A Lifelong Power Struggle
Professor Heather Bailey
CAP 226/ What is Power?
In the spring of 1968, in the small town of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, two boys were murdered within a span of nine weeks in a violent and expressive manner. The first, Martin Brown, was found lying in an abandoned house, seemingly dead from an overdose of pills found on the scene. Investigators later proved the Brown boy was murdered, forced to ingest the pills. The second, Brian Howe, was found mutilated and dead on the “Tin Lizzie,” apparently strangled. As investigations began, Mary Bell and her friend Norma Bell (of no relation) were questioned. The girls began changing their stories to match the new knowledge they had gotten from the investigation, and eventually, Mary mentioned the uniquely bent scissors which had been found at the scene where Brian Howe’s body had been found. The knowledge Mary had of the case hinted to the investigators of her guilt. After the police took both Norma and Mary in for questioning several times, the authorities arrested the girls for the murders of the two young boys. The ensuing trial, conviction, sentence, years in prison, and eventual release for Mary Bell sculpted her into a law-abiding woman wanting nothing more than to make a life for herself. Mary utilized power during the trial over the jury, judge and onlookers. Mary’s mother utilized power, in the years before the murders, over Mary herself. The media, in the years following her sentencing, utilized power over the audiences of the various media outlets. Each of these examples stands out as separate, yet related, relationships which all affected the life of the girl-turned-woman, Mary Bell. In discussing how children’s projected innocence lightens their conviction in trials, how child abuse can potentially lead to violence, and how the influence of the media can condemn someone for actions which occurred over twenty years previously, people may come to understand Mary Bell not as the “child killer” or “psychopath” so often depicted by various adults throughout her life, but as an emotionally and psychologically damaged individual trying to find help for her problems.
When Mary Bell and her supposed accomplice Norma Bell (later proven innocent) were taken into custody to await trial, many factors affected the nature in which the trial was run; however, the young ages of the two defendants most effectively altered and shifted the trial into a much shorter, more fragile event. From the start, the girls’ appearance generated sympathy from the jury and observers. Primly dressed, the girls would often laugh aloud in the courtroom. What they found funny, Mary herself explained: “yes, I remember: we laughed. I can’t think why and what about, but whenever we looked at each other, we laughed” (Sereny 34). The joyful and oblivious mannerisms of the girls during the trial radiated a sense of innocence to those people present for the trial. The factors which fueled the seeming innocence of Norma and Mary gave the girls power over the members of the jury, the barristers, the judge, and the onlookers in the seats. While these factors were somewhat skewed toward Norma, since her appearance and family’s emotional state were much more conducive to proving her innocence than Mary’s, the people present at the trial offered both girls pity and provided them special treatment due to their young ages. The power of a child over an adult stems from the adult’s perception of the child as inherently innocent; no adult wants to believe a child is capable of such acts as murder. The jury, by the end of the trial, truly had taken the girls’ testimonies to their hearts; even though Mary obviously had led Norma in killing the boys (Norma had only been an accomplice), the verdict decided upon by the jury was light. Because of her young age, Mary Bell was found “guilty of manslaughter because of diminished responsibility” (Sereny 118) on both charges, and “the sentence of the court concurrently in respect of these two matters upon Mary Bell [was] a sentence of detention and the detention will be for life” (Sereny 120). Mary’s age of eleven, though old enough for a jury-determined murder trial, complicated the sentencing of the girl for her crimes. Society in general grants children exemption from the responsibility of their wrongdoings, since children lack awareness of morality or culpability, and therefore authority figures dole out understandably light punishments to children. The judge’s sentence on Mary Bell restricted her from living a normal life; however, the life sentence of detention excludes life in prison. On good behavior, Mary may escape the life of an inmate, and live amongst the rest of society in due time. Children often display a remarkable knowledge of the world around them; yet, their psychological state of mind requires growth in order to fully comprehend the crimes they have committed. Therefore, Mary’s power over her prosecutors and judge during her trial was one of perceived naivety, and as a result of her age and socially accepted state of psychological growth, she received a lighter sentence than had she been an adult.
