Book: Cries Unheard

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Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell

Author: Gitta Sereny
Publisher: Owl Books (NY)

What brings one child to kill another? In 1968, at age eleven, Mary Bell was tried and convicted of murdering two small boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Throughout her coverage of the sensational trial, Gitta Sereny never believed the characterizations of Bell as the incarnation of evil, the bad seed personified. If we are ever to understand the pressures that lead children to commit serious crimes, she felt, only those children, as adults, can enlighten us.

Twenty-seven years after her conviction, Mary Bell agreed to talk to Sereny about her harrowing childhood, her two terrible acts, her public trial, and her twelve years of imprisonment. Her devastating story forces us to ponder society’s responsibility for children at the breaking point, whether in Newcastle, England, or Littleton, Colorado.


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 Higgins

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