Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Review: Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (not about dogs at all)

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, by Kevin Cook (WWNorton and Company, 2014, 242 pages, $26)

Do You Recall. . . ?

Who doesn’t know of Kitty Genovese? Perhaps you may have forgotten her name but when I prompt you, you will recall ‘the crime that changed America.’ But do you know how it changed America?

Hers is a name studied in the top ten Social Psychology textbooks (and, no, she was not a member of the Mob). Hers was the victimization that was the impetus behind creating the Help phone number, 911, and of the Guardian Angels. Hers was the crime that spawned the phrase, bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility. Hers was the incident that caused America to wonder how apathetic we really are. And if we are the same, 50 years later.

Why Now?

You will recall at least something about the crime but chances are, not the ‘true facts,‘ or even that it was the ‘sign of the times.’ This year, 2014, is the 50th anniversary of her death and even though there have been books written about her before, the best researched is Kitty Genovese by Kevin Cook – out this year.

The Story – “I didn’t want to get involved.”

The story I recall is of a woman in New York City who, while crying for help, was stabbed to death in the courtyard of her apartment building while 37 or 38 people watched. Nobody called the police. The witnesses were ‘anonymous.’

But I was only a teenager then, on the ‘other’ coast and may not remember well. Or perhaps the facts in the paper were more sensational than accurate.

The crime warranted a one-paragraph mention in the paper the next day. The following day, it was expanded to four paragraphs. Only when it caught the eye of enough people, two weeks later, did it make national news (and then it went ‘viral’ but it almost missed doing so).

The Real Story - Captivating, Historical

Well, the facts are a bit different than my recollection and from many accounts. Kitty was a vibrant young woman in her 20s who managed a bar, working 16 hours a day. She was also a lesbian who lived with her partner - was not well accepted 50 years ago.

The year was 1964, a few months after JFK’s assassination and the year of the New York World’s Fair. There was no 911 to call. People did not have cameras in their cell phones, or even cell phones at all.

It was winter-cold and 3 o’clock in the morning. In the quiet neighborhood, people were sleeping yet many awoke to screams and went to their windows. Some saw nothing. Some saw ‘a family feud.’ Some, getting to the window belatedly, saw a woman stumbling down the street, probably drunk – and returned to bed in the stillness. One person had yelled out for the man to stop it. He seemed to, so the yeller shut his window. Some knew it was their neighbor, Kitty - some didn’t.

The book starts and ends with the crime itself but the ending is well-worth reading for a twist that hardly anyone knows. You may very well read the entire 242 pages in one evening – it is that riveting.

Do you remember the song, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”? Beautiful folk music, and, now, unforgettable words.

The Setting

In 1964 when one called the police, sometimes nobody came. You had to leave your name and address and phone number and explain and explain and explain to the often hostile and inefficient police. Many people didn’t count on the police. There was no 911 number to call.


Why did nobody act in time? Were they apathetic? Were they afraid? It took a half hour for Kitty to die. She was stabbed numerous times, and the perp even came back to finish the job (and rape her). (And his story was fascinating in itself.)

What would you have done then? What would you do now?

This book will remain in your mind and will either put you at ease or cause you to lose sleep. Regardless, it is a fascinating, good read.
Why Did I Post This?

I have started reading non-dog books and some are truly excellent. This one just came out, I remember hearing about Genovese often over the years, and my Social Psychology class talked about her this spring. It is also the 50th 'anniversary' of the incident (murder). Thought-provoking, to say the least.

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