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Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell

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In 1968, at the age of eleven, Mary Bell was tried, and convicted, of manslaughter after the death of two small boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Her friend, and neighbour, thirteen-year-old, Norma Bell, no relation, was acquitted. Gitta Sereny attended the trial, and spent the next two years researching, and writing, what has become a classic study, The Case of Mary Bell. Over the years, however, she came to realize that if we are ever to understand the pressures which bring a child to commit serious crimes, only they, when adult, can tell us.

Twenty-seven years after her conviction, and her sentence of detention for life, after her mother's death, Mary Bell agreed to talk about her harrowing childhood, her two terrible acts nine weeks apart, her public trial, and her twelve years of detention - seven of them, beginning when she was sixteen, in a maximum security women's prison.

Nothing she said in the five months of intensive talks with Gitta Sereny was intended, or can be taken, as an excuse for her crimes: she herself rejects all mitigation. But the story of her life forces the reader to ponder society's responsibility for children at breaking point. It challenges our willingness to commit ourselves to the prevention of violent acts such as Mary committed. It is a clarion call to review our system of justice, and punishment, as it applies to the most needy amongst us - our children at risk.

Cries Unheard is a brilliant tour de force, meticulously piecing together the terribly damaged life of Mary Bell, who only as an adult, and loving parent herself, grew to realize the moral enormity of her crimes. But it is not an isolated tragedy. There are thousands of children in prison across Europe, and in America. And in Britain, where punitive justice for children is most formalized, recent cases such as the murder of James Bulger show the urgency for our attention, our compassion, and our action.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Gitta Sereny

20 books122 followers
Gitta Sereny was an Austrian born journalist, biographer and historian. She passed away in England aged 91, following a long illness.

Gitta attributed her fascination with evil to her own experiences of Nazism as a child of central Europe in the early 20th century. Hers was not a happy childhood. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a beautiful Austrian actress, whom she later described as "without moral opinions", and a wealthy Hungarian landowner. Her father, Gyula, died when she was a child; her elder brother left home at 18 and disappeared from her life; Gitta herself was sent to Stonar House boarding school in Sandwich, Kent, an experience she remembered with some affection.

In 1934, while changing trains in Nuremberg on a journey home from school, she witnessed the Nuremberg Rally and was profoundly moved by the beauty of the spectacle, joining in the crowd's ecstatic cheering. These favourable impressions of the Nazis survived both a reading of Mein Kampf and the 1938 Anschluss, when Hitler annexed a quiescent Austria. The grim realities of Nazism, however, soon began to affect her life in Vienna where she was, by then, a drama student.

She later described seeing a Jewish doctor she knew well being forced to clean pavements with a toothbrush; the terror became more personal after her mother, Margit, with whom Gitta had a poor relationship, became engaged to Ludwig von Mises, the Jewish economist. Von Mises had left Austria for Switzerland, but a German friend tipped Margit off that the authorities planned to arrest her to oblige him to return. Margit promptly fled to Switzerland with her daughter.

In Switzerland, Gitta was sent to a finishing school. Never accommodating to her mother's plans, she promptly absconded, first to London then to Paris. Margit and von Mises moved to the US. Gitta, eventually, was also obliged to flee, first across the Pyrenees to Spain, then to the US.

She returned to Paris four months after the war ended, to join the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working with orphans in a ravaged Europe. The framework of what was to be her life's work – the exploration of childhood trauma and the nature of evil – was in place. It was in postwar Paris, in 1948, that she met and married the photographer Don Honeyman, with whom she was to have a son and a daughter. Don, who died last year, was to prove a good humoured and profoundly supportive companion who accompanied Gitta through the long and painstaking research that became a hallmark of her work.

She also reported on the trials in Germany of Third Reich functionaries, including concentration camp staff, such as Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. . Her book on Stangl, Into That Darkness (1974), remains one of the best books on the Third Reich and established Gitta's reputation as an authority on the history of the period.

Furthermore, her book ‘Albert Speer, His Battle With Truth’ (1995), later dramatised by David Edgar at the National Theatre, repeatedly challenges Speer's contention that he too was ignorant of the fate of the Jews under the regime he had served so faithfully.

Gitta was frequently embattled, but rarely daunted. She fought a 20-year battle with the historian David Irving and was often targeted with fascist hate mail. Despite the grim nature of her subjects, Gitta was a warm and generous friend with a ready sense of humour, and she and Honeyman entertained frequently at their home in Chelsea, London. Despite her relentless psychological exploration of her subjects, she resisted all invitations to write her own autobiography, but in her late 70s she published a partial memoir in The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001 (2001). She was appointed honorary CBE in 2003, for services to journalism.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 126 reviews
Profile Image for Diane in Australia.
668 reviews789 followers
October 16, 2019
Interesting book about an interesting case. The author wrote a previous book about Mary, after the trial, and this is a follow-up, which was based on interviews with Mary, now an adult.

