“Some stories haunt us forever.” So reads the caption on a publicity piece for a new film documentary entitled The Witness, which opened recently in selected theaters on 3 June 2016.
“Kitty” Genovese photographed in her grandparent’s backyard in Brooklyn, 1959
It was the crime of the century – or at least the crime of omission of the century. Within weeks of her violent murder in 1964, “Kitty” Genovese had become synonymous with a whole condition of human behavior. The “Genovese Syndrome,” as the condition is called, is the act of consciously ignoring a person in peril, and is still applied as a descriptor of events the world over. Some examples include the genocide in the early 1990s that left 800,000 Rwandans dead with very little intervention from either those within Rwanda or the international community; the early 1830s “Trail of Tears” relocation of the Cherokee nation who was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma and which very few people ever raised much of a fuss, if any at all, over this disgustingly awesome mistreatment of an entire race of humans; and, of course, the Holocaust during World War II, the most repugnant, globally violent disgrace of the reputation of humanity, in which the German citizens of the villages near the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück, to name a few, could not have ignored the stench coming from them and knew perfectly well of the atrocities and the horrors inside the camps to Jews and other “undesirables,” such as Gypsies and homosexuals, and yet made no effort to save one life.
In case you do not recall the details of the Genovese case, here they are as reported in the venerable New York Times on its front page of 27 March 1964: Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was a twenty-eight-year-old bar manager in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, who was randomly stabbed by a stranger named Winston Moseley – who later told police he was just looking for a woman to kill – then raped and robbed by him after he returned to finish the job. The New York Times later upped the figure to thirty-eight witnesses who heard and even who saw some part of the attack but did not call police and failed to intervene or even call attention to it. Like a lot of ghastly true crime tales, this one soon stopped being a simple account of a tragedy and became something bigger: a story about the anonymity and callous indifference of big cities and the people who live in them.
I used the Genovese story in a sermon about the Good Samaritan. Here is what I said in that sermon: “A tragic example of such non-involvement of individuals is found in the distressing story of Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese.
“Having driven from her job working as a bar manager early in the morning of 13 March 1964, Genovese arrived home at about 3:15 a.m. She parked her car about 100 feet from her apartment’s door, located in an alley way at the rear of the building. As she walked towards the building, she was approached by Winston Moseley. Frightened, Genovese began to run across the parking lot and towards the front of her building, trying to make it up to the corner towards a major thoroughfare. However, Moseley, who ran after her, quickly overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. Genovese screamed, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Her cry was heard by several neighbors but, on a cold night with the windows closed, only a few of them recognized the sound as a cry for help. Moseley ran away and Genovese slowly made her way toward the rear entrance of her apartment building, seriously injured. Moseley returned ten minutes later and found Genovese, who was barely conscious. He proceeded to further attack her, stabbing her several more times. While she lay dying, he raped her, stole about $49 from her and left her in the hallway. The attacks spanned approximately half an hour.
“Newspaper reports after Genovese’s death claimed that some thirty-eight witnesses either watched the brutal stabbings or heard her cries for help and failed to intervene or even summons the police. It was a huge story at the time and it captured a great deal of public attention. The question was: Why did not anyone come to the aid of “Kitty” Genovese? The answer seemed to be that people had become afraid to become involved. Genovese’s story became a symbol of a new sickness, of a new epidemic, of a new disease sweeping the country: non-involvement when individuals see other people beaten up in life. In fact, since that fateful night in 1964, sociologists have even come up with a term for what happened that night on the streets of Queens. The term is “the “Genovese Syndrome,” a social-psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation even when other people are present. On the Jericho Road in Jesus’ story, “the “Genovese Syndrome” can be observed in the non-involvement of the priest and the Levite to the man left for dead by the side of the road.”
But I was wrong in saying those things. I was not alone, but I am sorry that I contributed to this questionable narrative. As it turned out, nearly every claim in that dramatic story was dubious, a fact that Bill Genovese, the victim’s brother, goes about exploring with a poignant obsessiveness a half-century later in the documentary, The Witness.
Bill Genovese has spent more than a decade trying to understand how and why his sister died and who exactly she was. The Witness chronicles the twists and turns of that search. In the documentary, Bill Genovese finds the truth. He uncovers a lie that transforms his life – a lie that condemned a city, and defined an era.
Like most people, Genovese’s initial understanding of the murder came from a sensationalized, now-debunked New York Times story whose front page headline screamed: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” Genovese and his siblings spent the next thirty years shielding their mother from articles that just kept coming. She never recovered emotionally from losing her eldest child and died in 1992.
So let me set the record straight: There were not thirty-eight eyewitnesses to the murder, which happened first outside and then in an apartment vestibule, although there could have been many more ear witnesses. Only a handful of people probably saw Winston Moseley attack “Kitty” Genovese, and one yelled, “Let that girl alone.” At least two neighbors claim to have called the police, although police logs have no record of those calls.
