Missing the Story

Missing the Story

How turning the Murder of Kitty Genovese into a parable erased its particulars.


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.

* * *

Two new books, released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Genovese murder, propose two very different ways of looking at the events of that night. In Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, journalist Kevin Cook argues that the most familiar version of the story doesn’t conform to what actually happened. This critique has been advanced before, most prominently in that 2007 American Psychologist paper, and also in the pop behavioral-economics bestseller Superfreakonomics, published in 2009. Like its predecessors, Cook’s attempt at revisionism draws heavily on the work of Joseph De May, an attorney who became obsessed with the legendary murder after moving to Kew Gardens, and who soon became convinced that the traditional account was wildly exaggerated. Cook summarizes De May’s case by showing us how he would annotate the opening of the front-page Times story. In the following paragraph, annotations are in brackets:

For more than half an hour [no witnesses saw the crime nearly that long], 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens [but no more than two who clearly knew what was happening] watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three [two] separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice [Once] the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault [probably false]; one witness called after the woman was dead [Kitty was still alive].

In Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences, Catherine Pelonero insists that this brand of revisionism is ludicrous. (Intriguingly, the book is dedicated to “my friend, Joe De May,” the resident revisionist of Kew Gardens.) Pelonero, who works primarily as a playwright, recognizes that the standard account isn’t the whole story, but she denies that this makes it flat-out false. On her reading of the evidence, there is no reason to seriously doubt the number of witnesses. To assert otherwise, she writes, is to suggest the existence of a “massive conspiracy carried out by the cooperative efforts of The New York Times, the NYPD, the District Attorney’s office,” and media outlets across the country.

This may sound like as big a dispute as there could possibly be between two books, but they are much more similar than they are different. Both books relate, in slightly different sequence, the same far-flung details of Genovese’s biography. Both books alternate between her life and that of her killer, Winston Moseley, a Queens man who programmed punch cards for first-generation computers at the Raygram Corporation. Both books devote a lot of time to the night of the murder, attempting to pinpoint once and for all who saw what, who called (or might have called) whom and when, who went back to sleep and so on. Like all true-crime exposés, both take for granted that there is something about the crime that makes its every detail worth excavating.

The only real difference is one of interpretation, but the disagreement manifests itself in no more than twenty pages per book; most passages from one could easily be pasted into the other without much editing. And it’s hard to tell what, exactly, is at stake in the argument. Cook is obviously right that the image implied by the Times story—thirty-eight people standing still at their windows for half an hour, watching a murder unfold like a movie—is an exaggeration. And it is certainly striking to learn that Genovese died not alone, but in an ambulance—and that when the police and paramedics arrived, she was being cradled in the arms of a friend who had run outside to help. Pelonero, on the other hand, has an easy enough time establishing that, even if a few people tried to help, a great many more did nothing (and not because they thought others were taking action). But her extreme irritation with the revisionists makes her a weak historian. Defending the Times’s coverage of the murder, for example, she huffs that the paper “had not become widely esteemed as the Paper of Record by engaging in yellow journalism.” Well, maybe not. But the suggestion that the Gray Lady has never in its history helped sell an exaggeration is almost as silly as is the idea that several institutions simultaneously selling the same overcooked story automatically signals a conspiracy.

* * *

Both Cook and Pelonero are at their strongest not when ruling piece by piece on the truth or falsity of the Genovese myth, but rather when helping us remember that myth can contain only so much unruly life. What doesn’t fit gets flattened, usually in a way that tells us something about the myth’s parent culture.

The first aspect of Genovese’s life to be written out of existence was her homosexuality. She shared her Kew Gardens apartment with Mary Ann Zielonko, an aspiring painter. A few of their neighbors and co-workers knew, or half-knew, that they were lovers. So did Kitty’s family, though it seems they tried their best not to think about it, treating Mary Ann as just a very good friend of their daughter. It didn’t take the cops long to figure out the truth—which, according to Cook, landed Zielonko right at the top of their suspect list. After all, the pop psychology of the day held that homosexuals were more prone than heterosexuals to romantic jealousy. 