I felt the author truly wanted to help society figure out why kids kill, but I'm not sure she accomplished much towards that goal. She was 77 when she wrote this book (1998), she is a journalist - not a psychologist, and was probably not the best qualified to analyse Mary Bell's motives, etc. In fact, I didn't feel that Mary, as an adult herself, had much of an idea about that either. So, the author puts forth her own ideas, bounces them off Mary, and so forth.

But despite its shortcomings, if you are a true crime fan, you'll probably want to read this book - and the author's first book, too. It is a look 'inside' child murderers that we don't often get a chance to see.

3 Stars = I liked the book. I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Shaun.
Author 5 books171 followers
November 21, 2015
not written by Mary Bell and her accomplice

In a broad sense, this is the story of Mary Bell, a child serial killer who before her capture strangled two young boys.

As such the story is somewhat disturbing.

But beyond the story of Mary's crime is also the story of an inept legal justice system that was and, to some extent, still is ill-equipped to deal with children who kill.

When an adult kills, it's much easier to assign blame. Surely, an adult has the ability to distinguish right from wrong, to fully comprehend and appreciate the finality of death, and has sufficient control over their impulses. But a child of eleven? Can even the brightest and most psychologically healthy children really appreciate the permanence of death, understand the difference between right and wrong, and exert the same control over their emotions that we feel an adult should have?

Sereny's book (the second she wrote on Mary Bell's story) addresses the nature of evil and what motivates someone, in this case a child, to murder. It also begs us to consider whether monsters are born or if they are made. And perhaps even more importantly, does one have to be a monster to commit a monstrous crime. It also addresses the inadequacies of a criminal justice system that is set up to deal with adults. She seems to feel that what happened to Mary is almost as horrendous as what happened to her victims.

Some thoughts...

Like many books that tell a murder's story, this book seems overly sympathetic with the killer, at times minimizing the heinousness of the crime and the pain and suffering of the victims and their families. I always feel that this is unfortunate, but ultimately unavoidable.

So while a true crime book, this is much more than a true crime book as the crime really is not the focus (or not the entire focus), although its relevance is central to the discussion.

Profile Image for Jimmy.
512 reviews711 followers
July 15, 2009

In 1968: an eleven year old girl named Mary Bell killed two boys (ages 3 and 4). The courts tried her, found her guilty, put her in jail until she was in her 20's. This book revisits her case years after she was released from jail and tries to figure out why she did it, what her life was like before she committed this crime, and whether she really understood the gravity of what she did at the time. I don't want to give any of it away, but I was so engrossed that I wanted to read the whole thing in one sitting... I couldn't only because it was so overwhelming: at times so depressing, at other times funny and even joyful. I had to take breathers because it was so intense.

I really felt for Mary Bell and totally rooted for her the whole time. The author does a good job of bringing out the various threads of the story. She's compassionate and understanding, but also she makes it clear that none of this is an excuse for the crime itself. She makes the case that when a child commits a horrible crime like this, the court's job is not only to say whether she was guilty of the crime or not, but also to ask why a child would do this? And to help the child psychologically with their problems. A child does not commit a crime like this because they are evil. It is usually a sign of some disturbing realities at home. To ignore this is to make the problem worse.

I found that Mary Bell was (predictably) messed up, but what surprised me was how strong she was as well, and how positively she looked at life despite everything that happened to her. This was a wonderful read.
Profile Image for Brittany.
Author 10 books8 followers
January 15, 2008
This book about child killer, Mary Bell, is one of the saddest true stories I've ever read. Because of my own tragic childhood, I could connect with this poor little girl on a deeper level. It really emphasizes that old saying: There but for the grace of God, go I. Very chilling.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,272 reviews557 followers
September 17, 2014
Terrible, and dated psychology analysis from the get-go coupled with jumbled and scattered writing. I almost gave it a 1 star, and I did skim the last half because she was so redundant. This author would have produced a better work by writing the long term adult story of Mary Bell in 1/3rd of this length instead of preaching her own bias and rewriting the first book. The second star was for the locale of Newcastle societal information for the late 1960's, especially common family, community neighborhood cultural habits/social structure.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,456 followers
September 28, 2007
Brilliant examination of a very compelling case. Completely interesting on a great many levels. The book itself because a huge scandal on its serialisation and publication, when it became known that the grown up Mary Bell had received payment for her participation, which was another whole level of remarkableness.
Profile Image for Danie Tanaka.
48 reviews41 followers
April 30, 2014
Cries Unheard... Until it was too late.

