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Understanding The Root Of Evil

Author Gitta Sereny Studies Murderers

What makes some people evil? British author Gitta Sereny thinks she knows. She has spent five decades talking to and writing about some of the world's worst villains.

Sereny has taken a long look at the darkest fringes of life, from the highest ranks of the Third Reich to children who have committed violent crimes. She has some strong opinions about crimes committed in America, particularly those committed by children. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Carol Marin reports.

"These two yearsÂ…eight cases of children killing children in schools," says Sereny.

"It is not the guns that cause this," she says. "I am absolutely convinced relationships or the lack of them between children and parents [do]."

She is also convinced that no child is born evil and dismisses as out of hand the notion of a "bad seed."

So how does Sereny know about children who kill? SheÂ's spent a lifetime studying evil, including one of the most sensational murders to occur in Great Britain.

In 1968, 11-year-old Mary Bell strangled and suffocated two little boys: first 4-year-old Martin Brown, and a few weeks later 3-year-old Brian Howe.

"Here's this wonderful, heart-shaped face, lovely complexion, shiny, shiny short black hair. And these lively eyes," Sereny says. "I had never met a child who had done dreadful things who was so fully alive."

Mary was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But after serving 12 years, she was paroled, amid a blaze of coverage from the British tabloids. She shrank from public view and refused to speak to any reporter.

But 30 years after the murders of the two little boys, Sereny obtained an interview that no one else had. The result is SerenyÂ's latest book, Cries Unheard, a rare look into the mind of a child who kills.

In it, Bell told Sereny, she "didnÂ't understand the concept of death" at age 11. Sereny contends Mary used evil conduct as a cry to be rescued from a horrific childhood.

"[Mary] is symptomatic in the sense that in some way or other, all these children will have been rejected,Â…whether it is by their mothers, their fathers or whatever. They will all have had some traumatic experience in their lives," says Sereny.

Mary grew up poor. Her stepfather was a petty thief; her mother, a prostitute. But what no one knew, according to Sereny, is that Mary was forced to have sex with her motherÂ's clients.

And what no one knew was that Mary mimicked her own mother when she strangled Martin Brown.

"She said,Â…'I had been held like this many times,' her mother," Sereny explains. "Held by her throat, when she held herÂ…still so that she could be sexually abused. And she fainted, repeatedly, on several occasions."

Eventually Sereny got Bell to put her experience into words. Bell described the experience of killing this way: "IÂ'm notÂ…angry," she sid.

"It isnÂ't a feeling. It is a void that comes, happens, opens. ItÂ's an abyss. ItÂ's beyond rage, beyond pain. ItÂ's black cotton wool," she said.

After that first killing, Mary, who was still not a suspect, made a more direct cry to be rescued from her home, according to Sereny.

"She went directly in front of an official and said, 'Please take me away,'" says Sereny. The authorities did not separate the child from the mother to find out what happened.

Shortly afterward, Mary murdered Brian Howe. Sereny says she now knows why the murders occurred. It is, perhaps, the single most important point Sereny makes about all children who kill.

"It isnÂ't that theyÂ're motivated to kill by evil inside them," she says. "But they are brought to commit terrible actsÂ…. Any child who does this is breaking out. [He or she] is responding not to evil inside him, but to hurt, to pain."

To understand how Sereny came to this conclusion, take a look at her own childhood. It was her experience with war that awakened a near obsession to know what makes someone evil.

After all, when Sereny was just 11 years old, she saw a man many consider to have personified evil: Adolph Hitler.

"I thought he was absolutely extraordinary. And I screamed Â'HeilÂ' with the best of them," she remembers.

"And the second time I heard him, IÂ…said to myself, Â'What am I doing screaming for this man?Â' I'm crazy but I was drawn into it," she says.

With her Christian mother and Jewish stepfather, Sereny left her home in Vienna, worked with orphans in France and assisted the underground.

She fled after being warned the Gestapo was about to arrest her. Sereny returned to Paris after the war and fell in love with Don Honeyman, an American fashion photographer.

Though she had once dreamed of becoming an actress, Sereny instead became a writer. One of her first reporting assignments was covering the trial of HitlerÂ's henchmen at Nuremberg.

"I watched these trials and listened to these men, all of whom of course said, 'I was ordered, I was ordered,' " says Sereny.

"And I thought there has to be one who would tell the truth. There has to be. There is always one person who will tell the truth," she adds.

Sereny zeroed in on Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka concentration camp where more than 1 million Jews were slaughtered.

While serving a life sentence at Spandau Prison in Germany, Stangl talked to Sereny for weeks, steadfastly refusing to admit his own responsibility until one last grueling day of questioning.

"I got him to the point where heÂ…had a moment of honesty," she says.

He told Sereny: "I share the guilt." The next day, Stangl collapsed and died.

After working nearly 50 years as a writer, Sereny has her critics, including some who argue she becomes too close to her subjects.

Sereny, who said she came to love Bell, was roundly criticized or giving her a portion of the bookÂ's royalties. And June Richardson, the mother of Mary BellÂ's first victim, argues that Sereny devotes her time to villains and ignores victims.

"It caused pain for me and my family. It caused pain for Brian HoweÂ's family," says Richardson.

"Mary is only one person. Gitta Sereny is only one person. We are families. ItÂ's our families that [are] getting hurt," Richardson adds.

Sereny argues that itÂ's never too late to learn and benefit from those who have committed unspeakable crimes.

Her relentless exploration of evil has brought
Sereny not only critical acclaim but also a forum for discussing what can be done for children who commit violent crimes.

"I think the child has to be put somewhere...where [he or she] can be made safe,[and] helped to understand what [he or she] did," says Sereny.

"In America, for instance, there are a large number of children in prison with adults," she says. "Twelve-, 13-year-olds and you can imagine what it is like for a child to be in prison with adults."

SerenyÂ's point of view is in direct opposition to a current trend in America. In the last decade, more and more states have lowered the age at which a child can be tried as an adult for violent crimes.

Some states have decided that a 10-year-old can be tried in adult court; other states have no age limit at all. Sereny calls this "barbaric."

Sereny maintains Bell has lived a crime-free life as an adult. Today she is the mother of a teen-ager.

Still it was only as a grown-up that Bell finally accepted responsibility for what she did at the age of 11.

And while the guilt may never go away, nor, will the meaning of BellÂ's story, Sereny says.