It’s Saturday August 21 2010, a clear, warm, summer’s evening in Coventry. A woman, dressed like a nun on casual day, is walking home. Her grey hair is cut short and dry, and her skin is pale, but looks fresh, healthy; the skin of a non-smoker. She’s spent the afternoon visiting her father in the critical ward at Walsgrave hospital, but she seems to walk lightly, without burden or purpose.
In Bray’s Lane, she stops outside a pebble-dashed house. There’s a cat on the low garden wall next to the bins. The cat isn’t a kitten, but it’s the kind of cat that will always be small. The woman looks at the cat, and then she looks away, a quick glance down the street. She pats the cat, but there’s something strange about what she’s doing. This isn’t an affectionate rubbing. This is a vigorous and unnatural attention and, after a moment, as though she’s changed her mind, she lifts the lid of a wheelie bin, grabs the cat by the skin of its back, and throws it in. When her hand parts with the cat, she lifts her fingers as though out of filthy water, then she walks away, her pace quicker than before, a little nervous, excited. She’s going home now to the terraced house where she lives alone, three streets away.
Later that evening in Bray’s Lane, a young mobile-phone repair man and his wife begin to wonder where their cat, Lola, has gone. The couple go to bed and hope she’ll be back in the morning. But on Sunday morning there’s still no sign of Lola. After breakfast the man goes outside to begin searching. It’s another warm day, and since he doesn’t have to go to work, he has time to search in the alleyways and across the road in the wholesalers and among a pile of tyres outside the tyre shop. But there’s no sign of his cat, and he gives up.
At midday, the couple decide to drive to a nearby café for lunch. It’s hot, so they wind their windows down and, just as they’re about to leave, the man hears a cat mewing. He gets out of the car and hears the crying coming from inside the wheelie bin, so he opens the lid and there she is, Lola, covered in her own mess.
While Lola eats her first meal in 15 hours, served on a white dinner plate, the man and his wife check the footage from their closed circuit video camera – the camera they rigged up themselves a few months earlier to deter vandals. And then, on the CCTV footage, they see what happened. The man and his wife decide that they’re going to find out who the woman is. They waste no time posting the security footage on YouTube and setting up a Facebook page, “Help Find The Woman Who Put My Cat In The Bin”.
Within hours, the woman is identified by users of the website 4chan. Although 4chan is principally a forum for posting and discussing manga and anime, it has become infamous for the internet vigilantes who use the site’s anonymous “/b/ board” to track down and persecute “wrongdoers”. There is no moral code governing the use of the /b/ board’s pages, which The New York Times has called “ … an obscene telephone party line,” and the Baltimore City Paper “ … a collection of kids with butterfly knives and a locker full of porn.”
It’s Sunday night, and the woman’s details have been unearthed online and are freely available for the internet’s smorgasbord of scorn: her name, her address, her place of work and her home phone number. Her name is Mary Bale and her trial by internet and social media begins. Death threats are made and hate pages on Facebook such as “Death to Mary Bale” attract a mob. Somebody writes, “She should be repeatedly head-butted,” and “She should be flogged to within an inch of her life, the evil b--!”
On Monday August 23 I was in a hotel room in Edinburgh, where I was staying as a guest of the festival. It was about midday and I was sitting on the bed preparing for a panel discussion. I was hoping to catch an update on the Chilean miners who had been trapped underground since August 5 and I had the TV tuned to Sky News. Reports had reached the surface that all 33 miners were alive, and were surviving on a sip of milk, two teaspoons of tuna fish and half a biscuit each every two days.
I don’t have a television at home. My news comes from Radio 4, the BBC World Service and The New Yorker. But when I’m in the same room as a TV, especially a big flat-screen TV like the one in that hotel room, I tend to leave it on all day and night and gawp, or fall asleep with it on, just for the sound of company. On August 23, as I sat on the king-sized bed, I put my notebook away and watched. A new story had broken: a woman had put a cat in a bin; she’d been caught on surveillance tape, and had been hunted down by vigilante internauts.
I was fascinated by the making of the story and the determined malice of Mary Bale’s hecklers. I agreed that she’d done something stupid, but I was floored by the scale of the fall-out. I knew that I’d one day write the story, but I also knew I’d have to wait a while.
