The Book Club

Treatment’s Collateral Damage

Dear Mim,

Yes, in general I am against institutional probing of a child’s unhappiness if the parents don’t wish it–but I think our finger-sucking/cat-detonating distinction is a sound one, and I’d admit exceptions in the latter case. By “preemptive psychiatry” I mean psychiatry under coercion, where no major anti-social act has been committed. I meant to distinguish such treatment from both a) psychiatry chosen by the patient (or the patient’s parents, in the case of children); and b) coerced psychiatry after an anti-social act that establishes a state interest.

Cries Unheard shows that such probing can do damage. Mary Bell’s grandmother may have been wrong when she said a book would ruin Mary Bell’s life, but this latest book certainly ruined her domestic tranquillity. (To those who haven’t read it: A week or so after Mary Bell used the proceeds of this book to buy her first house for her family, British tabloid journalists got hold of Sereny’s phone records, located Bell, and surrounded her house.)

I cannot believe Sereny’s gall here. She spends 375 pages telling us how important a “nurturing” environment is for working through psychiatric trauma. Then she shows no misgivings about her part in allowing a siege army of tabloid scribes and paparazzi to serve as the de facto “facilitators” for Mary’s explaining her crimes to her adolescent daughter. Poor Mary. One can call this external to the treatment/book project itself, but treatment, like war, tends to create such collateral damage. That’s why both should be undertaken only to head off major, not minor, crises. (But let’s not get onto Kosovo.)

As for the distrust of narrative, the evidence is on every page. I’m not saying Sereny doesn’t proceed chronologically, only that she never paraphrases, never filters out what’s unimportant. She regurgitates information in exactly the form she receives it, so the great bulk of this book is throat clearing. Look at Page 144, where Mary’s counselors Ben and Carole G. ruminate. Ruminate on Mary, it’s true, but also on wholly extraneous matters from their own careers, complete with “and I think this goes for both of us,” “and to be honest,” “well,” “well, perhaps,” “probably quite,” “but let’s be fair.” A third of it is valuable narrative regarding Mary’s relationship with the kindly Mr. Dixon, but the rest is drivel.

The writing in general bugs me. Pardon my obstetric ignorance, but there’s some horrible event that happens at Pages 213-15 that seems to involve a doctor’s breaking of Mary’s hymen, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. Molestation? Violence? Incompetence? On Page 271, there’s Clive, who picks Mary up hitchhiking after she escapes from jail, date-rapes her, and turns her in to the police. Sereny says, “My impression was that he was a rather vulnerable young man who had been making a real effort to ‘go straight’ when he bumped into Mary” Go straight from what? Is he gay? On drugs? A criminal?

Nor does the description of Askham Grange as “a beautiful old building set on large grounds” tell us much.

I’m grateful that you read the earlier book. Interesting that Sereny used to pooh-pooh Mary’s charge of molestation by a Red Bank guard–since she clearly now finds it 100 percent credible. Do you think Sereny’s new opinion reflects her own new knowledge about Mary Bell or society’s new attitudes towards sexual abuse?