Another neighbor, Sophia Farrar, ran to help Genovese and held her as she died. “All five-foot-nothing of her went flying down the stairs at 3:30 in the morning,” Bill Genovese marvels. “She doesn’t know what she’s going to come upon. She hadn’t given a second thought to whether the guy was still there or not.” That heroic act, however, did not conform with The New York Times’ portrait of urban indifference. There is no mention of her in the 1964 article.
Speaking of that article, Genovese also interviewed Abe Rosenthal, who helped shape the narrative because he was city editor of The New York Times when “Kitty” Genovese was murdered.
“Where did the number thirty-eight come from?” Genovese asked Rosenthal. Rosenthal responded with a sardonic laugh. “I can’t swear to God that there were thirty-eight people. Some people say there were more, some people say there were less,” he said with a casual flip of his hand. “What was true: People all over the world were affected by it. Did it do anything? You bet your eye it did something. And I’m glad it did.” (Rosenthal later wrote in his book, Thirty-eight Witnesses, that the number had come from Michael J. Murphy, the police commissioner, over lunch at Emil’s Restaurant and Bar on Park Row, near City Hall.)
The Witness is very much a film about a story we think we know. And it is also a film about the profound effect of a tragedy on a family’s life. It is such a public event that in many ways it has erased “Kitty” Genovese’s life within the family. Indeed, many of “Kitty” Genovese’s siblings and their children have put the murder behind them, to the point that one grown niece first found out about the story in one of her high school class.
The film’s main character is Bill Genovese, one of “Kitty’s” many younger siblings. He adored his big sister and was devastated not only by losing her so suddenly and violently, but also by the account of her death in The New York Times – specifically to the paper’s coverage, which was not only incorrect, but also willfully exaggerated to sell newspapers and to create an American illustration of the famous explanation of how the Nazis rose to power: evil triumphs when good people to do nothing. Or to quote Dante Alighieri: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
The story certainly shaped Bill Genovese. He was just sixteen when “Kitty” was murdered. After he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Marines instead of going to college. “My decision to become a Marine and to go to Vietnam was inspired in part by my sister’s death,” he recalls. “I did not want to be one of those people who sat by and did nothing, but I was also inspired by President Kennedy’s inaugural speech – the ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ speech. It was the call of the times.”
Bill Genovese lost both his legs in Vietnam. “Lying in the middle of that [rice] paddy, I was completely alone,” he says in the movie. “I thought of “Kitty.” What was it like for her when she realized no one was going to save her?” It is the closest he has ever come to understanding how his sister must have felt on Austin Street that cold March night in 1964. His story ended differently than hers, of course. “I thought that no one was going to notice me there, but then my fellow Marines rescued me,” he relates. Bill Genovese is now in a wheelchair after losing both his legs. “I lived to tell the story,” he says. And he has lived to tell his sister’s as well.
If I seem to make The Witness sound like a film about journalistic ethics, more so than a story of the Genovese family’s loss, well, it is that. For a good part of its running time, the film is mainly about what happens when the institutions we entrust to tell our stories fail us. And The New York Times failed us this time.
Bill Genovese is the “Sherlock Holmes” in this matter, tracking down the real story for reasons of his own personal purging. Nevertheless, the information he gleans by studying coverage of the case and by contacting the reporters tells us a great deal about the relationship between a free press and the society it chronicles. The film insists that for every benefit accrued by telling a wrong or concocted story – such as the invention of the 911 emergency system, which came about partly as a result of the public feeling collectively ashamed of itself after Genovese’s murder – there are downsides as well, some of which are severe.
One of the major downsides from the Genovese murder coverage was a hyped-up perception of cities as coldblooded places where people neither know nor care what happens to their neighbors. That might be true in certain situations, but not in this one – hopefully, not in most. When groups of people behave callously or indifferently to violence or suffering, it is rare that every single person who is aware of it does not care enough to lift a finger. Bill Genovese ultimately learned that people on his sister’s block did, in fact, act like members of a community, but unfortunately many of them did not know exactly what was happening or had no way of effectively acting as a group. It even turns out that somebody did call the police about “Kitty” Genovese; the police just failed to respond properly.
Though I find that the press abuse angle is infuriating, the story of Bill Genovese, his family and his friends is devastating. The movie shows how extraordinary an event (such as a murder) can complicate the grieving process. Bill and his brothers relate in the film that they were so young when their sister died that they did not really know her as a person, and that as they grew up, they were so consumed with the idea of her as a symbol that they never learned the details of her life prior to the attack. Bill Genovese discusses some of those details in this film, and the result might be the most satisfying and moving part of the story. As one watches and listens as the details of “Kitty” Genovese life – rather than her death are filled in – she becomes a fully-developed human being, maybe for the first time since television and films began retelling her story. This is a powerful film, but perhaps its greatest triumph is that for a brief time it resurrects Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese and lets us see her as a person and lets us celebrate her short-lived life, rather than her senseless death. And maybe that is enough to make this, the final chapter of her tragic story.
The Witness movie poster