Nicholas Lemann, noted author and Professor of Journalism at Columbia, has an essay in the latest New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s brutal murder in the Kew Gardens section of New York City. Young readers will recognize the name, if they recognize it all, as a case they heard about in Psychology 1 illustrating how people can be indifferent to others in need. The March 27, 1964, headline in the New York Times said it all: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector. The next day’s installment was headlined: Apathy Is Puzzle in Queens Killing: Behavioral Specialists Hard Put to Explain Witnesses’ Failure to Call Police–Interpretations Vary–Some Say Tendency Not to Get Involved Is Typical Others Call it Uncommon.
As Lemann recounts the oft-recounted story, two new books on it having just appeared, he describes a case of journalistic – and perhaps, academic – malpractice. The best estimate, per Lemann, is that only a handful of people were actually aware that she was being attacked and about half of those tried to do something. (The assailant was at first chased away by neighbors yelling at the initial attack. He came back later and trapped Genovese in a stairwell out of all but perhaps one witness’s sight and in earshot of only a few.) In the end, maybe several people could be fairly charged with apathy – or fear – although the debate about that still rages (e.g., see here and here). (Update: And a 2015 film by Genovese’s brother, “The Witness,” further undermines the classic story.)
Whatever the facts, the story, magnified by noted New York Times writer and later editor A. M. Rosenthal, set off decades of philosophizing about the human condition, black humor about New York City, and hundreds of psychology experiments – a form of academic headline-chasing – probably starting with this one four years after the murder. Since then, research on “bystander intervention,” asking when people do or do not intervene to help a stranger in need, boomed into an even bigger research field on “pro-social behavior,” asking why anybody ever helps anybody at all.
The story has lasted amazingly long. Kitty Genovese’s name appeared in the New York Times – and in social science journals – more often in the 2000s than in any previous decade. Except for a brief surge in 1975, her name has appeared in American books at a steady rate for the last roughly 45 years (nGram analysis).
Lemann does a great job of exploring the case, the coverage, and its cultural resonance. Here, I want to comment about the Kitty Genovese story’s role in accentuating and embellishing the late-twentieth-century image of the nightmare city.
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