The next day, Tuesday August 24, the Sun and the Mirror both pick up the story and TV crews begin to swarm: BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV News, Channel 5, Channel 4, Sky News and Fox News take it in turns to interview the cat’s owner, whose name is Darryl Mann.
Darryl is in his twenties. He has fair, cropped hair and a tattoo with thick black lines and swirling dots which snake down to his hand. In one of dozens of TV interviews, he sits on a plastic chair in his concrete yard. A rusty barbecue has been moved to make room for the cameras. “I know people are angry,” he says. “We was angry at the time.”
Another TV camera, another journalist, and this time they want Darryl to stand outside his house, with his back to the front door. Next they want him to stand behind the wheelie bin, cradling Lola in his arms, her head held gently against the Ocean Pacific logo on Darryl’s T-shirt.
“I don’t know how anybody, you know, could go to sleep at night,” he says to the camera, “knowing they’ve locked a cat in a wheelie bin.”
Darryl’s wife Stephanie is also interviewed, though less often than Darryl. In an interview for an American news channel, she sits on the settee stroking the cat. Stephanie is pretty, with silky black hair, which she wears tied back. A microphone is clipped to her cardigan. When asked how the cat was found, she says, “We got out of the car and Darryl heard a painful meow … and there she was, sat in the bin.”
Stephanie is asked to respond to the news that Mary Bale is suffering from depression, and that her father is terminally ill. She says: “It’s terrible that her dad’s in hospital, but to be totally honest, it’s not my cat’s problem … I don’t like [Bale], but I don’t want her to get hurt.” Photographers and journalists from the Sun arrive at Darryl and Stephanie’s with gifts for Lola; a cat bed, a scratch post, a hamper of cat treats and a new Pampered Pet cat dish.
The next morning, Wednesday August 25, the Sun runs its “exclusive” on the front page under the headline “It’s a fur cop”. Inside, under a picture of Lola licking her lips is the caption, “Happy – Lola with Sun treats yesterday”. In an interview on CBS’s The Early Show, Darryl sits on his leather armchair and watches the CCTV footage on his laptop. On the left arm of his chair, there’s a packet of cigarettes, a full ashtray, car keys and a mobile phone.
Meanwhile, Mary Bale and her mother are fighting their way through a crowd of cameras and reporters outside Walsgrave hospital. Mary is driven home by the West Midlands police. There are three female officers and one male, all wearing flak jackets. When they get to her house, one of the female officers opens the car door for Mary and another guides her from the squad car to her door. They do what they can to shield her from the mob of cameras and journalists.
Watched by millions, the CCTV footage of Mary Bale’s unbidden malfunction lasts a mere 1 minute 27 seconds, but it contains all the essential elements of a viral classic. It’s perfect YouTube length, with an ideal slapstick narrative shape. Much of its drama comes from the old Candid Camera staple: the startling and surprising image of somebody getting caught out, doing something naughty in private. But unlike Candid Camera, there’s no laughter softened by recognition and sympathy. Most viewers of the cat-in-the-bin footage make narrative and dramatic sense of what Mary Bale did by deciding Mary’s impulse was cruelty. And if she’s cruel, there must be glory in showing the world on Twitter and Facebook that you know it to be so; that you are offended by what she did because you love animals and could never do such a thing; you are one of millions in secure and guaranteed agreement; you are superior and right.
If Mary had been a teenager, a welfare-sponger, or a lout with a crack habit, there’d be no story. This is a professional, intelligent, middle-aged, middle-class woman surprising the hell out of us. And how she was caught is as important as what was caught. The meta-elements of the story are enthralling. There’s a suburban house protected by surveillance cameras erected by its owners; there’s their technology-savvy response, which sets off a high-speed chain of events governed not by journalists and media professionals but by a homemade news-making posse. People are mesmerised, not just by what Mary did, but by the role of Facebook and the shadowy 4chan in the almost instantaneous tracking down of the perpetrator.
Mary Bale had no prospect of a fair trial. The extent of the spread of the footage and its devastating fallout wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. A tiny event became international headline news because, like excited and compulsive children, we’re so keen to play with our new internet toys that we press on without restraint, without comprehension of the real harm our play might cause. The power of the internet to prosecute within hours of somebody being caught “red-handed” seems to have weakened our ability to respond with proportion and compassion. Online and anonymous, we attacked Mary with the same impulsiveness and lack of inhibition that made her our target in the first place. In the liminal space of Facebook and Twitter we post comments as though the words aren’t quite real, as though they have no real-world consequence: as though we’re not ourselves. And if we’re not ourselves, not quite real, then the targets of our campaigns can’t quite be real, either. We behave as though we think the pain caused in the virtual world isn’t real pain.
On Tuesday October 19, Mary faces her first court hearing for charges of animal cruelty. Her father had died the Thursday before. Outside Coventry Magistrates’ Court, the pack of journalists waits. She walks into the court’s foyer looking beaten and tired, her head bowed. The journalists shout their questions and Mary tries to shield her face from the cameras.
A significant part of the prosecution case against Mary uses the interview she purportedly gave to the Sun, and Mary and her defence counsel spend a good part of the day refuting the things she had reportedly said. The prosecutor argues: “The defendant says she didn’t intend massive distress to the cat and she didn’t know why she did it. That doesn’t fit with what we see. She plainly looks to see if anyone is watching, which clearly indicates she is aware of the moral position she is in.”
The judge says: “I accept that you were in a stressful situation at the time but that’s no excuse for what you did.” Mary is fined £250 and ordered to pay more than £1,000 in costs. Outside, TV cameras and microphones, tripods and zoom lenses point at Mary and more journalists ask: “Mary, can you explain why you did it, Mary?” “Are you sorry, Mary?” “Have you got anything to say, Mary?”
Mary Bale says nothing, and returns to her mother’s house to hide.
On January 28 2011, I found Mary Bale’s phone number and address on BuzzFeed.com – “the best place for launching viral media” – but the number had been disconnected. So I decided to write to her instead. In a page-long handwritten letter I told her that I was on her side and that I’d understand if she didn’t feel able to trust me. I explained that I was a novelist, and that my most recent book, This is How, is about a man who murders another man in a boarding house: a split-second act that puts him in prison for life. I asked her if I could interview her by e-mail, by phone, or in person; whichever suited her best.
Mary replied by e-mail a few days later and thanked me for my letter. She still needed to think about whether to give an interview, but she wrote a few paragraphs describing her recent days: circumspect and understandably cautious, and yet longing to get it out. In that first e-mail she said that the day before she received my letter she’d been at the job centre. After three months of living at her mother’s house and being signed-off for anxiety and depression, she’d decided to look for work. While she was waiting to be seen, “The gentleman sitting next to me tapped me on the shoulder and expressed sympathy for my situation… He was genuinely supportive and considerate.”
That same day, she’d been approached by a representative of a TV production company asking her to take part in a documentary to put her side of the story, something which she was not prepared to do. “They seem to think that now I’ve been unemployed for some time, I would be more receptive to a sum of money being waved under my nose … I have never intended to make any money from this situation and have rejected many offers from the Sun in particular … that is not my style.”
Two days later, Mary sent another e-mail agreeing to an interview by e-mail or phone, and “if you feel a further meeting is required then we can arrange to meet face to face”. I wrote back and said that I’d be happy, for now, to begin the interview by e-mail. The next day I sent 16 questions. And then, silence. I worried that I’d messed it up but two days later her e-mail arrived apologising for the delay and answering my questions. She signed off, “I hope that helps.”
I was happy to have her answers, but I needed more. I wanted to write a meticulous account: Mary Bale’s experience is not only strange, but it’s strange in a new and peculiarly modern way. Millions, online and by way of 24-hour news, watched her do the worst thing she’s ever done and millions laughed. Mary Bale became internationally infamous as “Cat lady” and “Cat bin woman” and yet nobody had heard the particulars or intricacies of this phenomenon’s effect. A few days later I sent another e-mail, asking more than a dozen new questions. Over the course of an e-mail exchange lasting two weeks, Mary answered. And from her answers I was able to piece together her story.