Mary’s violent and tragic past no doubt influenced her actions against the two boys she murdered in fits of passion in 1968. Betty Bell, Mary’s mother, was a practicing prostitute for years. Betty conceived and birthed four children, Mary, a younger brother and two younger sisters. As a prostitute, Betty displayed poor parenting skills which put her children in danger, both from neglect and from abuse. The neglect suffered by the children at Betty’s hands allowed for dangerous circumstances to imperil the children, including ingesting pills they found in hidden places as well as in her purse. Mary was sent to the hospital over four times for near-overdose on medications and illegal substances in pill form (Sereny 327). In addition to the neglect these children experienced, Betty proved a violent parent, often hitting Mary and her brother. Physical abuse was accompanied by sexual abuse; whenever Billy Bell, Mary’s surrogate father and her siblings’ biological father, left their flat on business, Betty would subject Mary to the men she brought to their home. Used as a prop during Betty’s prostitution, Mary regarded her suffering as fate, as her own fault. In the personal interviews with Gitta Sereny, author of Cries Unheard, Mary explained, “I think I must have thought it was my fault. I had done wrong and was being punished” (Sereny 329). The only time Mary connected with Betty in a mother-daughter relationship was after the men paid and left; “she was nice to me, and she laughed. I can remember times when I had these games, I felt afterwards she loved me. I had a bag of chips and I wouldn’t get hit. I remember her then as very pretty and she didn’t call me names” (Sereny 330). The abusive relationship between Mary and her mother, though extremely unfortunate, perhaps gives a reason why Mary’s emotional state finally crumbled and she killed the two young boys. Betty, in her role as Mary’s parent, exercised power over Mary during the sexual abuse, both in a physical manner since she was stronger than the four-to-six year old and in an emotional manner since, if Mary behaved, Betty would show ‘love’ to her child. In this way, according to the Raven and French article, Betty held both reward power and coercive power over her child. By showing the love Mary so desperately wanted, Betty held power over the flow of rewards to her daughter, the very definition of reward power (French). Conversely, by having the ability to subject her daughter to physical, emotional and sexual abuse at her own hands, Betty Bell held power over the flow of punishments to Mary, the very definition of coercive power (French). Mary craved love from her mother, and the frustration which evolved because of Betty’s failure to deliver the affection possibly drove Mary to be violent. Children who undergo abuse, whether physical or sexual, often resort to “reactive abuse (abuse of other children by a victim of abuse)” (Johnson 463). The case of Mary Bell fits in well with this line of thought. In a speech delivered by John Monahan regarding violence and its causes, he stated that “most children who have been physically abused by their parents go on to be perfectly normal adults. Yet, physical abuse doubles the risk… [for] convictions for violent crime” (Monahan). Betty’s abusive power eventually compelled Mary to act out violently. The charge of “diminished responsibility” in the crimes Mary committed held true because of the abuse suffered by Mary at her mother’s hands. How can a child be culpable for an act they committed to get attention for their pains due to abuse? Simply, a child cannot be held responsible. The abuse alters their state of mind and hinders emotional and psychological growth, keeping them from making responsible decisions.
The courts granted Mary Bell anonymity after her release from prison in 1980, a rule established for “children sentenced to detention in Britain” (Sereny 378). While the rule was certainly put into effect, Mary Bell was never to benefit from it, since “her mother used every opportunity to sell sensationalist stories to the local and national press” (Sereny 378), and therefore the press sought her out. Eventually, “the tabloids and popular magazines, both British and foreign, were continuously kept aware of her” (Sereny 378). When Gitta Sereny published her book, Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell, the media jumped on it, using it as a catapult for their argument of Mary as a child killer and monster. Sereny explains that “the book’s subject and issue of payment unleashed an unprecedented paroxysm of tabloid wrath against Mary” (Sereny 379). Mary’s freedom from prison seemed an unreachable dream; having escaped from one prison, Mary found herself faced with another: the prison the media constructed for her.
