Mary Bell: 11-year-old killer

Mary Bell had a troubled childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic and a prostitute and was often absent from the family home. When Mary was born, her mother Betty’s response was “get that thing away from me!”. She was eager to drop Mary off with relatives whenever possible, and even once tried to give her to a woman who had been denied an adoption. Betty’s sister, who had followed Betty, managed to get Mary back from the woman. Family member’s say that Mary, at only 2 years old, started to become cold, detached, and withdrawn.

Betty would try to kill Mary in various ways, including forcing her to take sleeping pills and even throwing her from a window, and would make it look like an accident. At the age of four, Mary was subjected to sexual assault by some of her mother’s clients. Mary suffered severe brain damage from the fall from the window, injuring her prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain involved in decision making. Mary’s teachers would describe her as intelligent but were concerned about her lack of feelings for others. The man who Mary believed to be her father was a lifelong criminal and was violent.

In summer 1968, at the age of 11, Mary killed two young boys, aged 3 and 4. She would leave notes next to the bodies of the boys. When initially questioned by police, Mary acted strange, but was not arrested because she did not reveal any information that might lead to her arrest. However, she spoke about scissors being on the crime scene, and the police had not revealed to the public that scissors were found on the scene. At one of the boys’ funeral, one of the detectives found Mary watching at the boy’s home as his coffin came out of the house. The detective was horrified to see Mary, watching while the coffin came out, laughing and rubbing her hands together.

During the trial, psychologists found Mary to have the symptoms of a psychopath because of her lack of emotions, unresponsiveness, and strange behavior. Because of this, her murder charge was dropped to manslaughter. She was sentenced to twelve years in prison. She was released from prison in 1980 and was able to go to court and was granted the privilege of living anonymously under a new name.

The traumatic home life is seemingly the reason for Mary’s personality. Growing up with and constantly being around violence is likely the reason Mary became so violent with her classmates and other children. Globally, it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 years, have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year. There are many different theories that might explain Mary’s personality, even at such a young age.

The psychoanalytic theory was developed by Freud and argues that human behavior is the result of the interactions among three components of the mind: the id, ego, and superego. The id is concerned with instant gratification and operates entirely unconsciously. The ego is the rational part of the personality, and the superego is concerned with social rules and morals. An imbalance of the id, ego, and superego can lead to unhealthy behaviors. In Mary’s case, the id was more dominant than the ego and superego. She was never taught right from wrong from her mother, so essentially Mary did not know that violence and murder is wrong. Her id took over and she got the gratification of murdering the two boys.

Mary grew up in a violent, aggressive, and essentially parent-free home; she did not have the positive influence children need in the developmental stages of their lives. It seems no one taught her right from wrong, especially at home. What she observed is what shaped her personality, which is aggressiveness and violent tendencies.

Mary was not around any positive influences or anyone that would help her realize her potential since she was labeled as intelligent. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it can be said that Mary never went beyond the first step of physiological needs. She didn’t have a sense of safety, even from her own mother.

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