The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, long the basis for a misguided belief in the apathy of urban environments, is being made into a film called “37.” The title refers to the number of witnesses who reportedly saw the killing and, rather than intervene, instead withdrew into their Kew Gardens homes. It’s a debunked account that the movie’s first-time writer-director, Puk Grasten, seems to have bought into nonetheless; here’s Grasten speaking to The New York Times:
“I like the idea of examining the individual in a community, how we want to stay inside our groups to feel safe. How, when we get scared, we pull the blinds and shut the windows.”
The original narrative of the Genovese murder, centering on the heartless nature of the do-nothing witnesses, turns out to be flawed in some serious ways. Behavioral scientists Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins provide the most thorough takedown in a 2007 issue of the American Psychologist. After analyzing transcripts of the murder trial and other related legal documents, the research trio identifies three critical shortcomings to the initial Times report:
- There weren’t 38 eye witnesses. The sensational 1964 Times headline read: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police,” with one of the 38 total witnesses placing a call. But one of the assistant district attorneys involved in the trial said, at the time, “we only found about half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use.” Manning and company add that “no list of the 38 has ever been made available.”
- Those who did see the attack didn’t see the whole thing. The Genovese murder occurred in two attacks. During the first attack, on the street, some neighbors did have a view of what was happening. But Genovese then made her way into a stairwell of a nearby building, obstructing a view of the second attack. The idea that dozens of neighbors sat at their windows idly watching a gruesome event unfold for 30 minutes just isn’t the case.
- Many people did intervene. The first attack was thwarted when a neighbor, Robert Mozer, yelled from his window: “Let that girl alone!” A number of Kew Gardens residents also claimed or submitted affidavits stating they did, in fact, call the police. One resident (Sophie Farrar) not only called the cops but went to the crime scene at her own peril to sit at the dying girl’s side.
Marcia Gallo, author of the 2015 book "No One Helped": Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy, says one reason the murder captured the public’s attention is because it seemed to support a preconceived notion in many minds of the city as a heartless place. But New York was full of strong social movements around that time, she says. A month before the murder, for instance, locals staged a massive school boycott in protest of segregation.
“One of the things I hope people stop and think about is that rather than apathy, New York was a site—and continues to be—of incredible activism and involvement,” says Gallo. “This notion of apathy, I actually don’t think it works. I don’t think it works in New York, and I don’t think it works in most places.”
Another likely reason the apathy narrative has endured is that, for all its factual inaccuracies, the story did lead to some positive change. The simplified police number 9-1-1 was adopted partly in response to the murder. Gallo says it also encouraged the anti-rape movement (that aspect of the crime wasn’t initially reported) as well as activism over partner abuse (some neighbors reportedly failed to intervene because they considered the matter a “lover’s quarrel”).
More benefits may be in store. Writing in the New Yorker last year, on the 50th anniversary of the murder, Nicholas Lemann urged journalists to use the “manufacturing of the thirty-eight-witnesses myth” as a cautionary tale about putting intuition before fact:
Stories like that of the silent witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder represent the real danger zone in journalism, because they blend the power of instinct—which is about whether something feels true, not about whether it is true—with the respectable sheen of social science.
The social science that emerged from the event is yet another reason for its cultural persistence. Inspired by the Genovese story, psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley launched a line of research now known as the “bystander effect,” which finds that people are less likely to intervene during an emergency when they’re in a group than when they’re alone. But as Latané wrote last year, also in the New Yorker, the effect doesn’t speak to some disease of city life so much as the general impact groups have on individual behavior:
Ironically, we now know that the myth of apathy was initiated by a headline written after Genovese’s murderer had been caught, as a result of a citizen reporting a crime in progress. The reason the story went viral was that New York and the nation were in the midst of a decade of rising—not falling—social concern.
Indeed, it was through the active intervention of local residents that police did apprehend the murderer. He was seen robbing a television from a home a few days after the crime and confronted by some neighbors, who not only called the police but went so far as to prevent any escape by disabling the perpetrator’s car—the polar opposite of apathy and inaction. “That could have been the story,” says Gallo, “but it wasn’t.”