I’ve been reading about child murderers. Not because I’m warped – which I am – but because I read about Mary Bell recently (in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen), and I couldn’t remember the case.
But I do now.
After an evening spent reading about Jon Venables & Robert Thompson and Mary and Norma Bell I felt like topping myself. So although I had intended to write a blog that same night it took me two days to do it. And here it, finally, is.
But first, before we get into the whys and wherefores of murderous children – how many of you have seen this? AMAZON BANS CHANCERY STONE (and others) YET AGAIN! I knew they’d finally do a news story about me in The Guardian (and on Yahoo).
Oh bless them, Amazon, what a dull life I’d have without them. Yes, Amazon decided to purge lots of ‘dirty’ books from its site/s. Allegedly this was an ‘accident’, but somehow it was all gay, lesbian and erotica books. Perversely, it was How to Write the Perfect Novel that disappeared from mine (why?) but all my rankings disappeared. Slowly but surely they’ve come back, except for DANNY V1. That seems to still be being treated as “erotica” and therefore not worthy of a ranking.
I’m not quite sure what Amazon thinks denying erotica rankings achieves. Perhaps it helps dirty middle-aged American religious fundamentalists to buy porn without anyone knowing it. Or it helps them to think that porn doesn’t sell. Or, God forbid, it stops the world of publishing from being shown up by erotica sales figures that shame all the Booker winners. We nay never know.
No doubt we’ll have a six month running battle of endless e-mails trying to get it reinstated. But just think, if it hadn’t been for Gore Vidal and his like finding their books chopped off at the knees no-one would have batted an eye. Such is the might of being part of the ‘literary establishment’.
So, child murderers. Oh, a nasty, nasty subject. Does sordid murder get any more sordid?
Child murderers hold a special horror for the public. It’s that moral quandary: when the murderer is ten how do you hound him (or her) to death without looking like a monster yourself? Tricky.
One of the documentaries I watched on the subject had a snippet taken of a radio phone-in. There, someone was advocating – perfectly seriously – that the boys (it was the Bulger case) should be allowed to grow up and then be hung. No torture or inhumanity there then. Eight years in a juvenile remand home waiting to be hung. Lovely. It’s the kind of well-thought out approach to social problems that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside – and glad to be human.
But one of the most noticeable things about my – entirely accidental –comparison study between the cases of Mary Bell and that of Venables & Thompson (V&T from now on) is the absence of hysteria. That this is a change in media reporting is very apparent when you consider that Mary Bell was really a serial killer (she killed two boys), compared to V&T who only had one victim. Additionally, it’s open to debate whether V&T set out to kill Bulger, but Bell definitely set out to kill hers. In fact, she’d throttled children before. It was just a matter of time before she crossed that line to killing one.
So why was the outrage so much more for V&T? Easy, the papers. After all, it was a gift-horse. Two young thugs purposefully kidnap a toddler to bludgeon him to death. You couldn’t wish for a better headline for a wet Monday.
In Bell’s case the public were struggling to get their head around a child murderer in the first place (it was 1968). In V&T’s case we were all already well-inured to the fact that eight year-olds rob, mug, rape and kill.
Of course, they actually don’t. The reason why outlandish tales of nightmarish youth make it to your papers is not because of moral rot in Britain but because they’re unusual. Kids still don’t normally kill each other. Except in America, where the availability of guns – and the hysterical climate of fear – makes it too easy.
But none of this is really what interests me. What interests me about child murderers is what’s missing. It’s always what’s missing for me. Something I share in common with John Waters, although probably not to the same psychopathic degree, is an unhealthy fascination with murderers.
Of course, I consider them my soul mates – a ‘there by the grace of God go I’. But like anyone else, I often find them mystifying. To me they are the ultimate story told backwards. Really we meet murderers at the end of their lives. I’m not talking Death Row here – although that’s literal in many places – but in terms of their development. They have reached the logical trajectory of their life’s path, the point of no return. I’m not talking destiny, but the inevitability of action/reaction. Karma, if you want to call it that. I personally think it’s much more scientific than that, but I’m in a minority of one – the rest of the world is running along shouting, “Born evil! It’s in their genes. They’re just bad” etc, etc.
But whenever I read about murderers, especially serial killers and the dysfunctional ones (not death in fights and other crimes of passion), I am always struck by what is missing in their stories.
I often read accounts where huge chunks of the person’s life is skipped over as if it is not relevant, or even as if it didn’t happen. It’s not uncommon to read “X’s family broke up and he never knew his father”, or “Y grew up in a series of foster homes” and then they go on to catalogue their vile crimes in breathtaking detail.
Who cares why they did it, just bring us the horror. But you do get accounts that detail family history, give reasons, occasionally even quote the criminal on his crime: “God told me to do it. He sent me a hammer to avenge my dog.”
But there’s always a mass missing, like the iceberg under the water. And it’s this missing story, the interesting stuff, that jumps out at you with child murderers. It’s much harder, as I’ve said, for the public to condemn ten year olds as born evil – although they do – and it forces us to look into their lives to find motives, reasons. Additionally, unlike adult killers, they generally have parents right there, in situ, no getting away from them and their influence.
