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Missing the Story

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Catherine “Kitty” Genovese

Kitty Genovese
The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.
By Kevin Cook.
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Kitty Genovese
A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences.
By Catherine Pelonero.
Buy this book

By the FBI’s count, 9,360 Americans were murdered in 1964. One of them was Catherine Genovese, a 28-year-old New York City resident. Early one March morning, she was walking from her car to her apartment in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens when she was raped and stabbed by a stranger wielding a serrated hunting knife. He left her in an apartment building’s foyer, where she died from suffocation when the stab wounds let air into her chest, compressing her lungs. Today, Catherine (or Kitty, as most people know her) is one of the best-known murder victims of the twentieth century—and the only one whose fame is entirely posthumous. Her renown has nothing to do with how she lived her life and everything to do with stories told about the essentially random way it ended.

At first, it seemed likely that Genovese would face the same public fate as almost every other murder victim who isn’t already a celebrity: a few inches of coverage in the local paper, then maybe a follow-up or two during the killer’s trial. But ten days after she died, the city’s police commissioner, Michael “Bull” Murphy, sat down to lunch with A.M. Rosenthal, the recently appointed city editor of The New York Times. The paper had already run a short item on Genovese’s murder, but Murphy urged Rosenthal to take a second look. Thirty-eight of the victim’s neighbors, he said, had witnessed the young woman being killed, and not one had done a thing to help. No one had even called the police.

Rosenthal sent a reporter to Kew Gardens to interview the neighbors, and on March 27 the Times presented the Genovese story a second time, now on the front page. The opening line sketched an evocative portrait of urban horror, one that put Genovese’s neighbors front and center, almost as main actors: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

Soon newspapers and magazines across the country and around the world were telling their readers the Kitty Genovese story. Contemporary producers of online news and commentary would no doubt recognize the tale as a prime piece of “click bait,” perfectly poised between intimacy and distance, identification and judgment, and rich with easy meanings. One Times letter writer blamed television; another thought the culprit was feminism. According to the Soviet newspaper Izvestia, it was proof of America’s “jungle morals.” For most commentators, Genovese’s neighbors were the latest evidence for the argument, probably as old as civilization itself, that urban life erodes the moral sensibility—and that the modern world is going straight to hell.

In the years since, the story of Genovese’s  murder and its passive witnesses has joined the canon of American parables, kept alive by television shows, movies, plays, novels, comic books, newspaper columns, pop songs and Malcolm Gladwell. Thirty-Eight Witnesses, Rosenthal’s short book on the subject, was republished as recently as 2008; the latest edition is adorned with an endorsement by the legendary magazine journalist Gay Talese, and offers two laudatory introductions, one by a Columbia Journalism School professor, the other by former Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr. The story is everywhere, cited as influential in the creation of New York City’s first central emergency hot line, Neighborhood Watch groups and the Guardian Angels. In 1994, Bill Clinton stopped by Kew Gardens to give a speech about the murder’s “chilling message.” In 2002, the Times profiled Paul Wolfowitz, who was then plotting the invasion of Iraq; Wolfowitz, the paper’s readers were informed, has “a horror of standing by and watching bad things happen.” The proof? “He often talks about Kitty Genovese.”

In 1968, two young social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané, published “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies,” which inaugurated the field of “bystander effect” research. The paper opened with an explicit reference to Genovese and her murder’s infamous witnesses. According to Darley and Latané, the inaction of the onlookers had less to do with urban anomie or indifference, and more to do with the psychology of groups. Each member of a group of bystanders, they argued, knows there are other observers, and therefore any responsibility to act is diffused, as is the potential blame for inaction. In support of this provocative hypothesis, they offered up experimental results. At their college laboratories, they had tricked test subjects—some alone, some in groups—into believing they were hearing someone down the hall have an epileptic seizure. Compared with the solitary individuals, those in groups were much less likely to get up and help.

The experiment was followed by many variations, all of which seemed to point in the same direction. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?, Darley and Latané’s book summarizing their findings, appeared in 1970. It began and ended with a nod to the Genovese murder and quickly become a fixture of the social psychology literature. Genovese got carried along with it: a 2007 article published in American Psychologist surveyed ten popular social psychology textbooks and found that all ten mentioned her story, with most of them presenting it in terms similar to those of the original Times story. This is the root cause of the story’s ongoing renown. Undergraduate colleges are now issuing more than 100,000 psychology degrees each year, and many more students, while not majoring in psychology, take Psych 101 courses with social psych units covering the field’s “greatest hits.” This does more than just keep the Genovese story in circulation; it also teaches class after class of college students—our future pundits, magazine editors and television writers—that groups, by their nature, discourage people from helping neighbors in need.

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