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Missing the Story

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Catherine

Catherine “Kitty” Genovese

Kitty Genovese
The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.
By Kevin Cook.
Buy this book

Kitty Genovese
A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences.
By Catherine Pelonero.
Buy this book

Between Cook and Pelonero, the latter does more to get readers thinking about gender as a crucial key to the puzzle. (Cook, though, better evokes the furtiveness of the era’s gay life.) The same month that Genovese was murdered, Pelonero points out, United Press International ran a story about a judge in Cleveland who had ruled that “it’s all right for a husband to give his wife a black eye and knock out one of her teeth if she stays out too late.” She also quotes more extensively the many witnesses who explicitly justified their inaction in terms of expectations about women and their place in the world. “I figured it was a lovers’ quarrel, that her man had knocked her down. So my wife and I went back to bed.” “What was she doing out so late, anyway?” “We thought it was a lovers’ quarrel.” “At one point I thought maybe a girl was being raped—but if she was out alone at that hour, it served her right.” “If that girl had been where she belongs, this would never have happened.” 

Attention to these details, Cherry argues, shifts the focus of the story from “there was an emergency and no one intervened to help” to “violence was directed at yet another woman by a man and no one intervened to help.” To which we might add: and the story was retold again and again by college professors and pundits, almost always in such a way that it was never specifically about violence against women, or the complex latticework of legal and cultural arrangements that allows such violence to flourish. Instead, it became a classic tale of human “nature”—and like most such tales, it has almost nothing to say about the fine grain of human practice or experience.

In 2011, the Psychological Bulletin published an international research team’s review and meta-analysis of all the “bystander effect” studies that it could find—not just the famous originals. Neither Cook nor Pelonero mentions the study, which found that Darley and Latané’s conclusions held up only to a point. In experiments that simulated truly dangerous scenarios, that used only naïve bystanders (instead of making some of the bystanders actors), and that allowed for real communication between them—in short, in those experiments that most approximated real life—the “bystander effect” was either nonexistent or, more often, positive: additional bystanders led to more helping, not less. But since this finding is not counterintuitive, provocative or remotely scary, it inevitably went unmentioned in the flood of content pumped out by journalists rehashing the Genovese murder on its fiftieth anniversary.

Genovese wasn’t the first woman whom Winston Moseley raped, nor was she the last. By day, he worked to support his wife and kids. By night, he roamed the streets of New York full of violent sexual impulses. Twelve days before he killed Genovese, he raped and then murdered Annie Mae Johnson, a resident of the Ozone Park neighborhood, but wasn’t caught. (Like Moseley, Johnson was black; as A.M. Rosenthal admitted, “If [Genovese] had been a Negro killed in Harlem she would have received a paragraph or two.”) Five days after he killed Genovese, Moseley was arrested for burglary, another favorite pastime. In custody, he confessed quickly to the Genovese murder, showing no remorse. At his trial, he unsuccessfully pleaded insanity and was sentenced to death, which was eventually commuted to life without parole. Cook argues, convincingly, that Moseley was able to win his appeal thanks to flaws built into the original trial by the judge, who was anti–death penalty.

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In 1968, Moseley stuck a Spam tin into his rectum, hoping that the injuries would force him to be transferred from his cell in Attica prison to a hospital. En route, he escaped from the transport van and broke into an empty house in Buffalo, New York. After three days of watching TV and eating canned food, he called a local employment office and asked them to send a maid. When she arrived, he threatened her with a gun he’d found in the house. Then he raped her, warning that if she told anyone, he’d find and kill her children. She left a scared, confused message for the house’s owners; when they arrived, Moseley tied up the husband and raped the wife. Later, the district attorney filed charges against the cleaning woman for failing to report her rapist to the police.

After a stand-off in downtown Buffalo, Mosley was arrested again, and returned to jail. Today, Moseley is still alive and still in Attica; no current prisoner of the State of New York has been in jail longer. In 1977, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Niagara University’s correspondence school, majoring in sociology and earning straight A’s. According to the school’s website, all sociology majors are required to take a basic social psychology course. If Moseley’s textbook was remotely up to date, this would have involved reading a potted summary of the most fateful night of his life, presented as the origin story of a valuable research program. It seems he was impressed with himself, and the apparently widespread flaw in human nature that he’d helped to uncover. “The crime was tragic,” he wrote in a Times op-ed, “but it did serve society.”

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