I think it’s this aspect of child murderers that really upsets the public. It’s not the incomprehension of a murdering child, it’s having your guilt shoved in your face.
In the Bulger case there was a lot of it to go round. There was the Liverpool 38 for starters. That was how many people met James Bulger being dragged around Liverpool for two and a half hours, bruised, bleeding and crying on that long trek to the railway line where he was finally battered to death. 38 adults met all three doomed children and did and said nothing. Why should they? Not their business. Never was, never is.
In a way, of course, the Liverpool 38 helped. It gave the public something to focus on – it was their fault. How could they be so inhuman? But Jon Venables used to demolish class-rooms, choke other children, roll on the school-room floor, hide under his desk, batter his head off walls. Nothing amiss there then. Probably just too much sugar.
Robert Thompson was even worse. He was quiet and well-behaved in class. Cowed even, giving nothing away. No wonder no-one saw anything there. The hell with the fact that his mother was an alcoholic and his absent father had, when he’d lived there, beaten his wife and his children and sexually abused them. His six brothers also did the same, forming a chain of bullying that ran down to him. His home was described by a social worker as “appalling”, and this was before he’d killed anyone. One of his siblings had actually gone and asked to be fostered. Do you grasp how desperate that child must have been, to approach the enemy and ask for help? When they put him back in his house he attempted suicide. I wonder why? Thompson’s mother and two of his siblings had failed suicide attempts. Cheering stuff.
But although this ‘background’ detail turns up in accounts it’s never placed centre stage. That’s reserved for the victim’s torture, their wounds, their innocence, their lost life, their terrible, terrible pain. No-one seems to see the pain that has brought their pain home to roost. That pain we were all ignoring. Not our problem. Did Mary Bell, Thompson, Venables get up one morning in their tenth and eleventh years and decide, “Yep, today’s the day I become a serial killer. Toddlers look out, exported stress coming your way.”
There’s a tone of anything from downright disregard – “Who gives a fuck what their homes were like? Other people have bad homes but they know right from wrong.” (Yes, an actual quote from Youtube) – to politically correct apologies, “Their home lives were atrocious, but it doesn’t excuse their terrible calculated acts of violence.”
So what does? That’s what I’d like to see. That’s what’s missing from all these accounts, getting thinner and thinner on the ground as the criminals get older, harder, more fucked-up. What does excuse their behaviour? Nothing? That seems to be the implication – or sometimes the outright statement. Nothing excuses their behaviour.
Mary Bell’s mother was a prostitute. Her father was a petty thief. He was often away or in jail. Her mother would go to Glasgow (from Newcastle where they lived) for long stretches at a time doing her work as a dominatrix. When she was home she saw clients and shared her daughter with them, hiring her out for oral and anal sex from the age of five. Her mother was also a drunk and a drama queen who liked to star herself in the middle of traumas. Possibly as part of this, or possibly as a genuine murderous attempt, she gave deliberate overdoses to Mary three times nearly killing her. It’s conjectured that she may have had Munchausen’s Syndrome and may just have wanted the attention. But maybe not. Is it a leap to imagine that Mary learned how to throttle children from her mother? How may times did Mary’s mother ‘play’ at strangling her? Once a week? Nightly? Was it Mary’s bedtime ritual to either get fucked up the arse and/or throttled? Was that better than her mother leaving her alone in the house to fend for herself? Yes or no? Simple question. I’m sure you all have a simple answer.
These are the things we know about Mary Bell’s life. What don’t we know? But it still doesn’t justify her calculated slaughter of two tiny defenceless boys. No, and I imagine Betty Bell’s alcoholism and chosen career path doesn’t justify what she did to Mary either, but somehow that doesn’t count. It’s okay for Betty to have overdosed, tortured and fucked her kid as long as she didn’t actually kill her. Good to know.
After these children have had childhoods none of us could comprehend they then – dare I be inflammatory and say unsurprisingly? – become unhinged, abnormal, dysfunctional, trying to be sane in an insane world, and so they kill someone. For that they get more punishment and shame and are then incarcerated with other damaged souls – who can only be a good influence, of course. If they’re lucky they get to see a psychiatrist once a month/year. We do this to them for ten, twenty years then we let them out. But first they have to fight in the courts to stop themselves being hounded and killed by lynch mobs or their lives plastered all over the papers. Of course, as part of rejoining the fun ‘real’ world they have to read continually about their own ‘evil’ while their parents’ behaviour is entirely forgotten – indeed discounted: “She was a drunk, you’re a monster”. Just as we forget how society – us – completely and utterly failed to do even the most basic things for them. Nothing. Nada. That’s why they were driven to kill someone. The calculating evil little monsters.
So when do they get compassion? Who finally loves them? How do they earn it? When does the pain stop for them? Never?
Abso-fucking-loutely. Because they don’t deserve it. After all, they elected to be born into a family of paedophile murderous drunks, to spend every day violated, neglected, tortured, beaten, ignored, abandoned. What kid wouldn’t?
E.T.A. 15th April – Amazon have this morning restored my last sales ranking on DANNY V1. We sent them exactly one e-mail. That is the fastest Amazon has ever fixed anything in thier entire history. Notably, their e-mail to us merely said “resolved”. Oh dear, sounds like someone is scared they might put their foot in it again…