When this book was first released, it created a massive controversy over criminals profiting from their crimes in the nation where this story really happened: Britain. I can only surmise that those whom so vigorously felt that way didn't even read the book. Not long ago, I got my hands on a first edition American Version of the book published in 1999 from a thrift store.

This book is the horrific story of tragedy. When a child of barely 11 years old strangles two young boys between the ages of 3-4 the mob mentality kicked in. Everyone rushed to put away the monstrous little girl who could do such vile acts without ever thinking or asking what on earth caused this child to act out in this way? Instead she became a living incarnate of the "Bad Seed". A child simply born evil.

The Book Cries Unheard by Gitta Sereny looks at the entire picture of the phenomenon that is Mary Bell, who is often billed as the world's youngest serial killer. A misnomer if there ever was one since Mary Bell was released in 1980 and has never re-offended in the slightest way while it is a fact true serial murderers are incapable of stopping (often knowing they under police surveillance...or at least suspicion).

This was one of the best books I've ever read on the subject of child murder and child murderers. The author gives us a full biographical account of the child's life into womanhood. In the case of Mary Bell, to know what happened in her young life to lead her to act out the way she did is essential to understanding why and how she ended up killing two young boys. Some children have hellish childhoods and are able to cope. They go on and live reasonably normal lives. When children murder (in the WAY) Mary Bell did, you can't look at a child who doesn't have the capacity to fully understand what it was they did as you would even a child a few years older. We all know maturity and understanding grows in leaps and bounds in those years.

This book was incredible with its indictment on the system. The system failed Mary Bell and through that failed her victims. Starting as a baby she suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of her mother. Her mother Betty had tried to give her away to strangers but refused to allow her more stable family members adopt her. Betty worked as a prostitute from possibly even before Mary was born. She specialized in giving her clients unique 'experiences'. Some of those were her being a dominatrix and forcing her young daughter to have oral sex with her clients. Also allowing her to get beat during these sessions. In fact her mother practiced Erotic Asphyxiation on her clients till they passed out in Mary's presence while also subjecting her to the same strangling that would cause her to lose consciousness. This left Mary with a belief that when you strangle someone to the point of losing consciousness, they will wake up as she had and seen others do countless times!

The end point of this abuse dovetails with what a young girl did, to two boys younger and weaker than herself. It is completely probable that as she strangled these boys she didn't understand she was killing them. She had been subjected to the same strangling where she woke back up. But there is something else that culminated in these murders. A young girl had been acting out for months begging for attention so someone would take her away from her mother. No one noticed until they finally realized she killed two young boys. By that time nobody cared that in the most final and horrific way she was seeking attention to get away! No one labeled her mother what she was: a sexual abuser who prostituted her own daughter, drugged her in the presence of other people by mixing sedatives with her candy, physically abusive! Mary was the bad seed with no one realizing she was reacting to the home she had to grow up in.

None of this absolves of her or excuses her crimes. The child needed to be put into a mental institution to get help for the trauma she was subjected to rather put into a reformatory school till she was 16 that indeed CHANGED her life, making her a better human being (all that needed to be done was for them to take her mother away and replace a stable set of individuals to teach the maturing girl how to behave in society 11-16). But throwing a 16 year old with her trauma into a women's prison was vengeance on behalf of a world that couldn't see Mary Bell wasn't BORN evil, nor inherently evil at all!! In fact she was created. Prison could have totally regressed her. Luckily those years in an also unsuitable Reformatory School taught her how to live correctly as a good person.

So you see this story is controversial for many, many reasons. It cuts open for the world to see what happens when someone like Mary at such a young an age commits the ultimate crime how unprepared we truly are to handle it as a society-- be it Britain or the USA. Something happened to these children to cause them to act this way and we should be exceptionally thankful that the murderous reaction to unbearably inhuman abuse by children is rare (at least while they are STILL children.) These factors are common in the childhoods of real serial killers. But this is why I don't consider Mary a 'serial killer' in the truest sense since true ones are like sharks that can never stop devouring. Mary needed structure, then she needed help to move on with her life. If somehow at 11 years old she had some sort of murderous impulse, it wasn't like what we see with male or female serial killers the world over who lose control of those impulses at some point or another. For Mary, it stopped being an issue once she left the custody of extremely abusive mother.

The book is debated ethically for many reasons. One being Mary Bell was paid for participation. I understand the anger of the victims family's. At the same time it is hard for me personally to see Mary Bell getting paid for her painful, excruciatingly abusive life that culminated in the murders of two young boys as on the level of a callous murderer looking to profit off what he did. There is nothing in common in this book with say Ian Brady's arrogant "Gates of Janus" where he in a Ted Bundy arrogance tries to tell the world who he is as such an incredible expert in serial murder.

