The Kitty Genovese narrative largely debunked

kitty_genoveseIf you were old enough – and I was – the name of Kitty Genovese was a name you knew. Not just that she was a murder victim in Queens, NYC, stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, “one of six hundred and thirty-six murders in New York City that year,” but that the apparent indifference to her plight by over three dozen “witnesses” spoke volumes about the apathetic nature of a segment of American life:

…the gist of the [New York Times] piece lent itself perfectly to Sunday sermons about a malaise encompassing all of us. It was a way of processing anxieties about the anonymity of urban life, about the breakdown of the restrictive but reassuring social conventions of the fifties, and, less directly, about racial unrest, the Kennedy assassination, and even the Holocaust, which was only beginning to be widely discussed, and which seemed to represent on a grand scale the phenomenon that one expert on the Genovese case calls Bad Samaritanism.

Except that the narrative was largely untrue. Not that her murder was not horrific, but read the New Yorker article, and you will recognize that the story had done a grand disservice to our views of the cities, especially The City.

The Kitty Genovese narrative – I was 11 at the time – terrified me. It fit into a narrative of black people, and their white supporters – disappearing in the South and ended up dead. But that was far away, down “there”. This story, not just the murder but the indifference, 180 miles from my home at the time, made my world just a bit of a scarier place.

I remember that after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, one pundit noted that one would not expect that sort of thing in “the heartland” – my, I HATE that word – though you would EXPECT that sort of thing in NYC, and he used the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as an example. The people in what the NY/LA folks sometimes call “flyover country” is supposed to be immune to that sort of thing, because, it seems, they care more about each other. The one oddly beneficial thing about 9/11 was that, for a time, EVERYONE was a New Yorker, and that kind of divisive thinking went away, if only for a while.

2 thoughts on “The Kitty Genovese narrative largely debunked”

  1. Good point there at the end, and not just because I was close enough to the OKC bombing to hear it: there’s a definite tendency out here to believe the worst of folks on the coasts, coupled with a smug It Can’t Happen Here. If I’ve learned anything in this lifetime, it’s that anything can happen anywhere.


  2. “Can’t happen in the heartland.” In the mid-1970s I was hitch-hiking around the country with a friend, and we found ourselves sitting in a diner in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Here we were, two teenage hippies (well, we looked like hippies) surrounded by surly rednecks, who started to get more loudly belligerent with their comments about “New Yawkers” coming around here, etc. Indeed, they started talking about the Kitty Genovese story with each other. I ignored them, I just read my copy of the local newspaper and ate my sandwich, I’ve always been accustomed to abuse and rejection. But my companion was getting nervous.

    That’s when I spotted an item in the paper that stunned me. So loudly I said to my companion, “Will you look at this? Some clowns robbed a restaurant in Oklahoma City, and they locked 5 employees in the freezer. By morning all 5 were suffocated to death. Man, you never hear about anything that vicious in New York!”

    The whole place went silent. The next time I looked up from my paper the diner was almost empty. …Sometimes I wonder how I made it to ripe old age without getting permanently injured.


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