Tynan described Auden's face as resembling "a wedding cake left out in the rain", and this captures perfectly the odd cohabitation in the poet's visage of intense feeling and soft living. In contrast, Sereny's face could reasonably be described as a wedding cake left out in the sun. It is a face that has been decorated with laughter and baked with experience, before being irradiated by time.

Just how old is Sereny? Older than her claimed 76 years? Or far younger? I kept wondering for the three hours we were together. Small and plump, she danced around the spick and span space like someone in their early twenties. She made coffee daintily and efficiently, and when we were seated in the main room - she on the sofa, me in an adjacent easy chair - she continually darted forward to touch my arm or knee when she wanted to emphasise a point. There was nothing intrusive about this - she's a warm and tactile person. When her husband, Don, came to say hello before I left, the two of them embraced in a wholly natural and unembarrassed fashion. They've been married for 51 years, but have the air about them of a couple in the first flush of a relationship. I stress that there was nothing affected, creepy or ostentatious about this: it is obviously the way they are together.

I looked intently at her hands; always - allegedly - the feature which gives a real lie to someone's age. Sereny's were almost unlined and not remotely gnarled - the hands of a woman in her early forties. Like a hawk I regarded every particle of what she said for competing evidence of her chronology. I think it conceivable that she may be at least six years older than she admits. Certainly her pre-war experiences, as detailed, seem far too various for someone who would only have been in their mid- teens. Needless to say, I was completely bowled over by her vitality.

She was speaking to me shortly after returning from the American publication tour for Cries Unheard, her second book on the Mary Bell case (she wrote her first shortly after the conviction, 30 years ago). This five-state jaunt came at the end of a solid 10 months of publicity work, enough to burn out anybody; and yet Sereny remained fully engaged the whole time I was in her company. She visibly thought about the questions I addressed to her, nodding "yes", shaking "no", pausing frequently, even occasionally saying: "I am thinking about this for the first time." It seemed to me that she was bringing the same weight of concentration to being interviewed by me as she must, undoubtedly, bring to the conduct of her own exhausting inquisitions. It would have been an impressive performance, if it were a performance - but that I doubt.

Certainly Sereny also displayed to me the air of moral certainty - if not to say ethical arrogance - that has earned her so many critics, and even enemies. She frequently alluded to this with such asides as "People will say I'm arrogant ...", but pressed on none the less. She also, on a number of extremely significant occasions, went off the record. Each time she did this she fixed me with a gimlet eye and said: "Of course you cannot write this, but ..." Her assumption of my personal and professional integrity in these matters was total. Some might say that she was being manipulative, forcing me to acknowledge her authority, but I prefer to think that she is simply a good judge of character. How much more impressive was her acknowledgement of these shades of grey than the febrile attempts others make to render everything falsely transparent, fallaciously whiter-than- white? Like life as a soap-powder commercial for the gods.

Sereny has been prey to accusations of meretriciousness throughout her writing career. Her book on Speer - predictably - caused some to say she was a Nazi sympathiser, and others to assert that she must be Jewish and cravenly refusing to admit it. But it is with the events surrounding the publication of Cries Unheard last year that the climate of public opinion became distinctly sticky. The first the families of the two boys Bell killed knew of Sereny's book was the press blowing the whistle. Whether it was a confusion about the dates on which a newspaper was going to publish extracts, or a leak from the publishers, we will probably never know. But the results were that the whereabouts of Mary Bell and her young daughter became known, as did the details of the payments made to Bell for her assistance in writing the book. Sereny's letter, apologising to one of the victims' mothers, was also published in the press. It seemed that the whole debacle could only destroy what rehabilitation Bell herself had achieved, wreck her daughter's life and wrench open the wounds inflicted on the families of the murdered boys.

Sereny has been shaken by these events, and has questioned the validity of the entire Bell project. There was humility in her tone when she said to me: "In her [Mary Bell's] situation, when it happened and as it happened, it helped her. But on the whole it harmed her. And it harmed her in the sense that what is impossible should have happened: she should have done this with somebody qualified because it really needed to go on much longer and I couldn't go on you see. It wasn't possible, and besides I had reached the ... if you like ... Well, my purpose was fulfilled..."

