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Thirty-Eight Witnesses: A Review

Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (Melville House Classic Journalism)Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (Melville House Classic Journalism) by A. M. Rosenthal

Reviewed by Art Winslow
Chicago Tribune

When a 78-year-old pedestrian was downed by a hit-and-run driver in Hartford, Conn., in June, street surveillance video showed multiple cars passing by without stopping and fellow pedestrians staring at the victim without any visible move to aid him. This provoked public outrage and claims of a Kitty Genovese syndrome.

Last year, a sexual assault in the hallway of an apartment building in St. Paul, in which surveillance video suggested there may have been up to 10 witnesses (the police were summoned only after a lapse of some 90 minutes), also resurrected comparisons to the Genovese murder and its mute onlookers.

Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was 28 when she was stabbed to death in the New York City borough of Queens in 1964, but she and the circumstances surrounding her death remain alive in public reflexes every time we encounter what social psychologists often refer to as the bystander effect.

A.M. Rosenthal, who was metropolitan editor of the New York Times when the murder happened and so was in charge of its coverage, wrote a book shortly after the killing that is by turns indignant, self-excoriating and insightful not just on the social responsibilities of community but also on the paradoxes and foibles of journalism. Titled Thirty-Eight Witnesses, after the number of people at the time assumed to have knowledge of the crime but who did not report it as it occurred, it has just been reprinted after 44 years. While it resembles a time capsule in some respects, several of the haunting questions Rosenthal raised, generalized to any such situation, remain unanswerable, and link as firmly to the present as they did to their own time.

Rosenthal recounts one of the follow-up stories that the Times produced in the wake of the murder, contacting a random selection of sociologists, psychologists and theologians in search of perspective. From the sociologist who pointed to "'affect denial'" to the theologian who spoke of New York's "'depersonalizing'" effects but asked not to be identified, Rosenthal noted that "the reaction of almost every one of these social physicians was to admit total failure on their part to understand." As social psychologist Stanley Milgram, best known for his studies on authority and obedience, put it at a conference 20 years after the murder, the case represents "our primordial nightmare. If we need help, will those around us stand around and let us be destroyed or will they come to our aid?"

There might not have been a story, beyond the basic four-paragraph notice the Times ran the day after the murder, had Rosenthal not been to lunch 10 days later with the city's police commissioner, Michael Joseph Murphy. Murphy said to Rosenthal, "'Brother, that Queens story is one for the books,'" and went on to relate that 38 people had "'watched'" (this is Rosenthal's word) a woman being killed, and "'not one of them had called the police to save her life.'" That conversation spurred Rosenthal to send a relatively green reporter, Marty Gansberg, to Austin Street in Kew Gardens, Queens, knocking on doors.

Gansberg's story ran two weeks after Genovese's murder and is reprinted in Thirty-Eight Witnesses, the classic account of the case (some particulars have been in dispute since). It began, "For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens." In what followed, Gansberg reported that Lt. Bernard Jacobs, who handled the investigation by the detectives, "said his men were able to piece together what happened -- and capture the suspect -- because the residents furnished all the information when detectives rang doorbells following the slaying." Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of all the borough's detectives, said "As we have reconstructed the crime, the assailant had three chances to kill this woman during a thirty-five minute period. He [ran off but] returned twice to complete the job."

Gansberg quotes Genovese as screaming, "'Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please Help me!'" and "'I'm dying!'" Local residents told Gansberg, among other things, "'We thought it was a lover's quarrel,'" "'I didn't want my husband to get involved,'" "'Frankly, we were afraid,'" and one man, asked why he did not call the police, replied: "'I was tired. I went back to bed.'"

One has the sense that Rosenthal, who went on to be executive editor of the Times and died in 2006, had trouble going back to bed himself after this: He wrote a magazine article about the case, which forms part of Thirty-Eight Witnesses, and he can be seen brooding over it again in the introduction to a paperback edition of the book from 1999, in which he maintains that the power of the incident "talks to us not about her, a subject that was barely of fleeting interest to us, but about ourselves, a subject never out of our minds." Looking back to letters the Times received about the case, he had "a feeling that the story had turned into a hunt for a target, and the queasy belief that the target was in our own mirrors." (Despite this, public animus at the time turned toward the police, as well as toward the witnesses.) The self-interrogation to which Rosenthal subjects himself -- and by extension us all -- is the enduring grist of the book, in which he goes so far as to confess, "I failed to ask the question that might have answered the mystery of so many silent witnesses on Austin Street."

Much of the talk of the time centered on apathy as a cultural affliction, to the point that it became a newsroom joke to slug, or label, a story "apathy." Rosenthal wrote, "in that instant of shock, the mirror showed quite clearly what was wrong, that the face of mankind was spotted with the disease of apathy -- all mankind. But this was too frightening a thought to live with," and he terms the failure to examine it one of the "two tragedies" of the Genovese case (Catherine's death being the other).

Did 38 people really witness the murder of Kitty Genovese and not report it? Not as eyewitnesses. You will not find that stated flatly in Thirty-Eight Witnesses, but recall that with the exception of the 1999 introduction by Rosenthal, most of the content of the book was created shortly after the crime, and as they say, journalism is the first draft of history. What you will find is Rosenthal admitting that "of the thirty-eight, about eighteen had witnessed or heard each of the attacks, the other twenty had heard or seen one -- enough to make them witnesses in court." (The last time her killer caught up with her, she was in a hallway and not visible the way she had been earlier on the street.)

That fact -- the number of witnesses -- was one of the major contentions in an article published last fall in the journal American Psychologist that questioned acceptance of the standard story of the context of the murder, Gansberg and Rosenthal's work, and aspects of the bystander effect extrapolated from behavioral research that the case inspired. Titled "The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Social Psychology of Helping: the Parable of the 38 Witnesses," the piece argued that available evidence did not support the idea of 38 quiescent observers of the event and that it is a "modern parable." The authors seem principally concerned with the manner in which the case is portrayed in psychology textbooks, but in the process quote from an assistant district attorney at the time, Charles Skoller, who claimed to have found "about half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use." (Skoller also said the number hearing screams "could have been more than 38.")

But Rosenthal does not base his moral arguments on the numbers. Quite the opposite, in fact. He asks, "Is the ugliness in the number or is it in the act itself, and are thirty-eight sins truly more important than one?" His starkest statement may be the following: "What happened in the apartments and houses on Austin Street was a symptom of a terrible reality in the human condition -- that only under certain situations and only in response to certain reflexes or certain beliefs will a man step out of his shell toward his brother."

In this and other examples, Rosenthal's thought anticipates the humanitarian intervention debates taking place today, the root ideas visible, if one looks at it his way, on a ghastly March night long ago.

Kitty Genovese's killer, Winston Moseley, who confessed to two other murders, was caught six days after her killing and convicted in a three-day trial. Last spring he was denied parole for the 13th time.

Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of The Nation, is a frequent contributor to The Tribune.

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