Mary Bell: ice is the antidote to sympathy for the devil

THE devil has many masks. Most recently, it has emerged in the form of a 41-year-old mother called Mary Bell. A few of us, including Gitta Sereny and myself, believe that these devils are the figment of heated overripe imaginations. Peel back the mask and you'll find a very human face.

Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard has been pilloried, not only for paying the devil, but for presenting her as one of us. Some have suggested that Bell, who could not have found a more sympathetic biographer, has calculatedly misled Sereny, ensnared her in a psychological honey trap. June Richardson, mother of one of Mary Bell's victims, has complained that the book "does not tell the whole story"; the murderer's is the only voice we hear.

I, too, have been accused of having sympathy with the devil. In January, my film about paedophiles was broadcast on Channel Four. The Devil amongst Us consisted of a series of interviews with men who had, or desired to have, sexual contact with children. The tabloid press and children's charities immediately called for the film to be withdrawn. I was accused of being duped, and of giving paedophiles a platform. It was claimed that I didn't distance myself enough from my subjects.

I confess: I liked the men I met. They were not monsters. Some were very good company; I enjoyed going out for a meal with them. Others entertained me at their house magnificently, pouring me another glass of wine.

Then, as each meeting moved on late into the night, we'd touch on their attitude to children. "I think a four-year-old could quite want, even initiate, sex with me," a 49-year-old said. After an evening in his charming company, it was hard to throw up my hands in horror. I would lean back, listen, absorb. It was,frighteningly, almost possible to feel, at that moment, that perhaps being a paedophile wasn't so reprehensible after all.

But as the front door clicked behind me, the comfort of his company seeped away. I abhorred the desires that had been expressed. When I returned home to my young daughter, I would brutally remind myself, these desires were not abstract. It was my daughter that he would like to have sex with.

What began, for me, as a moment of awareness, became a moment of professional practice. I found it important to provide myself with constant reminders of the true nature of the men I was meeting. While I was eager to get inside their minds, it was important that their world view, their interpretation, their version of events, was not the only one I consulted. It was important to step outside that claustrophobic interview room. I refused to be seduced.

It is not at all clear how far along the path to seduction Sereny went with Bell. But here is clear evidence that the process had begun. Sereny constantly refers to Bell's humanity, as if this alone were evidence enough for lack of moral culpability for her crime. She notes that Bell is fervently anti-racist, and is careful to record her frequent tears. Her love for her teenage child is presented as extraordinary, as if it weren't the most natural thing in the world for a woman to care for her daughter. In interviews that are said to have lasted up to 10 hours a day, over a period of five months, it is easy to see how it would be to take that one step back, for the interviewer to refer to a moral order outside the interview room.

Disturbingly, Sereny - a writer who ought to share Graham Greene's "splinter of ice" - describes her feelings towards Bell as "love and affection". If we love someone, we find excuses for them. Current theory presents sexual abuse in childhood as a formula to forgive almost any crime - from murder, through thievery to further sexual abuse.

Sereny has every right to produce a brave book about Mary Bell. But the quest should not be for forgiveness; it should be for understanding. We must be careful that the humanity of criminals - the friendship, the tear - does not seduce us. While the mob, and much of the media is boiling with rage, we should remain cool. The splinter of ice should never melt.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

    £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

    Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

    £26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Day In a Page

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms