Books: A fractured, articulate anguish

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CRIES UNHEARD: The Story of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny, Macmillan pounds 20

GITTA SERENY'S strength - and, more than that, her importance - as a writer is that she will go where angels, and the rest of us, fear to tread. In her books on Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka death camp, and Albert Speer, Nazi architect and minister, as well as those on Mary Bell, she has set out to try to understand the motivations of people who do terrible things. If Sereny sometimes puts a foot wrong it is hardly surprising - there is a tension between judgement and empathy, censure and understanding. Where most of us do our best to deny or avoid it, Sereny looks it in the face.

Much of what is best in Cries Unheard goes over ground already covered in Sereny's 1972 study The Case of Mary Bell. There Sereny described how again and again, both before and after the first murder, Bell and her friend Norma brought themselves to the attention of the police and other authorities, in what Sereny persuasively argues were clearly cries for help. She pointed to the inhumanity of trying children in adult courts and the failure of psychiatrists, or anyone else involved in the trail, to take any interest in Bell's background. She criticised a system which found Bell guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, but still sent her to Red Bank, a (boys') approved school, and which, once there, offered her no psychiatric help. Now Mary's experiences of her trial and early years of detention, are told in her own fractured, anguished but also articulate voice. It makes for harrowing reading.

She speaks of the sexual abuse she suffered at Red Bank; the trauma of being sent to an adult prison at 16, and of her use of drugs and sex to counter the pointlessness of prison life. She complains about the inadequacy of a system which threw her into the world with scarcely any qualifications or vocational training, and describes the running drama of her relationship with her warped, controlling mother. Bell, in fairness to everyone, has some positive memories - of sympathetic teachers, wardens and probation officers, of close friendships in prison and after, and the arrival or her child. (Bell, who can't hold down work, and remains in every other way a very distressed and disturbed adult, is, Sereny believes, a responsible mother.) Although, interestingly, Mary is allowed very largely to speak for herself, she does not, unlike Speer, come across at all vividly, perhaps because she herself is so deeply confused.

Sereny agrees, of course, that Bell should have been punished for her crimes - "cause and effect is the way of the world and children have to learn it" - though not in the thoughtless, destructive way that she was. It shows no lack of compassion for the victims of Mary's terrible acts to say that the system failed Mary, just, indeed, as it failed them. Sympathy is not a scarce resource - more for some does not mean less for others.

If Cries Unheard then offers a wrenching indictment of a system that treats disturbed young children as malevolent little adults, it becomes rather less sure-handed in its treatment of Bell's early memories, of her childhood and the killings - the last, relatively short section of the book. Sereny of course, would have liked Bell to confess frankly and in detail to both murders - it would have suited her faith in Bell's essential goodness and her belief in the metamorphosing powers of therapy - but, although Bell now admits in general terms to the killing of both boys, and provides some new details on each death, her accounts remain sketchy and inconsistent. Sereny, characteristically, is inclined to see this in the most sympathetic possible light, and talks in the language of therapy, of Bell retrieving the most that she is able to retrieve. Someone less devoted to Bell might say that she was still evading the full extent of her guilt.

There is no doubt that Bell was an extremely disturbed child, neglected by her step-father (always her "cousin" to the police), battered by her prostitute mother. Yet Sereny herself admits that Bell's terrible recollections of being forced into oral and anal sex with her mother's clients can not be proved. If Sereny, like Bell's therapy-oriented probation officer, strongly believes in the truth of Mary's memories, it is mainly on the grounds that they are "too detailed, too specific and indeed too strange" to have been invented. Yet Sereny herself says again and again that Bell is an exceptionally intelligent and imaginative person - and one, we know, who as a child, lived a fantasy life. Might she not, then, as the critics of recovered memory syndrome will have it, have dreamed these horrors up?

At first reading I was as swept up as Sereny had evidently been by "the story" of Mary Bell. I am still on a second reading inclined, to believe it true. But read dispassionately, there is much in it of which we can never be sure. In her deep and in many ways admirable sympathy for Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny sometimes forgets this. The balance between judgement and empathy is very hard to strike.