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Letter: `Understanding' Bell

Sir: Quoting a couplet from Ben Jonson, Gitta Sereny writes in Cries Unheard (reviewed by Boyd Tonkin, 5 May), "Pray thee take care, that tak'st my book in hand/ To reade it well: that is to understand."

Clearly, any understanding derived from the story of Mary Bell, recounted in the public arena in all its appalling detail, should help us to make some sense of the crimes involved. However, we do not all reach the same conclusions in terms of the understanding we have gained. In spite of Sereny's warning, the varied responses to the publication of her book graphically demonstrate this.

There is the assumption that understanding a particular form of behaviour is the same as explaining it and ultimately preventing it. However, explanations of such aberrant behaviour are a different category of insight and can only be based on knowledge about causation. No amount of understanding can be a substitute for this. Rather than providing explanations, the preoccupation with understanding such crimes often is little more than voyeurism.


Consultant Psychiatrist

London N14