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 The tabloid press and children's charities immediately called for the film to be withdrawn.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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Sport
sportComment: Win or lose Hamilton represents the best of Britain
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsene Wenger reacts during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Swansea
footballMan United and Arsenal meet on Saturday with both clubs this time languishing outside the top four
News
i100BBC political editor Nick Robinson had a lot of explaining to do
News
A girl plays on a Sony 'PS Vita' portable games console
news
Life and Style
Nappies could have advice on them to encourage mothers and fathers to talk to their babies more often
newsTalking to babies can improve their language and vocabulary skills
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

    £8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

    Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

    £55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

    Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

    Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

    Day In a Page

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines