Myth and Truth in Kitty Genovese’s Story

Book review: Kitty Genovese, by Catherine Pelonero (Amazon / Book Depository)

It was the location, many later said, that gave a heightened sense of horror to what happened.

In the early morning of March 1964 in Kew Gardens, a quiet residential district of Queens, considered “idyllic” by New York City standards, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered on her way home from work in a bar. It would become the catalyst for a curious debate, lasting decades, about what role bystander effect played.

Across the street stood an immense ten-story apartment building that ran the length of the entire block. Lights were coming on, first one and then another and another, as if a giant stone creature had suddenly awakened and begun to open its many rectangular eyes.

Author Catherine Pelonero approaches this incident and its historical impact by retracing the voluminous newspaper reporting around it. Because Kitty’s murder was such a sensational story at the time, it was reported on extensively, beginning with the New York Times article that started the “38 witnesses” story.

A wealth of materials exist and in almost detective-like fashion, Pelonero pieces together where reality began to morph into myth as the story was retold and more people were interviewed after having absorbed media coverage until it snowballed into an event that does say something meaningful about society, violence, and responsibility, but perhaps not exactly what we’ve always assumed.

I really liked this approach, as it showed the evolution of the story and its progression through the media, what was chosen to report and what was ignored, or hidden, resulting in this being a much more nuanced bit of history than the narrative that’s become infamous. Pelonero includes interview excerpts from over the years with the neighborhood’s residents, recalling that night and how its aftereffects were wider-reaching than perhaps realized.

The narrative of Kitty’s murder with its demonstration of bystander effect is well known, but like many stories that have been repeated for too long between too many sources, the truth is more complicated and often contradictory. There were a number of factors that contributed to what happened – that is, a noisy murder committed in the middle of the night in a heavily populated residential area, the astonishing fact that the murderer was chased off but able to return to rape and kill his victim despite lights on and people shouting – and they weren’t all related to bystander effect.

Among them were, surprising to me, the complexities of the time around contacting the police and, less surprisingly, confusion over whether what they heard or partially saw was a domestic dispute between a drunk couple. It’s like that parable of blind men touching an elephant and each reporting something wildly different despite describing ostensibly the same thing. This had a lot to do with how people interpreted what they saw, and what they felt their responsibilities, or abilities, were in connection. One reporter quoted an elderly woman who said she was so frightened by what she heard that her hands trembled too badly to dial the operator.

That same reporter, Edward Weiland, interviewed another man who said: “You get used to it after a while. You get conditioned. So when you hear a cry, you figure it’s just another drunk or a teen-ager [sic] raising hell. How can you pick one noise out of a hundred and know this time it’s murder?”

This was the most powerful aspect of the book for me. Kitty’s name has become a reductive byword for the not-my-problem attitude of big city living, a horror story repeated with the threatening undertone of unsurprising violence against women out too late alone – all unfortunate parts of this story, but not the whole thing. There’s absolutely truth in the bystander effect here, but there’s also a perfect storm situation of circumstances of the moment plus social elements, coalescing tragically.

But, he insisted, he was not a coward. “I believe I would have helped if I’d realized what the real situation was.”
As for his thoughts on what the “real situation” was at the time, he said: “At one point I thought maybe a girl was being raped—but if she was out alone at that hour, it served her right.”

It’s worth mentioning that the details of Kitty’s ordeal are harrowing. I think the outline is clear from the oft-repeated version of this story, but it’s infinitely worse than I knew. It’s haunting.

Despite no lack of detail, Pelonero makes this about Kitty’s life as much as about her death, and it’s a remarkably touching and in moments, beautifully happy story. I can’t believe that so much about who she was has been lost as the story of her death has been repeated over time, eclipsing anything that came before it. One of the “private consequences” of the subtitle was what happened to Mary Ann Zielonko, her surviving partner.

This was a time when homosexuality was relegated to the sidelines, and although the pair were roommates, their romantic partnership wasn’t common knowledge. Mary Ann sank into a deep depression after Kitty’s murder, numbing herself with alcohol in isolation for months, before she “decided to rescue herself.” It’s clear that part of her pain stemmed from not being able to openly express the depth of what she’d lost.

Also covered is the life of Kitty’s murderer, Winston Moseley, whose wife mused about it being “near impossible to imagine a man more placid or less confrontational than Winston.” He’s a curious character, and although I didn’t enjoy reading about him and failed to feel sympathy, Pelonero is thorough in presenting every angle of this story and everyone involved.

Interestingly, Kitty’s death was an impetus for 911. Journalist Martin Gansberg wrote an article for the New York Times that led to discussions about implementing a simple, streamlined system for citizens to contact police directly. Until that point it had involved an operator, calling individual precincts or a police communications bureau, thus accounting for one of the convoluted elements that allowed this to happen.

There are a number of books about Kitty and I wasn’t sure which to read – I picked this one because it was $2 in the BookBub newsletter, and it ended up being excellent. It’s informative, well-structured and compellingly written in narrative nonfiction style, and provides so much insightful background about social context, not to mention about Kitty’s life and acquaintances. (This was maybe even a more scandalous element than the infamous alleged 38 witnesses – a close friend saw her lying in the apartment vestibule and went back inside without helping. There’s so much about this story that’s just confounding.)

But aside from those too frightened, those who had heard too little to know what was happening, and those who had miscalculated the severity of the situation, in certain others the sense of detachment was palpable, as if the agony endured by a neighbor had no more bearing on their lives than would a broken traffic signal on Austin and Lefferts. Somebody should fix it, but not me.

Kitty Genovese:
A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences
by Catherine Pelonero
published March 2014 by Skyhorse

Amazon / Book Depository

39 thoughts on “Myth and Truth in Kitty Genovese’s Story

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  1. Wow I really want to read this book! I’ll be honest and say that I had never heard of this case, but I had read about the bystander effect. Your review is so good and insightful that I have the urge to go on Amazon and buy this immediately. It sounds like a book I’ll really enjoy even though it’s not what I tend to pick up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, I’m glad I could convey how good it was! It’s very disturbing but something I appreciated learning about and felt like I understood much better after reading it.

      You’re making me think that maybe this case isn’t so well known outside of the US, and you’re in the UK, right? It’s often held up as a clear-cut example of bystander effect but that was only one facet of what happened…but thanks to a lurid newspaper story, ended up being the primary thing we associate with it.

      If you can wait to buy it, subscribe to the BookBub newsletter, it shows up from time to time as one of their daily deals, that’s where I got it. It was 2 or 3 dollars very well spent!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a bad combination of factors, and the callous disregard on some people’s parts didn’t help. There was a lot confusion and misunderstandings too. The author made it seem that reaching the police through the operator also wasn’t a quick or simple process, which I thought was really interesting as I hadn’t known much about it before. It’s a completely fascinating book, there’s a lot more to the story than I realized!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating! Like everyone who’s ever taken a psychology class I’ve heard of Kitty, but I really don’t know anything else about this story, and it’s not surprising to hear there’s more to it than often gets talked about. Definitely adding this to the TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know what’s so weird, I have a minor in psychology (so impressive, I know) so I took a lot of psych classes but I can’t remember if I actually learned about it in one or if I just think I did because I’ve heard about it being taught so often! It’s a great book, it was so comprehensive in breaking down why and how it became the myth that it did and I love anything that gives so much insight into the social history of the time. And the biography aspect was fantastic, it felt like it provided so much about who she was when she’s been reduced to a (flawed) case study for so long!


  3. It’s shocking what happened to her and so fascinating about the human behavior. 38 neighbors who just did not want to get involved. I haven’t read this one but one by Kevin Cook was pretty decent as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I was curious about, how other books on it compare…I couldn’t decide which one to read, then this one came up in an ebook sale newsletter so seemed the easy choice and ended up being excellent. I’d still like to read something else on it for different perspective at some point. Thanks for the recommendation!