It's this business of a purpose - the writing of the book - which leaves Sereny open to charges of profiting from others' suffering. But she was adamant that the impact of publication on the victims' families was not something which could be smoothed over with any form of compensation: "I understand compensating a family for the loss of a wage earner, but a child? How could that be so? They ask me how much money I give to children's charities, and this is a disgusting question. How can they know?" However, even setting this issue and the ethics of interview-ing Bell to one side, there was still the inevitable exposure of her whereabouts and the revelation of her crimes to her daughter, who up until that time had been unaware of her mother's past.

On this point Sereny became exercised: "They [the press] also warned that what I'd done would have ruined the child's life and her life ... and you know - it's perhaps arrogant of me to say this, but I knew this was not true. I knew in advance this was not going to be true. I knew the child, once she did find out, would react positively, because of the strong relationship which exists between these two. And I suspected - I can't say I knew - that the environment would probably be all right."

Perhaps luckily, or perhaps because Sereny is genuinely wise, the environment was "all right". Bell and her family are now living openly for the first time since her conviction - a fact Sereny described to me as "an extraordinary proof of British decency" - and the relationship between mother and daughter is better than ever.

The other aspect of Cries Unheard which rendered press and public ironically cacophonous was Sereny's solicitation of Bell's account of being sexually abused as a small child by her mother - who was a prostitute specialising in sadomasochism - and her mother's clients. Sereny sees this abuse as irrefutably the causal basis of Bell's homicidal behaviour (and by extension the behaviour of many other children who kill), and volubly attacked her critics' attempts to deny its reality: "Because they haven't read the book - or they don't read - they haven't realised that I have proved it. You know I have proved in every case, every instance of her memory, whether it is sexual child abuse, or beatings - whatever she experienced, I tried to prove it to other people - and I succeeded."

I believe Sereny has proved Bell's sexual abuse beyond reasonable doubt, but in some senses these proofs remain circumstantial (the congruence of unrelated testimonies). Interestingly, while Bell's memories of this abuse weren't altogether "recovered" - she clearly had some continuous memory of the experiences - the particular acts (she was sodomised on a bed above which dangled her mother's Catholic regalia) recalled to my mind some of the grotesque aspects of the satanic ritual abuse cases which dominated national consciousness in the early Nineties.

Sereny's own animadversions on this subject were instructive: "The SRA thing I have never believed. But I've got to tell you - without giving any names - that I have two people in England, both of them very, very experienced social workers ... [at this point she did give me enough circumstantial information to identify them] ... and they are firm believers, because they've seen it. They've seen the results and they've seen the places where it took place."

Sereny herself "believes that they believe it"; and believes that they "saw something" which led them to believe this. In a way, this seems similar to her own convictions about her subjects: she ultimately wants us to believe that Mary Bell believes she was abused; she wants us to believe that Speer believed he had acknowledged his culpability in the extermination of the Jews, and so on. This, while remaining - as she put it to me - "a person who does not believe things unless I have seen them myself". The strength of her conviction in Bell's case is in part a function of the sheer amount of time they spent together: "I talked longer in interview with Mary Bell than I have with anyone."

During the days, weeks and months Sereny spent piecing Bell's account of her life together, it would be difficult to identify exactly what kind of role the writer was fulfilling. Sereny is emphatic that she has never seen herself as anything but "a different kind of journalist"; yet she's open to the charge on the one hand of excessive and cold detachment from Bell, and on the other of over-involvement and consequent loss of objectivity. With me she was precise about the balance she tried to strike: "I was not detached in many ways from Mary because at the times when she reverted to being a child I became, of course, emotionally involved, because you cannot refuse yourself to a child. But these were isolated moments and all of the other moments I was detached - after some months I was finished apart from checking up on the facts."

What a fantastically chilling coda that is: "apart from checking up on the facts". And yet how accurate a portrait it is of the writer's sensibility, always moving on, using up and discarding the last object of interest. "But I am interested," Sereny protested to me, "and I will remain interested, I think, for the rest of my life. I mean - if she wants the interest she can have it; at the moment she doesn't." Possibly some will consider this as further proof of Sereny's unscrupulousness. I don't. Just as I would agree with Sereny's contention - if we accept the validity of Cries Unheard as an important and instructive text - that Bell "deserved the money" which she received for her participation. Certainly the sum involved was not large - "she needed it," Sereny plainted - and it's undoubtedly true that she was offered far higher sums to participate in accounts which would have been purely exploitative of the victims.

