Stalinist? Or Just Bad Writing?

Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard

Stalinist? Or Just Bad Writing?

Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard

Stalinist? Or Just Bad Writing?
New books dissected over email.
May 13 1999 12:29 PM

Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard

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Dear Chris--

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I'd like to think that some day students of abnormal juvenile psychology will be writing their dissertations on the Caldwell-Udovitch finger-sucking/cat-detonating dichotomy. As to the switch-around on whether or not sexual abuse took place, I think the new opinion, new knowledge, and new societal attitudes are not really separable, but if I had to put my money on one, it would be new societal attitudes.

Without knowing in exactly what form Sereny received the information, I can't of course say that she didn't regurgitate it that way, but she does paraphrase, and I assume that she edits--the quotes here, though very windy, I agree, can't be the whole of her transcripts. Really, I think logic dictates that you have to drop either the Stalinist leanings or the distrust of narrative from your critique; there's nothing more narratively unyielding than Stalinism. The writing is dreadful, though, much worse than what I know of Sereny's other work. I believe that the description of pelvic-exam action you refer to involves the insertion of a speculum, but why go into detail? (That you wouldn't know this, incidentally, is not owing to your obstetric, but to your gynecologic, ignorance; obstetrics involves pregnancy and childbirth.)

Chris, I despair of picking a fight with you, but I'll give it one last try. First, I think it is only fair to note that the damage caused by Cries Unheard, if any, was the result of publication, not probing, and is therefore presumably an exceptional example of collateral damage. What is a typical one? I would count things such as Dr. Eugene Landry's hold over Brian Wilson and aggressive mining for false memories as examples of the damage caused by psychiatric abuse, not psychiatric treatment, and would presume them to be exceptional. Also, where do you see a recommendation for coerced therapy? Coerced by whom, with what authority? The recommendation I see is, as I said, that symptoms of distress, in Sereny's term, "cries for help," be better detected, not that they be forcibly eliminated.

Hey, why do you think, if you and I so dislike this book so thoroughly, it received the quite respectful reviews that it did? The fuss was not about the book's quality, but about its quantity--i.e., whether such a book is a priori wrong and bad.

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Best,
Mim

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Mim Udovitch has written about pop culture and other premillennial topics for Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times Book Review. Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. This week they discuss Cries Unheard--Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell, by Gitta Sereny (click here to buy the book).