  4. Sounds fascinating, if horrific! I wasn’t aware of this case either, but can easily imagine something similar happening in the cities over here. I live not far from a nightclub, and when it closes you often hear girls shrieking and squealing, and like the man in the book says, it’s impossible to tell when it might be due to more than drunken high spirits, and you do get to a point where you just tune it out. I often think to myself that I’d feel incredibly guilty if I learned the next day that something awful had happened…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was a fascinating read! I’ve had similar experiences living near bars and a few hotels/hostels. You end up just tuning it out because there’s so much of it or else you’d be glued to the window all night trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s such a tricky situation. I think in this case there were a lot of indicators that something else was going on, but it was difficult because lots of people didn’t hear or see enough to form a clear picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent review! It’s refreshing that the author makes the effort to fully
    flesh out Kitty’s life as well as clarify the details surrounding her death.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was haha! If I’m remembering correctly, almost one of the first episodes! I think Georgia did the story. Reading your review back, I remember elements of the story but I would definitely be interested in reading a whole book about the crime and it’s consequences!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s too funny, it’s even the earlier episodes that I’ve relistened to 😂 My consolation is that they even forget which ones they’ve done and they’re the ones who research and spend an hour talking about them! The book is excellent though, it’s so well written and gives a thorough look at the consequences and context.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. As a psych major I heard about this story a lot during college and was so confounded about how it happened. In all honesty, living in a city has given me a lot more insight into it. I live next to a subway station and not a day goes by where I don’t hear screaming outside my apartment. 99% of the time, it’s teenagers running through the parking lot and messing around, or drunk people hollering for one reason or another. Luckily, the other 1% of the time there have been transit police around to handle things. The truth is, it is *so* easy to become desensitized. If it’s daytime, I often won’t bother getting up to look unless it goes on for a sustained period of time. During the night, I’m much more apt to look since it’s less likely to be kids messing around. But it’s difficult because it’s so rarely anything that requires my attention.

    I don’t know where I’m trying to go here, I guess I’m just sharing another perspective on how something like this can happen, although I’d sure like to think this would be one of the instances where I would take action.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know exactly what you mean. Desensitization from living in a city with constant noise and stimuli was absolutely a factor. I’ve had similar experiences as you, we live near lots of bars, restaurants and hotels at the moment and I’m always ignoring noises or else I’d be glued to the window all day and night. We even ignored screams coming from a former neighbor whose family was always making ungodly amounts of noise until the police showed up to break up a fight. It can be so hard to tell what exactly is going on. It was interesting to read about the perfect storm of circumstances that came together here to cause this one, but I guess what happened was a bit different, if some people had acted a bit more proactively, especially her friend who came out of his apartment and saw her in the vestibule, this could have had a different ending. It’s a tough one.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve read the recent Kevin Cook book and it really dove into some of the misperceptions that many people have about the case. E.g., 38 people didn’t stand around and watch her being murdered without doing anything, as many seem to think. The police talked to that many witnesses, but there was a wide variation in what the witnesses actually saw/heard or even could have seen/heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was always one of those cases that infuriated me when we talked about it in high school. But as is always the case, there is more nuance to it. I can understand being afraid to get involved because you don’t know what’s really going on. This case has always haunted me.

    Side note: I actually had something happen when I was in my 20s where I had to decide whether to get involved or not. One night, I heard a commotion going on outside my friend’s apartment and went to investigate and there were a group of tough-looking teens standing around watching a male subduing a female and wrestling her to the ground. I did not want to get involved because if the onlookers rallied against me, it could go bad. But I had my friend call the police from her landline and then went to see what I could do. Not being built for brawling, I ordered the guy to let her go and surprisingly, he did. He kept telling me to mind my own business and I told him attacking a female in public made it my business. Turns out it was a family squabble. Luckily the cops got it sorted out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s such a tricky area, about getting involved or not. We just witnessed a big trashy fight in a restaurant last week and some people around us were getting tensed up, it was clear everyone was weighing whether to get involved or not since there was a child in between the couple. My aunt was whispering about how this is exactly when a gun comes out. It’s scary, and you just never know!

      In your situation it’s so hard because as you said, you don’t know how a crowd will turn. That sounds so disturbing, I’m glad it turned out ok. Sometimes people like that are more bark than bite and will back down when confronted, but it’s always a gamble.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re so right. You never know what will happen. Same complex and my neighbor was in the pat king lot when a couple kids around 14 were jawing and one sees him looking and flashes a gun in his waistband and asks if he’s got a problem.


  9. Wow, this sounds fascinating and well done, but also infuriating. I have steam coming out my ears over the scumbag who insists he would have helped if he hadn’t thought it was “just” a woman being raped.

    Liked by 1 person

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