Cries Unheard is an astoundingly poignant book that rips open the tragedy that befell everyone involved. In order to understand it, you had to know... you had to have the details from Mary Bell herself. She opened herself to examination is ways few of us would dare even without her past. Yet Mary's story is vitally important for understanding what causes children to kill (and if they grow up without intervention...reveals the personal horrors driving them). Maybe the saddest part of all is in order for Mary to end her abuse, she had to commit soul ripping acts of horror herself to get the attention she had been trying to get for a long time acting out. In fact she may have aggressively, been reenacting the erotic asphyxiation that she witnessed her mother perform on clients and was performed on her.

Mary has grown up into a rather normal woman no doubt to being taken away from her mother's influences (as much as possible, her mother used the press to further her daughters image as evil murder for money while in reformatory and prison--she was never above USING her own child. Especially since no one called her out as the creator, except the author of this book and a book on the case before it). Mary has now become a grandmother! She has never done ANYTHING illegal again (she is on a strict parole for life).

I think before people damn this book they should read it. I found myself aching for two little boys who paid the price for Mary's mothers sins. And maybe for the failure of society to help them all.

The only part of the book that I didn't particularly care for were the author's 'solutions' to this problem of abuse that results in these acts of murder. In her view all children should be given over to the government for raising so parents just can't have the opportunity to commit vile acts of abuse. While it is true no one can really understand what goes on behind their neighbor's closed doors... The answer is not allowing the state to have control. The fact of the matter is most of the time family's love their offspring and make mistakes. You open up the can of worms that an UNLOVING institutional government agency can do better than the majority of parents is not only naive, it's stupid. We have to believe in the sanctity of family. The issue is reporting. In the book the author often sites that lots of people KNEW Mary Bell wasn't being treated well even if they didn't know the full extent. An abusive mother who is a prostitute, I think it's perfectly fine to report that situation to the authorities. Especially when the woman's family closes ranks behind her trying to hide her shortcomings and even abuses. Regardless of how totally niave and unrealistic the author's conclusions are on how to handle children with troubled backgrounds the book is amazing. And more amazing because in the end the young girl, at the center of it all made a recovery into the integration back into society. It will just never cease to hurt ones heart what had to happen for someone to take notice of the tragedy brewing until it was spilling over in the streets of her neighborhood.
Profile Image for Katherine Addison.
Author 16 books2,799 followers
December 27, 2015
Unheard Cries is both problematic and frustrating. Its subject is Mary Bell, who murdered two little boys in 1968, when she was eleven, and who subsequently got dragged through the British justice system in ways that Sereny is quite right to want to protest. My problems with the book are not with that part, or with Sereny's general point that child criminals are very badly served by adult legal systems. My problems are with her discussion of Mary Bell's crimes and what caused them.

Sereny displays a dreadful historical naivete: "The uncertainties of our moral and--yes--spiritual values have caused a fracture in the bulwark of security with which earlier generations protected children from growing up prematurely" (370), which I think contributes to her failure to interrogate the question of classism in Mary Bell's biography as rigorously as she needed to. There are a number of other questions that she doesn't pursue as far as she should (and she irritates me by hinting at things), but the real flaw in the book is the other little girl.

Norma Bell (no relation) was Mary's best friend. She seems to have had nothing to do with the first murder, but everything to do with the second, and I really wanted Sereny to talk about that shift in a meaningful way--even just to talk about the transition for Mary from her first murder (which she committed alone and for which, you could make a pretty good case, she did not have a clear understanding that death was irrevocable) to her second (which she committed with Norma either as a participant or an audience, and which she did know was murder and permanent).

Sereny wants to generalize from Mary Bell to all children who kill (as her nested subtitles suggest), and while I think that's reasonable when talking about their treatment by the justice system (as in, one may safely generalize from Mary Bell's specific case to say that better protocols need to be in place), I'm not convinced that all children come to murder by Mary Bell's path. And I'm not sure that the commonality Sereny wants to argue for (that children who kill are all victims of prolonged and serious abuse) is actually as useful as the obverse difference: why do all child abuse victims not become child murderers? The question may sound glib, but I'm perfectly serious. What enables some people to resist doing evil, while others cannot or do not?
Profile Image for Andrea Hickman Walker.
755 reviews30 followers
September 9, 2010
This was truly disturbing. Not only the fact that she killed the two boys, which is integral to the book, but not what the book is about. The book is about what led up to her killing the boys [after all, what would drive a child to kill an unknown toddler?] and what happened to her afterwards. At what age do children become criminally responsible - which means they are tried in an adult court. In Scotland, it's as young as 8. How is a child that young supposed to understand why it's there and what's going on? If the child's only contact with a psychologist is a brief meeting where they decide whether or not the child can tell right from seriously wrong, how can they possibly make any judgements on the child? How can they convict one child as guilty and another as not-guilty simply because the one has a loving family and the other doesn't?

