Kitty Genovese, Revisited

26A-Genovese-1A documentary, The Witness, was released a year ago revisiting the murder of Kitty Genovese. Some details can be found in this article.

The movie tries to dispel some popular myths about the case. It turns out, contrary to news reports of the time (and many textbooks to this day), there weren’t 39 witnesses to the attack. And some witnesses only saw or heard parts of what happened.

Do these revelations change the way you think about the Genovese case? When you first learned about the Genovese case, did you believe that dozens of people stood and watched the entire attack without doing anything, or did you know that some witnesses only heard ambiguous bits and pieces of what was going on? Have you ever witnessed only part of an ambiguous situation and therefore done nothing because you weren’t sure what the full story was?

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18 Responses to Kitty Genovese, Revisited

  1. Profile photo of Alison Hoi Alison Hoi says:

    When I first read about this case, I found it hard to believe that dozens of people saw and knew exactly what was happening; I like to think that people are not that indifferent towards acts of violence. However, especially after living on a busy street this past year, I can empathize with the idea of hearing a yell or shout and not knowing how to respond. It’s difficult to determine when you need to interject and when you can just wait for the situation to play out.

  2. I’ve lived in a city all my life, and I completely understand the act of hearing a noise or seeing a questionable situation and deciding not to help. I also think the time of the attack is important; if this had happened at 9pm on a weekend, people may have been more inclined to help because they couldn’t rationalize already being asleep, or having to go to work the next day.

    Another thing I find myself thinking a lot is, “I don’t want to know.” I’m not sure if this is a thought that crosses a lot of other peoples’ minds, but for me staying away from uncertain situations and learning as little about them as possible leaves me a built-in excuse for not getting involved. It’s easy to look the other way when you have no information about what’s going on with someone.

    • Lucy B. Ren says:

      I definitely agree. As bad as it sounds to say “I don’t want to know”, I think that it’s completely reasonable given that most questionable situations aren’t as serious as the Kitty Genovese case. We don’t automatically assume when we hear yelling and shouting that someone is being murdered and therefore, we aren’t inclined to learn more about the situation if we don’t think it’s serious. In day to day life it is also hard to determine, sometimes, exactly how to help. I wouldn’t want to overstep and interfere, especially if the situation turned out to be a minor one that wasn’t critical. Therefore, it’s easier to assume that things will work out and play out by themselves.

      • Yasie Nejad says:

        I agree with both Lucy and Samuel. From my personal experiences of living in the suburbs north of Boston and being more in Boston recently, I’ve definitely seen a difference in the way people respond to situations such as a loud noise/scream/etc… In the suburbs, I think people aren’t used to constant noise whereas in the city, if someone screams, one might tune it out. I don’t think people are being apathetic when they do that because if they stopped to investigate what every scream was, they would be taking a lot of their day doing so.

  3. Profile photo of Rachel Lai Rachel Lai says:

    Kitty Genovese’s story shocked me, and I initially dismissed it as something that actually happened the way the story is now told. I felt like there was obviously some other reason why the dozens of bystanders didn’t do anything, and until those details became clear, I wasn’t ready to believe the story. I live in a small suburban neighborhood where the majority of my neighbors are elderly/retired people. Exciting things rarely happened, so when I hear the slightest noise or commotion outside, I always run to the window to see what’s going on. Something as small as a confused driver seeking directions through the neighborhood warrants action on my part where I live. However, in a college dorm, I rarely feel concerned when someone is running down the hall screaming, mostly because I don’t know the context of the situation and because I assume there are plenty of other people able to help. Because I live in a small, quiet neighborhood, there is less diffusion of responsibility so I feel more personally responsible for helping. I think in a busy neighborhood people can easily become accustomed to loud noise and even screaming. In areas where domestic disputes are common, it can also be easy to dismiss a few screams. Many people feel that it’s none of their business to intervene in what might simply be a misunderstanding between friends or family. Personally, if I were in a heated argument with a friend (even with a bit of screaming), I wouldn’t necessarily want a bystander to call the police. Of course the stabbing of Kitty Genovese was much extreme than an argument, but the concepts of pluralistic ignorance, urban overload, the bystander effect, and diffusion of responsibility all work against her in her situation.

