Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Bell

"Accidental" Overdoses

The most disturbing abuses came from Mary's frequent drug overdoses, which were likely administered by her mother. When Mary was one year old, she nearly overdosed after taking some pills that were hidden in a narrow nook inside a gramophone. It seemed impossible that the baby could reach the pills, and strange that she would eat so many of the "acid-tasting" medication. When Mary was three she and her brother were found eating "little blue pills" along with the candy their aunt Cath had brought for them. (Betty said, "they must have taken the bottle out of my handbag.") Cath and husband offered to adopt Mary, but Betty refused to let the child go, and soon broke off contact with her family.

In the most serious overdose, Mary swallowed a bunch of "iron" pills belonging to her mother. She lost consciousness and her stomach had to be pumped. A young playmate, as well as little Mary herself, said Betty Bell, gave Mary the "Smarties" candy that made her sick. Overdoses, particularly for a developing child, can cause serious brain damage, a common trait among violent offenders.

Betty Bell was a drama queen and loved to play the martyr. She may have suffered from "Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome," thriving on the attention over her little daughter's tragic "accidents." This syndrome, first described in 1977, is characterized by caregivers who intentionally injure, suffocate, or poison their child for the sympathy of others. The "MSBP" mother usually had an unwanted child, or is unmarried. This may explain why Betty, despite the harm she caused Mary, always wanted her back. Mary was later resentful of her mother's excessive complaints over her own sufferings, in fact she seemed more bothered by this tendency in her mother than the sexual abuse. This compulsive need for dramatic sympathy is illustrated by one incident: Betty tearfully told her sister that Mary had been run over by a truck, which generated an abundance of attention and sympathy. The next day Betty admitted that it was untrue; Mary was with friends who had temporarily adopted her.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy, if true, are Betty's use of Mary during her prostitution. In what she calls "one of the worst cases of child sexual abuse I have ever encountered," Sereny recounts the horrors that Mary had to endure as her mother's sexual prop. No other relatives, including Mary's younger brother, were aware of this abuse, or would confirm it. Yet this would certainly help to explain Mary's erratic behavior. If she had been violated herself, the need to violate others might incite her to the abuse of her own little victims.

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