One would hope that since Mary Bell was convicted in 1968 that the system had radically changed with new, progressive knowledge. At the time this book was published [1999] it hadn't. After all - who cares about the people [adults and children] that aren't happy and whole. If they're damaged, just push them away and ignore them... Like I said, this is a very distubring book. I never realised that there are actually people who completely deny the existence of paedophilia. If you're squeamish, don't read it. It's not particularly gruesome or gory, but I couldn't put it down and every time I did [even when I finished it] I was miserable and depressed about the state of the world and wanted nothing more than to hide in the bed and cry.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Gabriela Salvático.
2 reviews1 follower
June 9, 2020
A história é muito interessante. A leitura vale para aqueles que gostam de histórias reais, crimes e psicologia. Contudo, não gostei da abordagem e forma de escrita da autora. Achei a redação confusa e a forma que ela apresenta as lembranças de Mary Bell um pouco bagunçada. Além disso, percebi alguns erros na tradução do livro.
Profile Image for Will.
479 reviews1 follower
June 17, 2021
‘Er zijn veel mensen in onze maatschappij die een kind als Mary een ‘monster’ noemen en daarmee zowel het kind verdoemen als zichzelf vrijpleiten van verantwoordelijkheid voor hun lot. Als het verhaal van Mary al een doel heeft, dan is het dat het veranderen van die opvatting, het veranderen van de toekomst - voor al onze kinderen.’

Profile Image for Tati Lopatiuk.
Author 15 books62 followers
December 3, 2020
Um livro brutal e honesto, que traz uma investigação profunda, de anos, para tentar nos ajudar a entender o motivo de crianças cometerem crimes como assassinatos. Apesar do tema pesado, a narrativa fluida da história torna esse livro impossível de parar de ler.
66 reviews1 follower
September 30, 2018
This book is actually a two hander, the first (and major) section deals with the killing of two toddlers by schoolgirl Mary Bell in 1968. Sereny, in her formal, school headmistress tone, dissects the killings and, rather than plaster bland and cheap sentiments onto Bell (and her friend Norma Bell, who played a lesser part in the killings, perhaps acting as an enabler) Seveny takes a microscopic look at Mary's formative years and her dreadful upbringing.

The murders are gone over in some detail, as is the subsequent trial but Seveny steps in to fill the void that others wouldn't or couldn't, by looking at the family life of Mary.

So, rather than the worn trope of 'monster' or 'born evil' Seveny actually humanises the girl and perhaps explains part of the reason why she ended up as she did. No doubt the masses want easily digestible answers and are happy with tabloid level indignation but, as always, these sad incidents are the end of a long and sad road, these killers do not commit their crimes without some precursor or lead-in.

The background is intensely interesting, Mary's mother had huge issues after her father died when she was young and she became a seeker of sensation, disappearing for weeks, months and sometimes a year at a time to play out other lives in distant towns. Mary learnt, from a young age to manipulate and connive, she was a very bright girl whose upbringing led her leanings and energies towards darker thoughts. On four occasions during her young years, Mary's mother almost killed Mary, through neglect, indifference or manifest action. The most disturbing episode narrated concerned her mother holding Mary over a sink in an upstairs flat to urinate and the child falling from an open window, her life was only saved when a male relative bound across the kitchen to grab her as she was upside and pitching out of the window. Small wonder, then, that Mary was never destined to become a stable child from a secure home.

The reactions recorded by the multitude of police officers (invariably women in those days) who looked after Mary before and during were also interesting. Some of the officers utterly despised her and others found her very endearing. It seemed that she prompted outpourings of affection in many who knew her but some people felt they were being tricked into giving this affection and they seemed to dislike Mary because of it.

Depressingly, Seveny's revisit of this book came at the tale end of the Bulger killing, 25 years later and, one would hope, a more enlightened world. But, no, the problems plaguing Mary and her family seem to be no less formidable and intense than those facing families at the tail end of the millenium.

Seveny is a very erudite writer and brings a social work perspective on these crimes. This makes for an engaging read as the insights she offers are arresting in their clarity. To quote:

"Unhappiness in children is never innate, it is created by the adults they 'belong to': there are adults
in all classes of society who are immature, confused, inadequate, sick, and, under given and
unfortunate circumstances, their children will reflect, reproduce and often pay for the miseries of
the adults they need and love. Children are not evil."