    • Profile photo of bpastr01 bpastr01 says:

      This reminds me of something that happened to a friend of mine earlier this week. He just moved from a small suburb to Medford, and I don’t think he’s quite used to the amount of noise that can occur around a college campus, even a few blocks away. He heard a few people screaming, and he and his housemates went outside to see what was going on, actually intervened in what turned out to be a dispute between a mother and daughter, and then called the police. I’d like to think I would do something similarly, but having lived right by Hill Hall for a year now, I’m very used to people screaming as they go in and out of the dorm (especially on weekends), and I don’t think I’d think twice about the whole dispute. Interestingly, he hasn’t gotten used to the amount of noise, so there was one obstacle to helping that wasn’t in his way. Even though he’s somewhere with far more people, he must have taken responsibility, perhaps because he’s still in the mindset of that small suburb, or maybe for another reason. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I would have done anything, and I probably would have put the situation down to the normal amount of noise coming from campus.

    • I think it’s interesting to think about which psychological factor played the largest role in allowing this to have happened. Was the bystander effect the largest contributing factor, was it pluralistic ignorance, or was it urban overload? I personally think that urban overload was likely the biggest factor involved. As you said, it stands out a lot more when someone screams in a quiet neighborhood, but not so much when it happens in a crowded city. I would likely ignore it as well if I heard someone scream during a night out in Boston, or if I heard someone scream in a dorm. We are accustomed to expect that type of thing from such environments. However if someone screamed in the quiet neighborhood of my hometown, I would at the very least go look to see what caused the sound. I can hardly picture 30+ people ignoring a woman getting stabbed in any environment, but if I had to imagine it prior to reading this story, I would definitely have imagined it happening in a city.

  4. Profile photo of jstone08 jstone08 says:

    I think we would all like to say that we are immune to the Bystander Effect as it is definitely part of the “darker portrait” of human nature that has emerged in this week’s reading material. I will admit that there was an incident when I was much younger, maybe 10 or 11 years old. I was playing basketball outside my house with some friends. It was a summer evening in late June and all of a sudden we heard this sort of wailing coming from what seemed like a few houses over, it was very faint. There were many people out on my street and my friends and I looked at each other and thought that someone else must be hearing this and will help who ever is crying for help. We decided to go get on our bikes and go get some ice cream. I come back to my house about 3 hours later to find my dad rushing into the house, frantically stating that we need to get an ambulance. It turns out that it was my next door neighbor, and elder woman, who was crying for help for a few hours before my dad came home and investigated. I was a shamed to admit to my parents that I had heard it but didn’t know who or what it was. This personal story has me thinking about the Kitty Genovese story. In my situation, I didn’t really have a good understanding of what was happening. Of course it is easy in hindsight to say that if I had known more I would have helped, but I can understand how people with limited information would be afraid to get involved.

    • I can really relate to this story. It is always so much easier to say when confronted with stories like Kitty’s how you would have stepped in, and maybe in many cases you can site times when you did, but I think most of the time you just never know. So many times I do not think we ever get the second half of the story, because we do not investigate, and so we did nothing wrong. If you never knew that there was an old woman who was crying for help, the ice cream with friends would probable be more memorable than some weird sound you heard while playing basketball. I hate to think about all of the times where I heard some sound of distress, ignored it, and simply forgot it ever happened. For the majority of the witnesses in this case I doubt they knew they ignored a murder until it was too late.

  5. zchai01 says:

    After watching Soloman’s documentary mentioned in this post, I was shocked by the attitude of the New York Times’ editor Rosenthal that it is okay to neglect some important facts as long as the report would generate what he thought would be a social benefit for America. From journalism’s point of view, the accuracy of the news report should come before the ideal to better the American society. Regardless of the intent of Rosenthal, it is not okay for the journalists to twist a story to better fit a narrative they want to advance.

    From a social psychological point of view, the Times report “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” and other similar media coverage essentially identified the witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder as people who “sheepishly” said that they don’t want to “get involved.” The problem with this kind of report is that it overlooks the other obstacles in a 5-step helping tree, and it probably painted too dark a portrait of the American society. Without presenting the concept of pluralistic ignorance and the possibility of an urban overload, without informing the readers of the psychological background of helping behavior, the report failed to present the story in a fair way, a way that would result in clearer understanding of our society and well-informed discussions.

    It pains me to think that Bill lost his legs largely because he wanted to disprove something that was blown out of proportions. And it pains to see how journalists twisted the story to fulfilled their own prophecies.

