The Book Club

The Finger-Sucking Middle Ground

Dear Chris–

Good heavens, I didn’t say I had or had not personal experience with bedwetting, arson, cat-torture, or anything else. That would just have been a gimme for the state in the event that I turn out to be wrong about the impending surveillance. I said I didn’t have expertise, by which I meant medical or psychiatric expertise. The Case of Mary Bell ends with a plea for compassion for “psychopathic children,” so I guess you could say it champions this explanation. Certainly, it doesn’t reject it. (Literally, it ends a few paragraphs later with a little anecdote about how Bell’s grandmother said a book about the case would ruin Mary’s future, and how Sereny thought of this time and again as she wrote, before concluding that if people “had known more, understood more about such deeply troubled children, need there ever have been a ‘Case of Mary Bell’?” [dramatic paragraph break] “This is why this book was written.”)

So Sereny’s interests were not wholly different then, nor was her odd habit of telling the reader why she wrote something, which I usually hope the writing itself will make plain. I agree that it’s shameful that she isn’t clear about how her interpretation has changed. She also doesn’t say boo in the first book about the injustice of Norma Bell’s acquittal, and says of the sex-abuse charge, “No one knows exactly what combination of circumstances or events made Mary make this false accusation. It is of course just possible that the accused housemaster might have made some wholly innocent gesture which Mary misinterpreted and on which her imagination began to work.”

Where do you get that Sereny distrusts narrative as somehow limiting? I would say that narrative is somehow limiting, in that it starts and ends somewhere and proceeds from a limited number of viewpoints, and I would further say that this is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, merely that it is a thing. Also, I am not sure what you mean by preemptive psychiatry. Isn’t all psychiatry preemptive? I’m no fan of this book (obviously) but I don’t think Sereny is recommending enforced foster care for finger-suckers. I thought that in her own not very well argued way, she was mainly wanting two things: more easily available mental-health care; and that the potential symptoms of childhood disturbance be more widely recognized. I don’t disagree with those aims. Whether “state interference” is justified depends not only on the level of distress being expressed, but also on the form of the state interference. That the finger-sucking, bedwetting child is on a low-ish end of the scale, certainly lower than the cat-detonating child, doesn’t mean that he or she mightn’t merit care. If I were an elementary public school teacher and I had a bedwetting, finger-sucking 11-year-old student, I might confer with the parents and refer him or her to the guidance counselor, because at the very least, these probably aren’t signs of happiness. I would hope to be well-informed enough to make the right call in context. That would be state interference, since it’s a public school, and if there were treatment, it would be preemptive in the sense that it would surely aim to prevent the condition from worsening. Would you be against that?