It’s worth pointing out, in light of Pelonero’s strident insistence on the Times’s eternal respectability, that panicked thinking about homosexuals appeared regularly in that paper. A.M. Rosenthal, the city editor who put Kitty Genovese on the front page, was for much of his life a notorious homophobe who refused to let the word “gay” appear in his section’s pages. Less than three months before the Genovese murder, the front-page headline was Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern. The night Genovese died, Cook writes, the police peppered Zielonko with questions about their relationship: “their past affairs, their sex life, their sexual positions.” But none of this made it into the Times, where the women were described as roommates.

Tug a loose seam and it keeps unravelling. For the reading public, the attitude of Genovese’s neighbors was summed up by a single quote from the Times story: “I didn’t want to get involved.” The quote came from Karl Ross, a regular presence in Genovese and Zielonko’s apartment. Ross was a gay man and, on the basis of the limited evidence available, a preternaturally fearful one, prone to soothing his anxieties with alcohol. On the night of the murder, he was drunk. When he heard screaming in his building’s foyer, he hesitated to do anything at all. Eventually, he opened the door, then promptly turned away and called a friend, who discouraged him from getting involved. Later, he called a neighbor, who told Ross to contact the police and said he could use her phone. He climbed out the window and crawled across the roof to her apartment, where he finally dialed the police. In the story as told by the Times, it’s easy to hear “I didn’t want to get involved” as “I didn’t want to help my suffering neighbor.” But the more one learns about Ross, the easier it gets to hear another translation: “I didn’t want to get involved with the police, who—like The New York Times—view homosexuality as a menace to society.”

The more drastic flattening of the Genovese story, though, has taken place in the academy, and this is an aspect of the saga to which neither Cook nor Pelonero pays much attention. Both mention the famous psychological research that the murder prompted, but only in passing, and primarily as evidence that Genovese’s murder was important—the sort of event worth writing a book about. By taking Darley and Latané’s conclusions about bystanders as a given, they miss a valuable chance to analyze myth-making in action.

In her 1995 book The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology, Frances Cherry devotes a chapter to the Genovese case and the research it inspired. She points out that whatever Darley and Latané’s papers prove about bystander psychology, they reveal at least as much—probably more—about the preoccupations of American social science in the 1960s. The research imperative of the era, she argues, was to generate broad theories, testable by laboratory experiments, about the behavior of all humans, or at least about the largest groups possible. This preference involved a good deal of hard-science envy. The theory of gravity, for example, applies equally to all objects, and helps us design airplanes and missiles; social scientists, hungry to make pronouncements of similar scope, rigor and usefulness will try to cook up theories that apply to the biggest categories possible—for example, all bystanders in all emergencies.

Not mentioned by Cherry, but I think equally influential, was a Cold War fixation on the possibility that a fatal passivity lurked in the mind of the common man. Fears of communist brainwashing were rampant, as was commentary on the increasing feminization of the American man, his ever-softening backbone, and the threat that his weak, mommy-coddled will posed to the American project. This fixation is on ample display in the other “greatest hits” experiments of social science in the same era, most obviously Stanley Milgram’s electroshock obedience tests and Philip Zimbardo’s simulation of a prison in the basement of the Stanford library. 

And so in the 1960s, when the field—on the hunt for universals, fretting about the spineless man on the street—turned its gaze to the Genovese murder, it saw a group of witnesses refusing to help someone in trouble, and from there built a universal theory of group passivity. Looking back on the night of the murder through the lens of Darley and Latané’s influential theory, the most important variable is obvious: the group. But as Cherry points out, this is obtuse. Surely it is just as relevant that Genovese was a woman and her killer was a man. Surely it matters that, at the time, violence inflicted by a man on his wife or romantic partner was widely considered a private affair. (Although Moseley and Genovese had had no prior contact, in the dark of night, most of the witnesses didn’t know what they were looking at.) Surely it matters that, in the eyes of the law as it stood in 1964, it was impossible for a man to rape his wife.

But these are specific features of what it meant to be a certain gender in a certain country at a certain point in history—hardly the stuff of universal psychological truth. The parable erases the particulars. Most shockingly, the fact that Moseley raped Genovese wasn’t even mentioned in the front-page Times article, Darley and Latané’s seminal paper or The Unresponsive Bystander. To this day, it is not a well-known aspect of the story.

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.

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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