Yet it was hard not to see a less attractive side of Sereny when she crowed about the book's vindication by the Press Complaints Commission ("Of overwhelming public interest" is the jacket quote Macmillan has pulled from Lord Wakeham's report for the paperback; the entire text is included as an appendix). "That was wonderful! Ha-ha-ha! I'm sorry that Macmillan was so discreet, I would have liked Lord Wakeham's words to be emphasised. By printing the whole thing it diminishes it. He wrote me a wonderful letter - not that he knows me or anything."

I suppose it would be possible to regard this only as a reasonable response to the ethics of the project being approved, were it not that Sereny is subject to referring to her works and herself, at times interchangeably: "I've had wonderful reviews in America, really absolutely wonderful." And is also manifestly thin-skinned about criticism: "but one [and here she names someone off the record] thinks that I am psychiatry-driven and all the rest of it - [sotto voce] - she makes such stupid remarks! I have long lived in a psychiatry-driven environment. What is she alluding to? That I was born in Vienna under Freud? In Vienna - I'm not saying before my time!" And once again she dissolved into guffaws.

Yet these were soon stilled and Sereny went on to make what I think is her most important observation about the odium she attracts: "What's interesting is that she [the critic] is the latest one to attack me, and it's precisely [over] those places - not only in this book, it happened with Speer as well - where I cite things which express my own doubts." It's almost as if, by being prepared to acknowledge the untrustworthiness of her own perception of the truth, Sereny is leaving herself open to the accusation - or the projection - of mendacity.

Surely it's the same crude projection that's involved in tarring her generally with the epithet of being a "nasty" woman? Which is something I've heard said of her by several mutual acquaintances. For, by writing about the perpetrators, Sereny is crudely lain open to identification - in the public mind - with the "baddies" rather than the poor, innocent, child victims. She herself has become Albert Speer, Franz Stangl, Mary Bell.

Sereny forcefully defended Cries Unheard as a portrait of an individual groping towards rehabilitation and, by extension, redemption: "I've had over a thousand letters about the Mary Bell book and so many of them quote these things [Bell's questioning of her own memory's veracity] and say how wonderful for once to have the other side quoted." She also expressed a forceful intention of how the book should be read: "It was written with hope in my mind that it would be read by 'ordinary' people. People who are parents, people who would be parents, would be teachers, would be whatever - all these young people who we need desperately, in order for these things to slowly stop. And you know - it can be done!"

It's this Pelagianism, this unreconstructed belief in the moral perfectibility of individuals which must drive her critics - both secular and religious - absolutely mad. That, and the lurking suspicion that one G Sereny may think herself a major player in the perfectibility stakes. Although, to me, she denied any sense of influencing events: "The book contributes something, but change - in respect of the way children are tried for criminal offences - is only coming because of the European Court. And this is shameful; not nice; not honourable. A good time for the Government to look at the question would have been when the House of Lords knocked back Michael Howard over the Bulger case. But instead a new Labour government backs a juvenile crime bill. And one which make things worse! I had great hopes of them."

I had in fact begun our conversation by getting her to talk about the high-school slaying in Colorado, and much of what she said was instructive, apposite and important. But someone disposed to look for an overweening moral superiority would certainly find it in remarks such as: "[Cries Unheard] is important if it can lead to prevention. I mean, it's extraordinary the application to Colorado - if only I'd written it two years ago!" And: "I was embarrassed to be in America seeming to promote the book off the back of these events... Yet I am glad in a sense if it means the book is read." This effortless sense of moral prescriptivism was also in full cry when Sereny opined that the UN should have intervened in Rwanda and Chechnya as well as the Balkans. Indeed, when she referred to the UN as "all we have", I couldn't help feeling that Sereny wouldn't object to a world government, as long as someone suitably Sereny-esque was its chief executive.

