Fifty years ago, when Kitty Genovese (no relation to the famous crime family) was 29, she was viciously assaulted and stabbed to death in front of her apartment building in New York City. She was a random victim of an odd young man, Winston Moseley, who had “issues” with women and sex. He was caught, he confessed, and he is still in prison.
Early on, newspapers wrote dramatic accounts of the “38 people” who watched the whole attack from their apartment windows with no one doing anything or even calling the police when they heard her screams. Social psychologists came up with something called “the bystander effect,” in which, the more witnesses are present, the less likely you are to help a stranger.
Now there’s a much fuller version of the whole story in a new book by Kevin Cook, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. Cook, a journalist and award-winning author of two other nonfiction titles, has written a seamless account using a balance of drama, detail, analysis, and just enough graphic description to satisfy the reader’s curiosity without being overwhelming.
This all happened in the 1960s, and a lot of newsworthy events were happening at the same time. Cook describes what came just before and just after, what songs were being played, attitudes toward the police, the inadequacies of the way emergency calls were handled (there was no 911 then).
CORRECTING THE MYTH
Cook also reveals some lesser known facts about Kitty and the famous case. For instance, she was a lesbian who lived with another woman, at a time when the clubs she attended were often invaded by police intent on rounding up all such “deviants.”
Those infamous 38 bystanders who did nothing? That number was never confirmed, and a few of Kitty’s neighbors, from among those who knew her and those who could see what was happening, did make some efforts by yelling out the window or calling for help. Most were asleep when the first part of the attack began, heard the screams, looked out their windows, and watched as the attacker fled and Kitty stumbled away. Minutes later, when Kitty had made her way to the bottom of her own stairwell and the attacker came back to finish what he’d started, she could no longer scream or, with an exception or two, be seen.
It’s not that the case we thought we knew, the one in all the psychology textbooks, is totally wrong. But what Cook does is fill in and correct the details with interviews of Kitty’s lover and others who played a role in the story. He gives the story a much fuller context, and thus helps us understand the era, the crime, and the participants. We can also learn how myths develop and are resistant to change.
Recommended for psychology students of today, and the rest of us who learned about Kitty Genovese in school or from news accounts at the time. Includes black & white photos.
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