This book is a very worthwhile read.
149 reviews
Want to read
July 27, 2010
From Reading Matters: Gitta Sereny is an Austrian-born British-based journalist who has spent much of her career writing about moral culpability. She wrote an amazingly detailed but completely fascinating biography about Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, and a similar one about Franz Stangl, the commandent of the Treblinka extermination camp. But it is this book about Mary Bell, an 11-year-old who was tried and convicted of manslaughter of two young boys in the late 1960s, that sticks in my mind more than any other.

Sereny followed the case from the very beginning, including the trial and subsequent imprisonment of Bell, and was always puzzled as to the girl's motivations: what drives a young girl to carry out such horrendous acts? In 1995 she managed to convince Bell to be interviewed, and the book is a result of a year's collaboration in which Sereny manages to unearth some startling revelations.

While Sereny attracted some flak for sharing the proceeds of the book's publishing fee with Bell, this does not take away from the importance of Cries Unheard. It is a profoundly thought-provoking look at the ways in which we treat child criminals and should be read by anyone who cares for children or works with them -- in other words, all of us. I am utterly convinced that even the most hardened right-wing reader will no longer rush to cast judgement about child crime once they've read Bell's incredibly sad story.

1 review
February 21, 2008
This is a really hard book to read due to the content. I picked it up with the intention of reading something that I disagreed with to see if it could sway my opinion. It did. Obviously I don't glorify children who kill by any means, but it does shed light on the other side of the story. This book broke my heart but it was so intriguing that I read it in one night.
138 reviews
January 22, 2012
I first have to confess that I love true-crime, the more disturbing the better, though I do demand a certain level of literary-ness. This one seemed to fit the bill. But this is one of those books that you keep reading and hoping it will get better. It did not. Now I just feel annoyed at how much time I wasted. It was really just a book about prison life.
Profile Image for Jenny.
104 reviews3 followers
May 31, 2017
This book was endlessly fascinating from a psych perspective. Mary is clearly a sociopath but her descriptions and memories are from a traumatized child's point of view. If you enjoy psychological true crime, this is a must.
Profile Image for Stephanie (Stepping Out Of The Page).
465 reviews222 followers
July 21, 2020
Cries Unheard tells the story of Mary Bell, a girl who was only eleven years old when she was convicted of murdering two boys - aged 3 and 4. Most of my knowledge about Mary Bell comes from my grandmother who lived in the same area as Bell at the time of her crimes and knew both Bell and the victims families. The other knowledge comes from one TV documentary and the small amount of information about the case which is on the internet. Due to the locality of the case, I'm always wanting to learn more about it and this seems to be the most comprehensive book available about Bell. I have also been told that this book caused quite the stir in my hometown of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

This is the second book that Gitta Sereny has written about Mary Bell, the first being The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child who Murdered, which is referenced throughout this one.
Quite honestly, the first book seems referenced a little too much - despite thankfully including all necessary information to the case and even including some excerpts. I did briefly consider reading the first book but in all honesty, after reading this one, I don't feel the need to - it doesn't seem like there's much more to learn. The book contains a lot of information about Mary Bell both before, during and, mostly, after her conviction which was good - I felt like we got a good insight into all aspects of her life. The book did have a good amount of information and I am glad I read it as I did find it interesting and I learnt a lot about Mary's life, the murders, the court trial and what happened afterwards. I am fairly confident I now have a good firm knowledge of the case, but of course, I can't be sure that everything that I read was true. I am pleased that there were conversations with more reputable sources mentioned in the book - such as Bell's psychologist and mentors - which I am much more inclined to believe.

This is somewhat of a biography of Bell, written by Sereny but interspersed with direct quotes from conversations with Bell after her release. The purely factual parts of the book and the information about Newcastle in the late 60's seems accurate and interesting. I think Sereny did a great job of setting the scene of the murders in the first half of the book and was especially good at describing what working class life in Scotswood was like. The first section of the book was a useful, informative account of the crime.

In the second half of the book, it was certainly interesting to get insight about Mary and her life from the woman herself, to see how she communicates and thinks, but the problem about that is that she seems to be a prolific liar - something that is made clear in the book and can actually become quite frustrating. We read pages and pages of Bell's recollections, only for them to often then be quickly disproven by people that have been responsible for her care. It was very hard to understand what to believe about Mary and to be honest, the author didn't help. Despite her brief protestations, I also often felt like she seemed overly sympathetic to Bell and had been somewhat 'drawn in' by her. Sereny offers a lot of opinions on Bell's psychological state, none of which seem significant due to the sense of bias and the fact that Sereny is purely a journalist - not a psychiatrist, psychologist or criminologist.

