The Book Club

A Dissenting Consensus

Dear Mim,

In your discussion of paraphrasing and narrative, I think you’ve hit on a key thing. Sereny is not very specific about how Mary’s memories of childhood abuse were educed. Without knowing that, we find it hard to tell whether we’re in the presence of a rigorously analyzed etiology or a recovered-memory fraud.

It’s worth figuring out which, but, like you, I’m uncomfortable coming to any firm conclusions. That’s because Mary’s stories vary so widely in their degree of credibility. You may have more evidence from The Case Of Mary Bell, but here’s the way I’d (provisionally) assess the narrative that emerges from Cries Unheard:

• It seems definite that Mary’s mother, Betty–at least part of the time–did hate the sight of Mary, associate her with shame, and seek to harm her.

• It even seems probable that Betty tried to kill Mary with pills, given that Mary’s accounts jibe with contemporaneous hospital reports.

• It seems quite possible that Mary was the product of an incestuous relationship. (We’d have to know more about the uncle who–even in a society that took “illegitimacy” in stride–said it was best Mary didn’t know who her father was.)

• It seems possible that Mary was sexually abused, as Sereny claims.

But, all in all, I don’t think it’s likely. Betty Bell, appalling though she undoubtedly was in most respects, had a record of securing the loyalty of decent people that indicates the portrait Sereny draws is not a balanced one. First there was Billy Bell (even if his honor was primarily a thieves’ honor), then the proper bourgeois George, who stuck with her for 14 years of increasing drunkenness. Why did these men–both of whom cared for Mary, and either of whom, presumably, would have been horrified by the kind of unconcealable abuse Mary describes–stick with Betty? It can’t have been just that they enjoyed being whipped.

One story Mary recalled from her childhood set off alarm bells. It’s that, when she was 8 years old or younger, acting on her own, she would turn a sort of trick with “men in cars,” getting into the front seat with them and abusing them verbally while they masturbated. Mary first told Sereny that she did this frequently, later changing it to “four or five times.” Sereny believes her.

I don’t. What makes childhood sexual-abuse claims so difficult to assess is that we can’t judge a person’s memory. But sociological judgments are easier to make. While such men as these automobile perverts undoubtedly exist, it seems absolutely impossible (this side of Hell) that Mary could have found four or five of them without also running into several men who would have gone straight to the police.

But again, I make no final judgment on the general point of whether Mary was sexually abused.

The sensitivity of the subject matter may explain, at least partially, why you and I were so much more critical of this book than most reviewers. Child abuse is a grave matter, and it can never be pooh-poohed. In a society where concern over child abuse has arguably reached the point of hysteria, a hysteria that has probably harmed more children than it’s saved, discretion is in order–but never dismissal. When individual claims arise, one owes them respect, provided one is tough-minded enough not to go on witch hunts or condemn people on suspect evidence.

Perhaps you and I, just talking to one another (or at least enacting the literary convention of just talking to one another), are able to take that respect for granted. Critics addressing a general audience must establish that they’re not dismissing child abuse as a problem. That sets a natural upper limit to how critical they feel entitled to be about a book like Cries Unheard. Political correctness may be another name for this “natural upper limit,” but that doesn’t mean that the reviewers were acting in bad faith when they praised this clearly mediocre book.

On the other hand, maybe we just disagree with them. Whatever the reason for our surprising dissenting consensus, it’s been a delight closing ranks with you this week.


P.S. To answer your fight-picking questions on coercion and collateral damage: Sereny approves (at Page 316) of the state’s requirement that Mary see a doctor before she is “allowed” to have a baby. That’s undue coercion in my book. The doctor greets her by saying, “What big hands you have. What do you feel when you look at your hands?” Then he asks her if she thinks it odd she’s fallen in love with a man who’s the same age her victim would have been. That’s narrowly averted collateral damage.