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March 13, 1964: What the Kitty Genovese Murder Teaches Us About Empathy, Apathy, and Our Human Predicament

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“How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do?”

In the small hours of March 13, 1964, a young Italian-American woman in Queens got attacked, raped, and stabbed to death seventeen times over the course of half an hour outside her small apartment house on Austin Street in Kew Gardens. Thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the attack. No one did anything to stop it. No one called the police. No one seemed to care. The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese became one of modern history’s most unsettling and confounding conundrums for generations of psychologists, sociologists, and ordinary people alike. How can we accept that thirty-eight ordinary middle-class citizens — people with good jobs and good families and good homes, people with beige carpets — could slide so far down on the scale from empathy to apathy as to allow for such brutality to happen right before their eyes? What does this say about the human spirit, and how can we make sense of it without losing faith in humanity?

That, and its many complicated dimensions, is what A. M. Rosenthal, who would go on to become the most controversial executive editor The New York Times has ever had, explores in the slim but tremendously impactful book Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (public library). Rosenthal himself was responsible for bringing public attention to Genovese’s story in an era when the Times gave any murder in Queens no more than four paragraphs, a time when the invisible “relationship of color and geography to crime news” permeated the media. But Rosenthal, having just been appointed Metropolitan Editor of the Times after years at the paper’s foreign bureaus in India, Poland, and Japan, took it upon himself to get to know the men — for in that era, they were only men — who ran the city, from the Mayor to the bankers to the playwrights. One of them was Michael Joseph Murphy, the New York City Police Commissioner — a man “who looks like a tough Irish cop because he is a tough Irish cop but who also happens to be a man of knowledge and sensitivity,” a man who goes to the same restaurant for lunch, always sits with his back to the wall (an old police habit), and “orders shrimp curry and rice in the touching belief that the dish is somehow non-caloric.” (Yes, besides being a formidable journalist, Rosenthal, who died in 2006, was also an enchanting storyteller.)

Catherine Genovese

Over one such lunch near City Hall, hours after the murder had been reported, Commissioner Murphy shared with Rosenthal his preoccupation with this chilling case in which thirty-eight neighbors had failed to help a dying 28-year-old woman. Rosenthal first thought the details were an exaggeration, but the Commissioner wistfully assured him, “Yes, thirty-eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.” There and then, Rosenthal knew it would be an important story — not only for its newsworthiness in crime reporting, but also for the broader philosophical questions it raises about our human predicament. He was right — the Times ran the story the next day, and it was immediately picked up by other mass media. The case soon became “a stunning example of apathy — other people’s apathy.” But behind that veneer of otherness hide some of the darkest potentialities of our own selves.

Rosenthal captures the murder’s enduring haunt:

The Kitty Genovese story, the Genovese case, has become both a quick, puffy cliché for apathy and cowardice about the suffering of others, and an intellectual and religious puzzlement: what does it mean to me? To me, you, we.

That is the power of the Genovese matter. It 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.

Catherine Genovese

Rosenthal wrote the book shortly after the murder and it was originally published at the end of 1964, partly as a reporter’s account of the precise details of the case, and partly as a philosopher’s meditation on the elements of human nature and social dynamics that made this brutality possible. In 1995, it was reprinted with a new introduction by Rosenthal, who had spent thirty-five years contemplating the case — thirty-five years during which social psychologists had come up with the influential theory of pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect in trying to explain what happened. But for Rosenthal, the case, with its question of why thirty-eight witnesses refused to help, was still a microcosm of the choices we all make, every day, in how we relate to the world. He writes in the 1995 introduction:

As I was writing Thirty-Eight Witnesses, I felt the question should be reworded so: would I ever refuse again?

I knew most of us had refused in the past, so often that we had become unaware of what we were doing.

I have walked past lepers and beggars scores of times in Asia. Any help from me, the merest, would have been of importance to them. They were terribly sick; I saw their sores. If they were professional beggars, as I told myself, did that salve their sores or straighten the limbs of the twisted children they held up, rented or not?

[…]

But the mystery for all of us about the Genovese case was how could it have happened that thirty-eight people, thirty-eight, heard the screams and did nothing. Two or three, all right, maybe even a half dozen — it could happen. But everybody, all thirty-eight of them?

I was trying hard to be candid with myself, but not hard enough. Now and for some years I have realized that I failed to ask the question that might have answered the mystery of so many silent witnesses on Austin Street.

Who was walking with me on that street in Calcutta or New Delhi and not stopping to give help? Not thirty-eight people, but hundreds at any one moment, thousands in an hour.

In the middle of a cold night, thirty-eight people refused the risk of being stabbed or getting involved by answering a cry for help of a person they could not see. Is that a greater mystery, a greater offense, than that by light of day thousands on a single street withhold help to suffering people, when it would cost them virtually nothing and put them in no peril, even though they see their faces and sores?

It is a poignant question, and a prescient one, as we face a growing disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in the world today. For all those fighting global poverty, how many do nothing? And when one of the most fundamental human rights — the right to love — is being denied to a great many fellow human beings, how many raise their voices? How many perch out of our proverbial windows and look on as the tragedy of the “other” unfolds?

With equal poignancy, Rosenthal questions how we hide behind physical space and use distance as a currency of apathy — an observation all the more prescient in our day and age of military drones, where the combination of new technology and basic human psychology makes soldiers deadlier at a distance as they find it easier to kill someone far away than to shoot them at close range. Rosenthal’s closing words land like poison darts at our darkest, most self-conscious fears about what it means to be — or to fail at being — a good human:

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something.

Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the thirty-eight? Tell me, what question is more important than the one Catherine Genovese put to me for years when I sat down to write my columns for the Times — how far?

Thirty-Eight Witnesses is a remarkable read in its entirety — undeniably difficult, but undeniably important. Complement it with the equally disquieting Stanford Prison Experiment, then see psychologist David DeSteno on the psychology of good and evil in all of us.

Thanks, Andrew

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