Cries Unheard. The Story of Mary Bell. By Gitta Sereny

Published May 1998

Maybe this book should never have been written.

Maybe Mary Bell’s crimes are so rare that no matter how long we look at them, we can never learn anything important. Maybe Gitta Sereny should have known from the outset that she would bring nothing but pain to Mary Bell and her family and to the families of her victims.

Maybe there are some things which are so vile that we should simply turn away from them.

When a four-year-old boy named Martin Brown was found dead in the rubble of a derelict house in Newcastle on May 25 1968, the police were quite sure he had died accidentally. They were wrong. Eight weeks later, they discovered their error when the body of three-year-old Brian Howe was found on wasteland in the same grim patchwork of streets.

They then made a mistake of a rather different kind.

The man who led the inquiry, DCI James Dobson, now confesses to Gitta Sereny: “My function was to determine who had perpetrated the crime and how it was committed. In our system, it is not the business of the police to find out why crimes are committed. But as we have seen here, sadly, when the perpetrators are children, it doesn’t appear that it is anyone’s business.”

So it was that an eleven-year-old girl was arrested, charged, prosecuted and imprisoned for 12 years without anyone anywhere in the mighty criminal justice system every seriously asking – let alone discovering – why she had killed those two boys. The answer emerges only now, 30 years later, through Gitta Sereny’s book.

Here, Mary Bell describes for the first time her own bewilderment at the system which took her over as though she were simply an adult who happened to be rather small.

She sat in court at Newcastle Assizes. “Someone told me ‘That’s the jury’ and I said ‘What’s that?’ and they said ‘The people who decide what’s going to happen to you’ and I said ‘How?’ and they said ‘Shh’.”

At night, locked up in a cell, charged with murder, she made endless trips to the bathroom. Plotting an escape? Finding excuses to get out of her cell? No, just a little girl desperately worried that she might wet the bed and get into trouble.

When the trial ended, she guessed things had gone badly because the adults she knew were all crying. She had a pretty good idea what was going to happen to her now. They threw a blanket over her head. They led her away blinded. In fact, they were leading her to a car. She thought she was going to the gallows.

Thrown into prison, because no hospital would take her, she lost all track of the crime she had committed. She invented a twin sister, Paula, who could take the blame for whatever dimly remembered sin she had committed. No one asked why.

Now, she and her family disclose a tale to make you wince: of the mother who rejected her from the moment of birth (‘Take the thing away from me!’); who tried to give her away to neighbours; who apparently tricked her into swallowing an overdose of pills and tried to drown her in the bath; and who then offered as a sex aid to the men who visited her house for prostitution, one hand gripping the little girl’s arms, the other twisted into her hair. Sometimes, this mother whipped the little girl for the entertainment of these men. By all accounts, this started when Mary was four years old.

Mary Bell told Sereny: “Children are what you make them to be.” She and her friend Norma reacted by disappearing into a private world, where they became Fanny and Faggott who dreamed of running away, living on carrots and digging a hole in the ground to get away from the rain; who weren’t too scared of being locked up because their horses would come with a rope and pull down the bars; who dared each other to be more and more naughty. (“I didn’t mean to kill him for ever.”)

In a sense this book is not really about Mary Bell. She is the vehicle for a book about the abuse of children and how we fail to protect them; about the trial and punishment of children and how our system simply condemns them; about our own relationships with children and how resolutely we fail to listen to them. For all those reasons, resoundingly and despite all the furore, we should be deeply grateful that this wise and painful book has been written.

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