The making of little monsters

Brooding on the shocking attack on the two kids in Edlington, I came on this characteristically wise article by Nicci Gerrard, who has done more than her fair share of thinking about evil and savagery (she sat through — and wrote about — the West trial, and, later, the Soham murder case). Here’s part of what she writes today in the Telegraph about the Edlington case:

This distressing story follows an intense scrutiny of childhood; it seems like an apt and ghastly demonstration of the anxiety that has been expressed by think-tanks, children’s charities, teacher associations and cultural commentators. The teenage gangs in inner cities; the increasing knife culture; the angry 19-year-old who lashed out and killed the boy in a bakery; the shocking case of an 18-year-old youth who, when in foster care, raped the two-year-old in the family and abused the nine-year-old; the extensive survey earlier this year that expressed a widespread anxiety about the state of the nation's children and the fact that childhood ends too quickly; the finding that a teacher suffers a violent attack almost every school day; the growth in childhood obesity, in teenage and pre-teenage binge drinking, in under-age sex and under-age pregnancies – there is a sense of a growing crisis in childhood, certainly a crisis in the way that we think of children.

On the one hand, we sentimentalise them, on the other we are scared of them. We idolise them and scapegoat them. We want them to be young and innocent, unblemished by hard and mucky life for as long as possible, and we want them to grow up, flooding them with adult expectations and media images, encouraging them to be sexualised way before their own desires, pushing them through the hoops of exams, forcing them out into the harsh realities of adult life. The way that the attack in South Yorkshire has already been characterised in the media is a neat example of this cultural dichotomy: the so-called “devil brothers” versus the “regular” boys and “pals” who were out on a harmless fishing trip; the unnatural versus the natural, and indeed, in a wider context, evil versus good.

But evil is too easy, too comforting. Children are products of their environments and monsters are not born but made. It is no surprise at all that the two boys in Edlington were in care. Such cases almost always happen on the fringes, the extreme edges of a society. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the two 10-year-olds who led the two-year-old James Bulger down to the railway embankment by the hand, kicked him, then battered him to death with bricks and an iron bar, came from deprived families. So, too, did Mary Bell who strangled Martin Brown the day before her eleventh birthday, in May 1968, and then two months later, strangled the three-year-old Martin Howe to death (her mother was a prostitute and often absent; Mary was forced to engage in anal and oral sex with men from the age of five)…