The murder of Kitty Genovese is an urban myth that is tragically true.
It is a fable that warns against inaction, but sadly it is a fable that really happened.
I first became aware of it via Harlan Ellison’s short story, The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.
It is about the bystander effect.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked in a densely populated New York suburb. Despite her screams, and the twitching of curtains and lights going on in the apartment blocks nearby, no one came to her assistance. No one called the police. After the first stabbing, she stumbled away. The attacker came back and raped her. All of this happened over a period of time long enough for police or bystander intervention.
This is the story as it is best known. 38 people watched, but did nothing, as a woman was brutally murdered.
The Witness is a documentary that investigates the truth of this story and the investigation is led by Bill Genovese, a younger brother of Kitty.
It is a compelling documentary about the tricks of memory, the lies we tell ourselves so we can live, and the terrible damage of a brutal death for the ones left behind.
Bill admits that he is obsessed. Over fifty years on, he is seeking some sort of conclusion or relief by getting as near as possible to the truth of his sister’s death. Both his older and younger brother worry about this obsession, and fear it may be damaging. In a tearful moment, the youngest brother explains that the only way he can cope with their tragedy is by shutting it out.
Bill knows that decisions in his life were caused by his sister’s murder. He went to Vietnam where he was blown up, losing his legs. He recalls a moment of feeling united with his sister as he lay alone, bleeding and desperate in a padi field, the difference being that people came for him and he was saved.
He seeks out any surviving witnesses. Most are dead now. He meets the son of a surviving witness and discovers that his sister did not die alone. A friend came to her and held her as she lay dying.
Why did the family never know this? It would not have stopped the tragedy, but to know she did not die alone would have at least relieved some of the unutterable torment of losing Kitty.
Bill finds journalists behind the story of the 38 “who just watched”. This is one of the most famous stories of New York homicide, a staple of sociology and psychology classes. It became a best-selling book. In recent years, there has been scepticism over the reporting, it seems the value of the story would have been reduced unless some possible facts were mislaid.
Good for the author, good for the story as a warning against irresponsibility, not so good for the family left behind.
Bill tries to meet his sister’s murderer, a man who had also raped and murdered another woman. The murderer declines, but his son, now a reverend, agrees to meet him. He talks of the damage to a young child whose father is a murderer. It seems the tale his father has told him is very different to the likely reality. He knows nothing of the rape and seems to know nothing of the second murder. In the son’s mind, this brutal and lengthy ordeal has been turned into a brief lashing out after being the victim of racial slurs. Does his father believe this now? Has he sat in his cell creating new memories to justify his actions? Bill could tell him more, but he chooses not to, a magnanimous gesture. Later, he receives a letter from the murderer. He has now remembered that he was just the driver for the murderer, a man involved in organised crime who forced him into silence over the murder. How many times does this story change as he sits in his cell?
This is a fascinating documentary, compassionately made and with a vivid openness displayed the Genovese family. It has none of those melodramatic stings of lurid TV crime documentaries. It is quietly told story about a family still dealing with something terrible.
It is casual with its revelations. In clumsier hands, the reveal of Kitty being a lesbian would be seen as the end of an act, here it is matter of fact. The men who hung around the bar she ran fondly recall that she was “one of the guys”. “yeah sure, we knew she was gay”, there is a sad fondness in their memories. Her partner is interviewed off camera, in a sadly revealing moment, she tells how Kitty’s parents took the dog she shared with Kitty away from her.
The final fifteen minutes is both very disturbing and deeply moving.
There is much that we can learn from this film.
In the end, there is a feeling that lifting the stone up and looking at the past that lies under it has helped Bill and the Genovese family. I hope so.
You can see The Witness HERE.
The latest Book Shambles is Alexei Sayle, before that it was Nick Offerman.