The media held perceived expert power over the people heeding the media’s cries of “’child killer’ and ‘evil monster’” (Sereny 380). To explain briefly, when a principal, or authority, holds power over a subaltern, or everyman, because the subaltern recognizes the principle as an expert in a field, or holding knowledge over some subject, experts on power label the relationship as expert power (French). The media as an entity often holds legitimate knowledge on a subject; however, sometimes distortion in the favor of the media brings out false knowledge which unfairly demonizes or vilifies certain people, causes or ideas. In Mary Bell’s case, the media demonized her as a young child, and as more people listened to their arguments, the media grew into an authority on how to view Mary Bell. The power the media developed came mostly from the words they used to describe her. The words child killer evoke such evil connotations that audiences of the media would associate her with sadistic and amoral murderers of the past, unable to see through the veil the media dropped over Mary’s painful past. Semiotics, especially when at a vague and subjective level, wields a dangerous amount of power over the weak minded. As time passed, the media grew into a pseudo-legitimate institution through Mary’s story, since so many people began to view the media as an institution with valid information. The media’s grip on Mary eventually loosened, as the authorities put a stop to the leak of information. Mary was given freedom, once again, and was allowed to live as normal a life as she was able.
The ironic twist involving Mary and her relationship with the government of Britain stemmed from the media and its powerful hold on her. Whereas at first the government held Mary in its own grip, keeping her in prison and detention for her childhood wrongdoings, the government shifted to protect Mary from the media and possible harm from those people affected by the negative articles written on her. The damaging articles written about Mary demonstrate how the “entertainment function of the media has transcended the more important educational function” (Fox 1). The book Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy discusses the relatively new, desensitized media which focuses on the entertainment dollar, instead of the educational aspect, or, most especially, the damaging consequences of the articles, news stories, and radio broadcasts for those unfortunate people the media targets.
A question often asked regarding the influential power of the media examines whether an audience will fully, partially, or limitedly believe what the media tells them. Tabloid Justice defines each of these possible measurements of believability as the “hypodermic needle model,” the “subtle or minimal effects model” and the “limited effects model” (Fox 8-9), respectively. Most investigations into these theories settle on the middle ground, or “subtle or minimal effects model” (Fox 9) as the most likely on average, meaning audiences who listen to or read various media stories “neither total[ly] nor significantly” (Fox 9) accept them. Regardless of the amount of influence the media has, “mass media images do in fact influence the public’s general and specific perceptions of society” (Fox 10), and therefore subjects of media inquiry, including Mary Bell, undergo judgment, harassment, and even persecution by the viewers of the media. As recently as 2003, when Mary returned to the courts to seek “lifelong anonymity for herself and her 18-year-old daughter to avoid ‘significant harm and harassment’” (Roberts), the media’s influence on the persecutions Mary endured surfaced. The article “A Lifelong Sentence For All Concerned” explains specific instances of persecution, including, but not limited to, “four instances of intimidation and assault” (Roberts). As a result of the harassment, Mary has “changed her identity three times” (Roberts), and finally wishes to be able to live her life as she wants. The media’s grip extends beyond immediate attention; once Mary was condemned for her crimes, she has stayed condemned.
Mary Bell’s life suffered massive hardships; from the abuse, physically and sexually, emotionally and mentally, as a young child, to the murders and murder trial in later years, to the lifetime detention sentence she received and its consequences, to her free years outside of prison and with a child of her own, Mary Bell’s strength stands out over everything else. Her strength of being allowed her sanity to remain intact as she was pushed and shoved through the various power relationships discussed in this essay. As a victim of child abuse, Mary underwent severe psychological strain, scarred for the rest of her life both sexually, physically and emotionally. As a young child, she was forced to interact with adults in an extremely mature context during the murder trial, a taxing and unfair disadvantage to the girl. Also, as a new mother, Mary protected her child from the media and its influential power over the people, shielding her family from the persecutions of those people who could not forget her past misdeeds. While her actions against Martin Brown and Brian Howe cannot be excused, they can be explained, and in the forty years since the murders, Mary has proven a normal mother, striving to make a life for herself and her daughter. Who would argue she forfeited her right when she committed murder? Only those people who have hardened their hearts against victims of abuse could possibly argue such a point. Mary Bell is a tragic child, woman, and mother, involved in a lifelong power struggle; who can say that the worst is behind her?
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