Mary Bale’s story: 23.08.10
On Monday August 23, Mary had returned home from visiting her father in hospital at around 5pm. There was a message on her answer phone from her boss at the high street bank where she worked, asking her to call him urgently. She rang him straight back, but he was on another call. As she wondered what the missed call might have been about – she had taken a week’s leave and thought it could be about the handover – the phone rang. She assumed it was her boss, but it wasn’t; it was somebody saying they were from Norwich Union, and asking for her by name. Mary was confused: “It’s not a convenient time to talk,” she said, and put down the phone.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. It was a man Mary had never seen before but “he claimed to be looking for a neighbour”. Over his shoulder, she saw “a man crouched behind a car taking photographs.” She demanded to know what was going on, and “the man admitted he was from the Sun.” He showed Mary an image taken from the CCTV footage: a picture of her putting the cat in the bin. He wanted to know if she’d “been in that street at that time”, and he wanted to know why she’d done it. Mary shut the door on him and as soon as she was inside, her boss rang.
“Is it you?” he said. He’d seen the footage and he knew what Mary had done. She told him about the reporter at the door and that she needed advice, but there was no time to talk. There was another loud knock at the door. “I have to go,” she said. Her boss told her he would call back soon.
Mary opened the door. It was the same reporter. Now she was in a bind: she had signed a contract with the bank that included strict undertakings that she would not do or say anything that might damage the bank’s reputation, but she had to say something and the reporter wouldn’t go away. He asked her why she did it. She said, “I told him there were much bigger and better things to be writing about … like the war in Afghanistan … it’s only a cat.” She also told him that her father was gravely ill, that she’d been to visit him in hospital on Saturday and that was all she wanted to say. She shut the door and went back inside. The phone rang again. It was another man, who said he was the news editor at the Sun. “He told me it would be all expenses paid in a hotel if I gave him my story.” But she refused and hung up. The phone rang again; another reporter from the Sun, even more aggressive than the first. “He was trying to scare me with ideas of being besieged by reporters etc, to try and get his exclusive.” She put down the phone.
Mary couldn’t concentrate; she couldn’t rest and she couldn’t eat. She was “climbing the walls”. On it went: “There was an element of good cop/bad cop as they tended to alternate their calls … and the phone rang every half-hour or so.” But she didn’t want to unplug the phone because she was still waiting for her boss to call.
At around 9pm the police rang. They told her that this was a matter for the RSPCA. And yet they said, “We’ll be placing a patrol car outside the house as a precaution.” Mary didn’t see why she needed protection: “It didn’t sink in at this stage that I was in any real danger.” She had no idea that the story was all over the internet. She didn’t know that there was already a hate page on Facebook called “Death to Mary Bale”. She hoped the phone calls would stop and, if they did, she’d get a chance to speak to her boss. But the calls didn’t stop. At 10pm there was another knock on the door. Mary looked through the living-room curtains and saw that it was another reporter. She didn’t answer the door. She wanted only to go to bed and get some rest. At 11pm the phone rang again and it was the first reporter. He told Mary that even though she’d refused to do an interview, they’d be running a piece in the morning. She went to bed at midnight.
On Tuesday morning, Mary woke early. “I had a very sleepless night and left the house early in the morning (6am) to avoid the press.” There were no reporters outside but she was afraid there would be. Mary was still on leave and decided to go ahead with her plans for the day. She had booked a ticket for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Morte d’Arthur in Stratford-upon-Avon, and because she was a Friend of the RSC, she also had a ticket for the filming of a trailer for which the RSC needed audience members. She got into her car, drove to Stratford and “called at a petrol station and checked a copy of the Sun and sure enough there I was”. Mary called her mother right away but her mother was at the hospital and she told Mary that she should go ahead to Stratford and then stop by later that evening.
Mary didn’t yet know that her story had become international news. She didn’t yet know that Sky News was playing the CCTV clip in a unstoppable loop. She didn’t yet know that reporters on Sky News were saying, “Terrified four-year-old Lola is learning to trust again,” and, “People in Coventry are disgusted by what she did … a nation of animal lovers is appalled.” She didn’t yet know that the CCTV footage had gone viral, or that the internet court had got hold of her by the scruff and thousands of people had set out to see her punished.
Mary was in Stratford watching the RSC’s performance, “when the press furore really started, and if you believe the Sun I was giving them an exclusive interview, and if you believe the Mirror I was holed up in my house ... I was actually in Stratford, enjoying the sunshine, the filming, having a meal between performances…”
During the intermission, Mary called her mother. She had been “besieged by reporters who refused to believe that I wasn’t there. The press had tracked down my mum’s phone number and address, my sister and sister-in-law’s address and phone numbers and they all had calls and visits from reporters.” Mary agreed to be at her mother’s as soon as she could.
