The Book Club

Gitta Sereny’s Cries Unheard

Dear Chris–

I am pleased to make your epistolary acquaintance.

Starting, I think, around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, I began to feel a great weariness upon learning of any news event likely to prompt a discussion of morality in America. The debate is always the same, almost pro forma, opposition of shallow and unsupported assertions, whether the subject is nominally Madonna’s pregnancy or a shooting spree in a high-school cafeteria. I therefore salute Gitta Sereny, author of the book we are to be discussing, for taking a morally serious issue morally seriously.

That said, I feel that Cries Unheard, in which she examines the life of notorious child murderer Mary Bell, is almost a complete failure on its own terms. In 1968, at age 11, Bell (as you know but perhaps readers do not), killed two little boys, nine weeks apart, the first by herself, the second with some degree of cooperation from her 13-year-old neighbor and friend Norma Bell, who was no relation. Sereny covered the trial at the time, and published a book on it, The Case of Mary Bell, in 1972. She has since made a specialty of book-length profiles of those who have committed gruesome crimes, notably Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka death camp, and Albert Speer, who was Hitler’s friend as well as his architect and armaments minister. In Cries Unheard, Sereny, who paid Bell (now living under another name with her longtime partner and her teenage daughter in an unspecified part of England) for her cooperation, presents her subject’s experience as a severely abused child before the killings and an anomalous prisoner after them, with great sympathy.

I have no problem with the payment or the sympathy, which have been the main reasons for objections to this book so far. (Actually, I do have a little bit of a problem with the sympathy, insofar as it doen’t strike me as particularly insightful. I also thought this true in the Speer book. Sereny is very imprecise about anything that might interfere with her premises about Bell’s character, writing for example that she has a “partial dependency” on painkillers. What does that mean? You can view the addict as more or less culpable, but either she is dependent on painkillers or she isn’t.) I thought the book failed first of all in its stated aim, which is to advocate reforms in the juvenile justice system.

Bell was tried as an adult, which, I agree with Sereny, was not justified. However, she makes a poor example for the argument, because her incarceration–first in a reform school where she was the only female resident, and then, after she turned 16, for seven years in various prisons–was, from the rehabilitative point of view, so successful. The reform school was a supportive, structured, and nurturing environment where Bell formed lasting attachments to several teachers, and her experience in prison, by her own account, taught her to control her rage. Basically, she got better care than some abused children do at the hands of the social service system that failed Mary Bell by not removing her from the home of a sadistic mother who tried to kill her four times before she was 11. (“Most horrifically,” according to the New York Times Magazine, she was also sexually abused, and why this is considered to be more horrific than the murder attempts is in itself a comment on American values.)

Mostly, though, I was bugged by Sereny’s–why beat around the bush–incredible egotism. She maintains again and again–in fact, it is her theme–that Bell can really move on only if she admits to herself what she did, although it is a) not clear that she hasn’t done this already, and b) very clear that this belief is necessary to Sereny’s purposes, not to Bell’s. Hints of this tendency toward grandiosity occur in Sereny’s earlier work: “You are quite dangerous,” she quotes Speer as telling her, and although I am not familiar with the Stangl book, she believes, according to the reviews, that his admission of guilt to her killed him. (He died the day after they completed the interviews.) Perhaps this kind of moral vanity–and that’s almost too mild a word if you believe that your powers as a confessor are such that you can both kill and heal–is a necessary precondition for nerving yourself up to even attempt an answer to the question of why children (or adults for that matter) kill. I was reminded, while reading Cries Unheard, of Cynthia Ozick’s 1997 New Yorker essay on the legacy of Anne Frank, in which she criticizes Otto Frank’s emphasis on the line in his daughter’s diary that reads, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” commenting that this line has become Anne Frank’s message, “whether or not such a credo could have survived the camps.” Seeing as Otto Frank was a survivor, and the commentator is not, I would say that evidently it could. My point is, I guess, that there is something about this kind of subject that lends a gravity to those who address it that causes them, and us, to confuse the importance of the comment with the importance of the experience, thus exempting the results from certain standards of thought and evidence. It is the curse of the op-ed page, and I thought it was the undoing of this book.