Friday, May 09, 2014

Non-Fiction: Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook

(Editor’s note: This review comes from New York writer Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine.)

For the last 50 years, the March 13, 1964, rape and murder of bar manager Kitty Genovese outside her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment was as durable and persistent an urban legend as they come. The young woman’s grisly death -- witnessed by 38 of her neighbors, who turned a deaf ear to her screams as her killer took more than 30 minutes to dispatch her, as The New York Times belatedly averred -- resounded in the world of social science, and focused scrutiny on the perceived callousness of inner-city culture.

Kevin Cook’s new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (Norton), reveals that while some of the facts of the case are indisputable, most of them aren’t. Much of the myth-building was the result of yellow journalism. Pundits blamed the lack of response to this woman’s brutal slaying on urban alienation, and called it a kind of irresponsible complacency on the part of a stressed and apathetic public that was becoming overwhelmed by political assassination, the Vietnam War, race relations and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Now, after half a century, Cook has come along as a myth-buster to set the record straight.

It could be said that the murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was more the product of a typewriter than a knife. Barely mentioned at first in the New York dailies, Kitty Genovese was dead and buried for a fortnight by the time the Times’ newly promoted metropolitan editor, Abe Rosenthal, heard the story from his city’s recently appointed police commissioner, Michael Murphy. Murphy related some specious information about the tragedy, that it had been witnessed by 38 neighbors who had chosen to do nothing. The ambitious Rosenthal, who knew good copy when he saw it, sent a reporter to Kew Gardens to flesh out the story. The Times ran its piece on the front page; and while it was riddled with errors, it was accepted as the truth.

Cook reports differently.

As he explains, it took killer Winston Moseley, then a 29-year-old machine operator, a full half-hour to do away with Kitty Genovese. While many people heard her desperate cries for help, most of them thought some kind of domestic dispute was in progress, and ignored it. Moseley actually left the scene once to move his car in order to avoid detection, after a neighbor yelled for the attack to stop. He returned to find that Kitty had staggered to her apartment entrance. He then attempted to rape her. There were no 38 witnesses, as the Times reported. There was only one indisputable eyewitness, a craven alcoholic who opened his door and looked down to witness the rape in progress. This is a far cry from the Times’ assertion that it took a village to commit a murder.

Cook goes to great pains and uses much detail to describe a nation undergoing change, and not for the better. He’s equally meticulous in setting the scene of Kew Gardens, which -- though only minutes away from Times Square and the center of the universe -- is at heart a small American town with neighbors who know each other, leave their doors unlocked and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. It was the type of place where people looked out for each other. But then the snake entered the garden and, in a way, the homicide became a teachable moment for the nation, one that persists to this day.

The tale of 38 witnesses persisted, too, even among responsible scientists. Using this false premise, socials scientists devised the “Genovese syndrome,” also known as the “bystander syndrome,” a condition wherein the larger the number of witnesses present at a crime, the fewer the chances that anyone will intervene. Personal culpability, in effect, is diluted in a crowd.

Everyone knows how Kitty Genovese was slain, but few know how she died. The implication of all accounts is that Winston Moseley left her to bleed to death and that she perished alone. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The police were called and responded, and Kitty died in the arms of a neighbor who attempted to keep her alive until help could arrive. Kitty Genovese, who suffered horribly in the hands of Winston Moseley, was not handled very gently by The New York Times, either. ◊

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