My main issue with this book was that, at points, it felt very disjointed. Although there is some sort of intended chronology in the book, the author has a tendency to jump around the timescale. I was particularly bewildered as to why Sereny decided to address Bell's early life at the end of the book - it would have made far more sense to include it at the beginning and it would've really helped to develop an understanding of Mary's actions and personality. I actually believe that I may have seen the whole situation in a different perspective if she had included that information at the beginning.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with several aspects of Cries Unheard but as aforementioned, I did also find it interesting and gained a lot of knowledge about Mary Bell and her life so far - I am glad that I read it despite its faults. If you're particularly interested in this case or are interested in what happens after a child is convicted of murder in the UK, this is worth a read.
Profile Image for Thais Lima .
65 reviews
June 4, 2020
A história é pesada! Chorei ao ler os relatos e nunca, em toda a minha vida esperaria ler o que li sobre a infância dessa menina! Claro que, o que ela fez foi extremamente grave, mas toda a dor e traumas causados diretamente a ela dos 4 aos seus 8 anos de idade é simplesmente imperdoável, selvagem e desumano!!!
A conclusão deste livro é interessante demaaaais e te coloca pra pensar em diversas questões.
Infelizmente, não tenho estrutura emocional para ler absolutamente mais nada a respeito dessa história, mas valeu a pena!!!
July 19, 2017
Parts of it read like a psychology textbook and some of it was so jumbled I'd have to reread the section to understand what the author was trying to say. Still, it was interesting to get to the reason behind the crimes and what happened to her afterwards.
Profile Image for xoSammiDxo.
8 reviews
July 18, 2016
To the Author: A beautiful piece of work with immeasurable intentions of good and change for the system dealing with children that commit violent crimes. But the result far reaches beyond into our society as a whole, or humanity, actually, lack there of it. I can't imagine the task of creating of this work and it was done with grace, compassion, wisdom, patience, and tenderness.

To Mary: Who is described throughtout the book as intelligent and articulate must be very much so, extremely intelligent and articulate indeed. But also must be brave in order to open herself and expose such gut wrenching emotion to Mrs. Sereny. I am so very sorry that society has done nothing except reject and hurt you from the moment you were born and has refused to let up for even one moment. But you did succeed and you did overcome and your daughter thanks you and I as well.

Regarding the book: This is an important piece and everyone should read it. So much is exposed from the vulnurability of children, to being a girl in this male dominated, sexually driven world, to becoming a woman, to finding ways to survive in this inhumane society we revel ourselves in every day. Mary Bell was often referred to as a "monstor", what kind of monstor allows a child to be held in the hands of a woman capable of the things Betty Bell was capable of. Well - we did - our society, the way it is structured and our acceptance of that structure, we all play our part don't we? And let us not forget, Betty Bell, also once a child, obviously had her own demons and secrets. It's a vicious cycle you see, so many cries unheard.

What I learned: Too much to write in this simple review, but what stands out most in my mind is the following: taking on and making a difference in the lives of children that need stability and help from people aside from their parents takes great sacrifice. In fact, the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of ones own life. And the ones that came across Mary, well, none of them, though caring greatly for her, gave her that did they? In the end, it all came down to their own lives and moving on. Is this selfishness or is this just simply how our society operates? We need a change perhaps. I am not qualified to provide answers, only idealogies. These children are our children, part of our future, our world - we need to take care of them. We should no longer expect people, complex as we are, to fend for themselves. Our society must be structured in a way that we take care of each other or our society will ultimately fail. I cannot stop looking at the little face of young Mary Bell, who I do not believe was born evil; I believe she was born into resentment, chaos, and abuse and the result was only more resentment, chaos, and abuse. Nothing but sadness surrounding this case, a never ending sadness for everyone involved and not one soul willing to relieve the victims from their sadness.
Profile Image for Kevin Walsh.
27 reviews2 followers
June 2, 2014
Mary Flora Bell at the age of 11, strangled to death two little boys in Scotswood, an inner-city suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne. She was convicted in December 1968 of the manslaughter of Martin Brown (aged four) and Brian Howe (aged three). In this book Gitta Sereny controversially collaborates with Mary to provide a thought provoking biography that sheds some light on one of the most infamous child-killers of the 20th century.

I went into this book not having read her other book on the case (The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered). The book was well written with a relatively easy to read journalistic style of writing. The book is structured in a way that Gitta writes a factual summery of a period of time which is followed by the reflective memory of Mary ad those who worked with her. I have two main criticism of Gitta, one is that there is almost an air of hero worship in the tone of her writing, this could be because she has spent so much time covering the case. The second is how she related the lack of religious faith to the fall of morality. If you need the fear of hell to behave in a good way then you’re not the nicest of people to begin with.

