(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Cries Unheard is Gitta Sereny’s account of the life of Mary Bell, who was convicted at age eleven of murdering four-year-old Martin Brown and three-year-old Brian Howe in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1968. As a reporter at Mary’s trial, Sereny became interested in the crimes and published an account of the events, The Case of Mary Bell, in 1972. Her fascination with Mary did not diminish over the next thirty years. Although never doubting Mary’s guilt, she was appalled at the way adult justice was administered to such a young child. The author also felt that an examination of Mary’s experience with Britain’s criminal justice system could produce invaluable insight into the difficult issue of juvenile crime. In 1995 Sereny persuaded Mary to talk with her and conducted an extensive, often painful, interview with the forty-one-year-old Bell which extended over a two-year period.

The publication of Cries Unheard, however, caused nearly as much commotion in Britain as did the crimes themselves. When word reached the press that the author had given a portion of her publisher’s advance to Bell, there was a public outcry against criminals profiting from their crimes. Even the prime minister condemned the action. The uproar was such that the press managed to ferret out Mary Bell, her partner, and her child, all of whom had been living quietly under assumed names, and force Mary to reveal her identity and history to her daughter, who was unaware of her mother’s past.

Despite the controversy generated by Cries Unheard, Sereny stands by her work. As she states, “Not one word Mary Bell has ever said to me, not one word I have written, can be interpreted as an excuse for what she did.” The book neither sensationalizes the crime nor excuses the perpetrator, focusing not so much on the crime itself as on Mary’s detention and the causes of her behavior. In the book, Mary Bell “tells us what she did and what she felt, what was done to her and also for her, and what she became.” She struggles to recall the circumstances of the murders, her imprisonment, and her incredibly painful early childhood. Neither Sereny nor Bell ever attempts to mitigate the horror of the crimes or to lessen Mary’s guilt; rather they endeavor to shed light upon the past and thereby provide answers for the future.

Mary Bell’s crimes first came to light on May 25, 1968, when the body of four- year-old Martin Brown was found in an abandoned building in Newcastle upon Tyne. Martin’s death was considered a tragic accident until the body of three-year-old Brian Howe was found in a field nearby nine weeks later. This death was clearly not an accident. The toddler had marks on his neck and small stab wounds on his body; he had been strangled to death. On August 7, eleven-year-old Mary Bell and her thirteen-year-old neighbor, Norma Bell (no relation), were charged with the murder of Brian Howe, and later that of Martin Brown.

It quickly became apparent at the girls’ trial that the responsibility for the boys’ deaths would fall solely upon Mary Bell. Although each girl accused the other of the crimes, it was clear that Norma was not present when Martin Brown was killed, and that Mary was the instigator in the death of Brian Howe. Norma, as portrayed by her lawyer and perceived by the court, was slow and rather pathetic, while Mary was clearly bright, unremorseful, and unintimidated by the proceedings. The prosecution labeled Mary “vicious,” “cruel,” and “terrifying,” and even the judge called her “wicked.” The press referred to her as a “freak of nature,” “evil born,” and a “bad seed.” She was diagnosed by two court-appointed psychiatrists (who knew little of her background) as a “psychopath.” Norma, thought to be following Mary’s lead in the crimes, was found not guilty, while Mary was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to detention for life.

The court was faced with the problem of where to detain an eleven-year-old girl convicted of manslaughter. After some deliberation, she was finally sent to Red Bank Special Unit, the high-security area of a boys’ reform school. This special unit was run by former naval officer James Dixon and housed twenty- six adolescent boys. Mary loved Mr. Dixon and did well during her five years...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)