Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Adolescents and Serious Crime: A Couple of Stories

The stories behind juvenile crimes may tell us something.

In yesterday's post, I commented on some of the issues that need to be resolved before we as a nation can really think through the matter of sentencing juvenile criminals to life without parole. The concerns I mentioned were not "psychological" in nature, but had to do with the intentions the community might have when supporting such sentences. These, I felt, needed to be considered before even the best psychological information about adolescents could be used to help shape law and policy.

That said, I want to point out that the personal histories of individuals, as well as their cognitive maturity, may make a difference to the people they become, to the crimes they commit, and to their further development following the crime. These histories may or may not be known to a jury at the time of the individual's trial, and indeed may or may not be predictors of the person's remaining developmental trajectory.

I want to tell two stories that are relevant to this issue. In telling them, though, let me stress that these may be isolated incidents, outliers among the stories of the broader population of young criminals. I would object strongly to having legal decisions based on two stories, just as I would object to having mental health interventions based on anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, the details of a story may open our eyes to information that is blurred when we deal with too many cases at one time.

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The first story is one I referred to in my last post-- the story of Mary Bell, told by Gitta Sereny in her 1999 book, "Cries Unheard." Mary Bell told her story to Sereny following her release from prison, and she did so because she wanted her own daughter to hear her story from a reliable source, not as gossip or whispers. At the age of 11, Mary had killed two young children on different occasions. One was a four-year-old boy whom Mary and a friend lured away from his mother and later strangled. Mary would probably never have been caught for this murder except for the fact that she went to the child's family home and asked if she could see him in his coffin. She was tried and convicted of the murder and sent to a juvenile detention center where she was sexually abused; later, she went to a maximum-security prison. She was eventually released, and came under a British law that protects the identity of criminals who might be attacked by the public. She became a remorseful adult with a sense of responsibility toward her own daughter.

Mary Bell's story is not complete without her early history. At the time of the murders, she was living in poverty with her mother, who was a prostitute. The mother specialized in whipping for sexual purposes, and she had used Mary as part of these activities when the child was between 4 and 8 years old. She had also tried to poison her daughter and attempted to give her away. After the murders, the mother took suggestive photographs of Mary and tried to sell them to the newspapers.

This history obviously goes far beyond the classical "unhappy childhood". Mary's closest relationship was one of exploitation and indifference to the child's needs. One must question to what extent Mary's actions re-enacted her own experiences; for example, is it coincidence that one child victim was at the same age that Mary had been when first prostituted by her mother?

My second story is one that occurred in my own locality some years ago. A 14-year-old boy living in a rural area encountered a 12-year-old girl of his acquaintance, who although perhaps not obviously mentally retarded was a special education student. He took her into nearby woods and raped her, then battered her to death with a lamp that had been dumped with other trash. A local newspaper sensationalized his trial and published photographs of him on the front page. I wrote a letter to the editor deploring this approach to a pitiful event that essentially ended both these children's lives.

To my great surprise, that letter's publication led to a contact from the boy's father. He was receiving treatment for a serious speech impairment at my college's speech and hearing clinic, and asked his therapist to find out whether he could come and talk to me, which I agreed to, but certainly not without trepidation. He came to my office and (very painfully because of his speech problems) told me his son's story. It appeared that when the son was six years old he was lured by a gang of older boys, taken into the woods, and gang-raped on the very spot where he killed the girl. I asked whether the boy's attorney had been told this or whether it ever came up in the trial. The answer: No, because the father could not manage to tell it, and because the boy himself was humiliated by what had happened to him. In his milieu, for a boy of any age to have been raped was more shameful than to have raped and killed a girl. Was he re-enacting his own experience? It's impossible to tell. If released, would he be able to resist any impulse that occurred in a similar situation? I have no idea.

These are stories, just stories, although they are about real people. They don't actually tell us why crimes were committed, and they certainly don't tell us what courts should do in response to serious juvenile crime. But what they may do is to help us remember that each crime has a background that might help us understand where that criminal's development has come from and where it's going. Whether the law should take these matters into consideration is a different question, and one which psychology cannot answer for us.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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