Mary comes across as a really articulate and intellectual, especially considering her start in life and the time spent in the system. One thing that strikes me as really interesting is her writing ability which can be seen in her letters.

The inadequacies of the UK judicial system, when it comes to youth offenders, is shocking. There was a clear bias by all involved to put the blame on Mary while Norma Joyce Bell was treated with protective gloves. From where she was held on remand to the way the prosecutor omitted evidence. It may be controversial to say but the evidence shows that Norma played on her ‘slow’ status.

There seems to have been many opportunity to remove Mary from her mother’s care and i can’t help but think how different life would have been for her and more importantly for Martin Brown and Brian Howe.

Reading this book with an open mind and the belief that there must be something that has happened to these children to make them commit these horrendous crimes. I must admit that I now stand by this view with even more conviction. This does not take away from the horror and torment she caused to those two children and their families. The revelations about Mary’s childhood and the physical, mental, and most of all, disgusting sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her prostitute mother. Her mother, Betty, clearly demonstrates a clear narcissistic tendency of needing to be the centre of attention and this came at the cost of Mary’s parental ‘safety blanket’.

Overall it is a really interesting book which shows how not everything is black and white when it comes to these cases.

I give it 4 out of 5.
Profile Image for Aidan.
288 reviews24 followers
April 24, 2017
Where to even begin with this? The story of Mary Bell's life is so unspeakably tragic that it's difficult for me to put into words. I first heard of her when I was a teenager; heard that she had killed two little boys, had later asked to see the first one in his coffin, and that she had carved her initials into the second victim's skin. But Mary's story, as Gitta Sereny shows, did not begin with these slayings, and it certainly did not end there. Sereny, who covered Mary's trial along with the co-accused child (who would later walk free), sensed that beneath the surface, this "bad seed" was a tremendously troubled, and probably abused, child. She has compiled 30 years of court and medical records and conducted extensive interviews with Mary and nearly everyone else of relevance to her life: family, friends, psychiatrists, parole officers, lawyers, to get the answer to the reason WHY Mary had been compelled to kill and how she rebuilt her life when she was eventually released after 12 years of detention. It comforts me to know that as much as Mary suffered, she now lives as normal a life as possible with her partner and her child, to whom she has always been a doting and supportive mother. Sereny ends Mary's tragic story with recommendations for trying and housing children who kill, with the outcome of rehabilitating them rather than slamming the cell door closed on them forever. This is entirely horrifying and fascinating, a story of redemption and a cautionary tale.
Profile Image for Danny Cassar.
48 reviews2 followers
August 29, 2015
I never heard of this case or saw this book ever. My boyfriend just randomly bought it for me for my 21st birthday and I though oh its another biography! But I was definitely wrong! This brought tears to my eyes from the first page. I could feel Mary's suffering. It is a truly sad story, from her childhood throughout her life in prison and after prison! It shows how truly the system was failed and never looked through the life of the child to see why Mary did what she did. I would like to say that the author did a tremendous job in her research for this book, to truly show the failing system in those days and why children kill at such a young age. I can say that I finished reading this book thinking that Mary Bell was put to be seen as a monster when she truly was not. She was just a child, trying to rebel from her suffering childhood she had! I hope that finally Mary Bell, thanks to Gitta Sereny, can now be seen as a person who suffered and did not know better than to kill those 2 innocent children. She is truly not a monster but a child who suffered and made her suffer even more by sending her to prison instead of finding out what truly made her that way! Thank you Gitta Sereny :)

Profile Image for Ellis Amdur.
Author 44 books40 followers
January 15, 2015
In 1968, Mary Bell, then eleven, killed two small children. She was seen, then, as the personification of evil. This book was written twenty-seven years later, and it will gouge a hole in your heart – how a child could be so brutalized and ripped by her upbringing that murder in turn seems to be all that she had left. This story is also one of redemption, one that shows in at least this case, that even those we believe to be the worst are often not. This should lead the reader to at least ask if the current trend in punishment of children as if they are adults makes any sense at all. Not well written, though with honorable intent, the subject transcends the writer's skill. A heartbreaking, important book.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
10 reviews28 followers
March 18, 2013
Interesting and ultimately disturbing look at the case of Mary Bell. I would say that this book is a must read for anyone interested in the Mary Bell case, if for no other reason than the fact that the author had some first hand access to Mary - something few authors or journalists ever accomplished. While the book does answer some questions about what made Mary tick (a lot of the blame is placed on her Mother and rightly so, which is made obvious as the facts of Marys young life unfold), many others are left unanswered. However, we are left with the impression that somehow this is just the way Mary, now a Mother herself, wants it to stay. An interesting book, from any angle.
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