What a difference reading the whole book makes

Boyd Tonkin first review of `Mary bell'
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after Hitler invaded France in 1940, a charity caring for abandoned children moved its base to the fairy-tale chateau of Villandry in the Loire. Two German officers, posted to the area, tried to show some goodwill by supplying food and medicines to the children. They were met not with a gratitude but with weeks of vehement abuse from a young volunteer nurse at the chateau - a Vienna-born teenager from a landed Hungarian family.

Gitta Sereny now thinks that the officers meant well. She recalls her fury "with shame and sorrow". The girl's rage reveals much about the woman, though. That intrepid youngster grew into the steely inquisitor who now shows no sign of regret at the feeding-frenzy triggered by her second book on Mary Bell. Having taken on the Wehrmacht, she will hardly buckle before The Sun. Yet she also arrived at second thoughts about the soldiers. She learned to look behind the uniform that defined them as wrongdoers.

In remorseless detail, Cries Unheard strips away the uniforms that Mary Bell has worn: the 11-year-old "psychopath" wrongly labelled at her trial in 1968; the "frightening freak" emblazoned in headlines, then and now; the charming waif indulged by a clueless penal system - and the self-serving "victim" who denied her guilt until the gruelling interviews in 1996 that underpin this book. At its close, with the actual victims' families explicitly in mind, Sereny concludes that "no evil was felt, no evil intended, only a child's ultimate despair led to this tragedy".

Under all the overlapping disguises, Sereny reaches the "horribly confused child to whom something dreadful had at some time been done". That trauma entailed being offered by her prostitute mother as an extra service to her clients, from the age of four. Yet, crucially, the confessional torment that produced Cries Unheard also peels away the mask of Mary's denial. She not only at last admits the killing of Martin Brown and Brian Howe but, under Sereny's forensic gaze, resurrects her trance-like state: "it's an abyss ... it's beyond rage, beyond pain, it's black cotton wool".

The book as a whole rocks between past and present, known facts and new discoveries, what Mary did and what was done to her. The two strands intertwine, as chain-linked cause and consequence. She even reveals that she wished to castrate little Brian Howe: "taking away the offending organ", she puts it.

One has to read the entire work to grasp this finely-balanced moral symmetry. For that reason, Sereny's willingness to see it crudely extracted in The Times has proved to be a terrible error. This careful equilibrium was lost; the book seemed more simply sensational, and more of an apologia, than is the case.

The opening third revisits the Newcastle trial in the light of later interviews. Between this part and the harrowing denouement lies a long, oddly good-humoured account of Mary's experiences in prison until 1980. These years pass almost as a pastoral interlude.

Despite further sexual abuse, she enjoyed her spell at Red Bank secure unit, thanks to the paternal affection shown by its head. But, as Sereny makes clear, James Dixon's love was not enough. His refusal to challenge her deepened Mary's denial. She took the "innocent" persona constructed there into adult jails. There she also learned how to perfect a protective shell. As a temporary "butch" at Styal prison, she controlled her many female lovers. Along with that role went an unlikely carapace of masculinity. When a staff member took her to buy lingerie at Marks & Spencer, she snorted "I don't wear knickers; I wear Y-fronts." That "offending organ" was still disrupting her sense of self.

What brought stability was motherhood. Mary's post-release years meant financial insecurity, as a waitress in seaside towns, but growing emotional rootedness. Here Sereny's account draws on the two probation officers who failed to tell the Home Office of this book's preparation. Along with Mary's own child, these two remarkable women helped awaken self-awareness in their client. Sereny builds on their foundation, just as - in her monumental interrogation of Albert Speer - she rested on the moral breakthrough first made with the supercilious Nazi by the Spandau chaplain, Georges Casalis. The probation officers pay glowing tributes to Mary as a caring mother; and Sereny underlines the rift between the "chaotic" personality still wrestling with her past and the devoted provider for her daughter.

Then comes the excruciating double endgame. Mary's tearful reconstruction of the toddlers' deaths alternates with searing tales of the pitiless mother who screamed "Take the thing away from me" at her daughter's birth in 1957. Most unbearable is the litany of Mary's childhood cries for help, which give the book its title and purpose. One day, Betty almost drowned Mary. That evening, she beat her son with a dog-chain. The police came but, once again, did nothing and departed. Soon after, Mary reached her "breaking-point", and strangled Martin Brown.

Through Sereny's lens, the Mary Bell story is a tragedy of non-intervention: of agencies, relations and neighbours too stupid, timid or busy to spot or stop the systematic assault on a little girl's identity.For me, it brought to mind the time when I tried, as a journalist, to make sense of another child-care calamity in the north-east. The Cleveland affair was, in most but not all cases, a tragedy of premature intervention with faulty diagnostic tools.

The public realm did too little for children at risk in the 1960s. Sometimes, in these ultra-suspicious later years, it has done too much, too ham- fistedly. Avoiding both extremes should be the job that keeps ministers awake. Instead, they waste their time penning populist tabloid claptrap about unread books.

Yet Sereny also has a case to answer. She was born in the Vienna where Sigmund Freud still consulted in his rooms at 19 Berggasse; and in her principles and prescriptions - improved children's services, state-funded therapy, and the rest - she forms part of that heroic generation of emigre women who sought to implant Freudian wisdom into the British public sector. She belongs, unrepentantly, to the milieu of Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, the Tavistock Clinic and its cash-strapped NHS offshoots, with their faith in "the intrinsic goodness of the child".

Sereny acts like a doctor in a world of deadline-chasing hacks. The very form of Cries Unheard - its slow teasing out of secret pain - mimics the therapeutic process. Yet, as a journalist, her methods benefit from none of the formal rules that protect other professionals and their clients. This conundrum should have modified her choices, or at least her timing. The insight and courage of the teenager who dared to scold the Nazi invaders have never been in doubt. All the same, as Cries Unheard so wrenchingly affirms, we can do as much harm by poor judgement as by "evil" intentions.

`Cries Unheard' is published today by Macmillan at pounds 20.