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In 1968, at the age of eleven, Mary Bell was tried and convicted of murdering two small boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Even before she came to court, Mary Bell was demonized as the incarnation of evil, the bad seed personified. But Gitta Sereny, who covered the sensational trial, never accepted this explanation. Over the years, Sereny came to realize that if we are ever to understand the pressures that lead children to commit serious crimes, then we need to turn to the adults who once were those children.
Twenty-seven years after her conviction, Mary Bell agreed to talk to Sereny about her harrowing childhood, the two terrible acts committed nine weeks apart, her public trial, and her twelve years of imprisonment - to discuss what was done to her and what she did, who she was and who she became. Nothing she said in five months of intensive talks was intended to excuse her crimes: she herself rejects all mitigation. But Mary Bell's devastating story forces us all to ponder society's responsibility for children at the breaking point.
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In 1968, cases like that of Mary Bell were almost unheard of. Two little boys were dead, and the two accused killers, Mary Bell and Norma Bell (no relation), were 11 and 13. Norma was acquitted, but Mary was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Almost 30 years after her conviction, Mary Bell was able to tell her story, from her troubled childhood to her eventual release from prison as an institutionalized young woman and her awkward attempts to build a life for herself in a hostile world.
In Cries Unheard, Gitta Sereny coaxes out Mary's story without becoming an apologist. She is blunt about the brutality of these crimes, and doesn't attempt to dismiss them as the acts of an ignorant child. When Bell gives explanations that don't ring true, Sereny pushes on, refusing to accept the easy answers. The questions raised are wrenching: Can children understand the finality of death? Are they capable of evil? Did Mary Bell understand what was happening to her in the courtroom where she was declared a "bad seed," a child so innately evil that she would have to be locked away for the rest of her life? Was she responsible for her actions at all, or were those responsible for her to blame? While Cries Unheard can't answer all these questions, it dissects Bell's unthinkable acts to the point that we can almost understand them. --Lisa HigginsAbout the Author:
Gitta Sereny has written four previous books, including Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, which received the 1995 James Tait Black Biography Prize and the 1995 Duff Cooper Award. She lives in London.
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