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.