And yet when we came to discuss the sheer weight of time and commitment her own work must have involved, and how this must have impacted on her life and the lives of her family, a far more diffident and self-critical person began to emerge: "It's a terrible selfishness because others pay for it. I think my children paid for it, my husband paid for it ... I am now old enough to wonder what I did to my children ... I hate that expression they have in America 'quality time': it's time, alone, that matters. I always defended myself against my own doubts because I was always at home writing, but really when the children came and asked me things I would only have a quarter of my mind on them, I'd say, 'Go and ask Daddy.'"

Still, she pressed on with her insatiable curiosity about what it is that motivates people when they choose the rutted road towards the bad action. Of course, such "evil" people are interesting because they epitomise our anxieties about the notion of free will itself; and to me Sereny stressed that she was not interested in murderers per se; not interested - for example - in serial killers.

I have no wish to psychoanalyse her, but I think it fair to allude to a few, striking aspects of her life and work which would seem to give a clue to her motivations. Fair, given that she herself said of the Colorado slaying: "We don't know [the truth about the boy killers' motives] until someone arrives on the scene who decides to do serious ... y'know, not tabloid, or even serious newspaper research, or for the police, but someone who is going to take this in hand and say, here we have a terrible case which could teach us. Really the way, if you like - don't misunderstand me - the way I used the Mary Bell case..." Fair, because while this is a newspaper article, I have read all but one of Sereny's books, and two of them twice. Fair, indeed, precisely because I am such a fan of those books; having said publicly that Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth is a masterpiece. Fair, because this is at odds with a journalistic scepticism; fair, because I believe I have some sympathy with Sereny.

Sereny, as I've said, resists any discussion of her private life, but to me - as she did to Anthony Clare when In the Psychiatrist's Chair - she alluded to a relationship with her mother which was not just difficult, but possibly even abusive. There was that, and there was also her throwaway remarks about Austria: "I have things to say about Austria ... There are a few intelligent, sophisticated people, but the rest of them are merely charming ... But it's so beautiful." The country of her birth is thus like the woman who gave birth to her: beautiful but essentially two-faced and manipulative. After all, what else is charm but the capacity to solicit acquiescence? I don't wish to make great play of this - the evidence is so slim. But is it fantastical to imagine that the factor that has made her remain so involved, for 30 years now, with the case of Mary Bell, is that she identifies with Bell as a victim of abuse? Sereny told me - while discussing the subject of Hitler in Vienna - that she, herself, spent time alone in a hostel like the one Hitler lived in while her mother went off to an engagement in America. She was, interestingly, the same age as Bell was when her mother was absent "working".

I don't think Sereny says and writes the things she does ("Of course, you have to understand, the conversations became really interesting when he [Speer] began to teach me"; "[Hitler] had a much bigger mind than people give him credit for") in order either to inflame or incite, any more than because she is an uncorrupted force for moral improvement. Rather I see them as the manifestation of an incurable curiosity about what has happened to people. Indeed, it was remarkable when transcribing the tape of our conversation just how frequently the word "happened" crops up in her speech. It might not be fanciful to imagine that this is merely the tip of the buried iceberg of Sereny's unwillingness to acknowledge what may have happened to her.

If it seemed, at the outset, gratuitous of me to harp on the issue of Sereny's age (she isn't, thank god, obliged to furnish a birth certificate if she wishes to write), perhaps this early precocity - a life lived before she was 20 - was a result of more particular maturing factors than the Second World War, which she herself says "took the place of feminism" in moulding her as a woman.

If this is the case - and I'm alluding here to an emotional rather than a physical abuse - then I'm entirely in sympathy with her refusal to discuss it publicly. It would undermine her own work by making her seem to speak purely from the high moral ground of her own suffering, and it would be pandering to the awful modern obsession with public breast-beating as a form of catharsis. Anyway, whatever the truth of the matter, taking all aspects of Sereny together - her volubility, her age, her youth, her vitality, her morbidity, her charm, her arrogance, her humility, her irascibility, her hauteur and her capacity to be a great listener - what can I say? Only that, while she may not be the closet Jew others accuse her of being, she manifests, in spades, that peculiar characteristic which is so often attributed to the Jews - of being just like everyone else, only more so. 2