Monday, April 25, 2016
Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America
At first I was not going to review this book. I just could not bring myself to do so. In fact, here is all I said about it on Goodreads and I was going to just leave it at that:
"It is hard to rate and review a book like this so I'm not even going to try; I hate reading true crime, but something about this story is so heartbreakingly compelling to me. I guess there is some comfort in the fact that "38 witnesses" isn't really true, but aside from the neighbor yelling to leave her alone, no one went out to help her until it was too late. It's also comforting, as much as it possibly could be, that at least she really did not die alone. This whole case is just so heartbreaking, even 50 years later. And what makes it so heartbreaking, is the fact that it is not uncommon."
But after thinking about it for a few days, I realized Kitty deserves better than that. She deserves to have her story told, her voice heard, so that people can really understand what happened that terrible night.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, or vaguely aware of what '38 witnesses' means, Kitty Genovese was a young woman living with her girlfriend in Kew Gardens in Queens in 1964 when she was brutally attacked, stabbed several times and raped over the course of about a half an hour just steps from her apartment. Due to misinformation at the time, it was somehow reported that 38 neighbors saw or heard the attack for half an hour and did nothing. No one called the police, no one went out to help, nothing. Some of this is true. Much of it is not. There were witnesses, but on the darkened street, it was hard to tell what was going on. When Kitty was first attacked by her murderer, someone shouted from an apartment for him to leave 'that girl' alone. This scared him off and Kitty managed to inch herself toward safety. Unfortunately she only made it around the corner to the entry way of her neighbor and so-called friend's apartment when her attacker returned. This 'friend', Karl Ross, heard the commotion both times, and when it was literally happening right in front of his apartment, he OPENED THE DOOR, SAW WHAT WAS GOING ON, and CLOSED IT AGAIN. There is all this lead-up, how he was basically a big scaredy-cat, afraid of everything and a guy who could barely bring himself to leave his apartment most of the time. He was also gay and terribly paranoid people would find out, and even in the 60s, New York was of course no friend to anyone who was gay. I get the paranoia, but he watched his friend being attacked and did nothing to intervene. He did call a friend, who told him to stay out of it, but then he eventually did call the police after sneaking out his apartment by way of his window and going across the roof. At this point others in the building were alerted by phone to what was happening and another of Kitty's friends, Sophie Farrar, went to her aid. Sophie is the only person in this whole sad tale deserving of any respect. As soon as she knew what was going on, she was out the door, even steps ahead of her husband who followed. Despite not knowing what was really going on, that she herself could be walking into a dangerous situation, Sophie did not care. She found Kitty in the stairway, and held the dying young woman in her arms, reassuring her that help was on the way.
In the end it would be too late, and Kitty Genovese would succumb to her injuries. There are so many what-ifs about that night. Had one single person done something when the attack first occurred, Kitty might very well have survived. But many witnesses thought perhaps, at the late hour, what they were witnessing was a lover's spat or people leaving the nearby bar when Kitty was first approached and attacked by her killer. No one actually witnessed the second attack except Karl Ross, as it literally happened on his doorstep. One witness, Joseph Fink, seems to be the only person who actually knew Kitty had been stabbed in the first attack. He was an assistant superintendent of the building across the street and witnessed Kitty being stabbed in the back. He claims he considered going to get his baseball bat, but in the end simply went to sleep. He could have saved Kitty right there in that moment, and his only response for why he did not do anything when asked by police was a shrug of his shoulders. Ross and Fink both had the immediate opportunity to aid Kitty, yet chose to do nothing and it was this idea of "not wanting to get involved" that made these supposed 38 witnesses the poster children for the idea of apathy in New York at the time. Luckily, in some way as much as we can call it that, we can at least know that when others found out what was happening, they chose to act. We know in fact that Kitty did not really die alone.
The author does a really wonderful job bringing the backdrop of the story, New York City and Queens, to life. It seems like such a safe place, even though we know that is not really true, even in the 60s. But we get this idyllic kind of existence for Kitty and her (secret) girlfriend Mary Ann as they lived and worked and played in the city. Some complained about the background information both in relation to Kitty's life and that of her murderer's, but I found it interesting. And it certainly helped to provide a stark contrast of the city Kitty lived in, and the one she was killed in - despite the fact that they were actually the same place.
I did have to skim some of the book, notably the parts directly about the murder itself. As mentioned above, I do not enjoy true crime. Honestly, I can hardly even handle the news anymore, with all the terrible things happening all over the world. I think becoming a parent really made me not be able to stomach these awful things, and I am content to live in a little bit of ignorance. You might have also noticed that I also never mention the killer by name and the reason for that is, everything about him makes my skin crawl. Even just reading his name, especially as it got more into the crimes he was committing both before murdering Kitty, and in the events after his brief escape from prison, made my stomach turn. Aside from his horrific crimes (being a serial rapist before and after Kitty's murder), I can't even look at his picture on the cover of the book without shuddering in total revulsion. I am not ashamed to admit I am glad this scum is dead, having just died in prison in the last month or so. I am also glad he was never paroled and died a caged animal as he should have, for all the terrible things he did.
If you are really into the true crime genre, I highly recommend this one. It is fast-paced and sheds new light on an enduring myth that has persisted for years about the so-called by-stander effect, thinking that if there were something horrible happening then surely SOMEONE ELSE MUST HAVE called the police by now. It also makes Kitty Genovese a real person again, brings her back to life in a way, so that her true story can be told.