When Mary drove past her own home, there was a horde of reporters outside, so she decided to drive straight to her mother’s. But when she got there, more reporters and photographers were waiting and she had to fight her way through. She decided to sleep there, “but even at my mum’s house the phone rang and rang.” At last Mary understood just how much trouble she was in, and that things were going to get worse.
On Wednesday morning, when Mary and her mother faced the crowd of cameras and reporters outside Walsgrave hospital, Mary had felt furious and saddened. “They had no humanity about them. They behaved like a pack of animals.”
The West Midlands police “ … were great. I had two officers escort me to my house on two separate occasions to collect clothes and check mail”. On Wednesday, when they were inside the house, one of the officers picked up the hate mail from the hallway carpet and while they were there, more messages were left on Mary’s answer phone. One of the messages said: “I’ve lost my cat, meow, meow”. The police were “amazed by the number of press on my road and the difficulty we had in getting to the house”. They decided to take her answer phone back to the station to screen for death threats.
For the next month Mary lived at her mother’s house, until the police were “happy for me to move back home”. She was grieving, depressed, broke and unemployed (she had resigned from the bank). “That was a time when I thought I was going to lose everything, and that I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage and I worried quite a lot about damage to my house, like bricks through the windows. But none of that happened. It was just the hate mail.”
But in her first e-mail to me, after she’d described the sympathetic man at the job centre, she’d also told me that when she was leaving the job centre, she’d been followed by a couple in their late teens, singing, “Mary Bale puts cats in bins” to the tune of “There is a Tavern in the Town”.
On February 22, I wrote to Mary to ask if she would be willing to meet me. I said I could come to Coventry, perhaps on the weekend. Her reply came by e-mail: “Sorry but I don’t see the point of a face-to-face meeting – I am not going to be around this weekend, and can only see it as a waste of your time and mine.”
I wasn’t surprised. I had already asked her more than two dozen questions and she’d answered them all, and we’d also had a conversation on the phone. She had nothing more to say. But I worried about the bluntness of her refusal so I sent another e-mail asking if she was annoyed that I’d asked to meet her.
She wrote back: “No, I’m not annoyed … I am understandably wary about anything being taken out of context (and I don’t mean to imply that you would be anything like the people that hounded me at the time), but I don’t feel comfortable with a face-to-face meeting. I have turned down other offers of interviews on this basis, and felt that your offer to deal by e-mail and telephone allowed me to tell some of my side without being thrust too much back into the spotlight – somewhere which I have never wanted to be … Best wishes, Mary.”
Mary Bale still doesn’t know why she put the cat in the bin and there’d be little point in me asking again. Besides, her insistence on not knowing makes sense to me, and it’s one of the things that most fascinated me about her story in the first place. A few weeks after the story broke, my friend Ian McGuire said, “She was putting her father in the bin,” and he was attempting to get at the kind of thing writers of fiction work hardest for; the thing Ian McEwan recently called the “fine-print of consciousness”.
When the first reporter on Mary’s doorstep asked, “Why did you do it?” she told me that she didn’t – in that moment – remember doing it at all. “I challenged them and then they said they were from the Sun,” she said, “and they showed me a photo of the cat being put in the bin.” She doesn’t say, “the photo of me putting the cat in the bin”.
Her words keep her away from what she did. When I first asked her to tell me exactly where and when she put the cat in the bin, she said: “The house where the incident occurred is on that route between mine and my mum’s house … the incident took place according to the CCTV on Saturday 21st August at around 8pm.” Mary says “according to the CCTV” and “the incident” but she can’t say, or won’t say, “I put the cat in the bin.”
It doesn’t matter whether Mary can remember or not: the proof of the CCTV footage tells us that, on August 21 2010, Mary Bale looks over her shoulder before throwing a small cat into a bin. What it doesn’t tell us is that her mind was stuffed with the bother and sorrow of her father’s sickness; that her act was an irrational and spontaneous expression of pain, anger, frustration or sadness, accompanied by thoughts she’ll never remember having or, conceivably, that she acted with no thought at all.
M.J. Hyland’s latest novel is ‘This is How’ (Canongate). To comment on this article please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org