This is not my book review, but one written by a dear friend who read the book and also told me about it.
To read this story of Kitty Genovese is to learn much about ourselves, but not the lessons one might think.
The popular narrative which held for many years about the 1964 murder case in the New York City borough of Queens was “38 witnesses” who stood by as a young woman was stabbed to death and did nothing to help. This led to genuine research into what was coined the “bystander effect”, but it was not wholly accurate of what happened that night.
The real story teaches us to look critically at our insatiable need for outrage with the false superiority it provides. Sensationalism may get the world talking about something, however it is often at the price of a much deeper truth.
What happened to Kitty was a horrific tragedy for reasons much more complex than the reported apathy of people who heard her screams. The investigation into her death involved things about her personal life completely irrelevant to how she died.
When the detectives discovered she was a lesbian, their attitudes changed as well as their handling of the case. In 1964, same sex relationships were against the law in many places, which made for tensions between the police and the LGBT community. Although her killer was caught and convicted, the fact that her life and partner were placed under prejudicial scrutiny should never be forgotten.
The New York Times published a story about the case that painted the Kew Gardens neighborhood in Queens with a broad brush of callous insensitivity. It was not a fair assessment of the actual reactions, which the author explains in carefully researched detail. Cook is critical of the Times for sensationalizing the story, however he does give a nod to them for bringing what had been a footnote in most papers to national news status.
There is much to learn here, not the least of which includes an examination into the bystanders. Rather than simplifying that people didn’t care or believed someone else had called for help, we are shown individual responses. We are shown that our brains don’t take in all of what is happening, that reports of what people were able to see were mistaken, and how past experience in an environment affects how a situation is viewed.
We are taken back to a time before the 911 emergency call system with many people not having instant access to a phone. We are reminded that acts of compassion are not always acknowledged. We learn about her killer and his twisted motives. We see that sometimes a bystander is a friend who “doesn’t want to get involved”.
Kitty Genovese deserves to be more than a sensationalized textbook case of a behavioral effect. This book gives her story and memory a most prestigious honor–the truth.