  6. Yasie Nejad says:

    Genovese’s situation is a difficult one to try to learn from for two reasons: the facts are still muddled and probably always will be, at least to some extent, and it would be hard to change the way we react to a scream.

    However, the statement, “see something, say something” is very important because if their were eye witnesses who didn’t try to help her, that would be where we try to learn from the story. I could see maybe a few people seeing the situation and not doing anything about it, but the story recounts at least 30 individuals who, at that moment, decided to be bystanders. That number is one that should terrify any reader.

    • Thanawan Wongsanguan says:

      I agreed. Prior to learning about the bystander effect I would be shocked that 30 people was there but did nothing. However, it is surprising to learn that people are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses. It is interesting that the more people there is, the stronger the bystander effect due to the perceived diffusion of responsibility. Moreover, individuals in a group also monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act and in Genovese’s case, each onlooker concluded from their neighbors’ inaction that their own personal help was not needed.

  7. Profile photo of Aubrey  Tan Aubrey Tan says:

    The full documentary wasn’t on the site, but I found it on Netflix conveniently. People are going to have their opinions about the skewed facts of the case and what is deemed the truth. However, it was a very powerful gut-wrenching, and thought provoking documentary. The different witness testimonies were very interesting since they helped to build multiple layers of the film, while exploring various angles of the whole situation. It is interesting since the majority were just earwitnesses who heard screams and what not. This definitely raised some questions regarding certain portrayals of witnesses when it was stated “they ignored her cries or didn’t act to help.” The media coverage of this story can be seen in a controversial manner that unfairly represents the bystanders. We will never truly understand the full context under the tragedy so i think it isn’t right to paint certain people under such a negative light. The way that Mr. Rosenthal skewed the story for his own personal highlights was ethically wrong.

    If there was someone to take more of the blame, I think it would have to be the police. Since corruption was pretty prevalent during that era, there very well could have been a huge coverup where civilians are used for coverup. This could be quire possible especially if the Mob had the police on their payroll.

  8. I first learned about this case when I was 15 years old and taking an Intro-Psychology course at a summer program in Penn State. There we were taught the now almost mystical events of that night and how countless people watched as this women was attacked then abandoned and later attacked again. I was very impacted by this story and as our text says have kept the bystander effect lesson in mind throughout these years. In multiple instances I have helped others remembering her case and fearing no one will do anything. Now, at 22 and learning that the case was not as extreme as it was first made out to me, I can begin to trust bystanders a bit more. I was raised in the capitol of Puerto Rico, one of the most violent places in the world by square mile, and I have to say I commonly encounter noises or events that are somewhat similar. I can clearly remember in high school in one of our festivals, somewhat like a mardi grass event, a sound rang out that sounded like a shot. Simultaneously hundreds of people crouched down, but what really impressed me was how normal everything flowed right after as long as the individual was ok no one seemed to question if it had in fact been a gun fired. This is not exactly the bystander effect but i guess could be similar to group pluralistic ignorance.

  9. Thanawan Wongsanguan says:

    The feelings I got reading and watching the documentary reminded me of the sad incident that happened in Thailand two weeks ago. Two weeks ago a pregnant lady fell into a BTS skytrain-railway. There were at least 20 people at the incident who saw her fell into the railway but none jumped down to help her up. The Bystander Effect takes place here as many people witnessed an emergency and assume that since so many people are around, someone else will handle the situation. The concept of Diffusion of Responsibility is at work as people often assumed others will step forward.

  10. I was partially convinced when I read the about the cynical side of the Kitty Genovese case reported by the media. The part of me that was convinced drew on precedents similarly reflecting on the seeming moral depravity of humans aspect of that had happened. Yet the other part of me that remained suspicious believed that even the repetitive occurrence of tragedies partially completed by the total inaction of the witnesses (which might not be true, because the “precedents” might also have been in ways distorted by the media.) should not make them “normal.”

    I couldn’t quickly recall any personal experience of being in an ambiguous situation that might have been an emergency, however, I could imagine myself being in a specific one and did not intervene to help due to its ambiguity and my fear for its potential cost of my personal interest. Over the past few years, there have risen a group of elderlies who would pretend to have fallen on the street (some even with self-inflicted injuries) in order to attract other people to approach and help them up. Some after the helper lays his or her hands on the fallen person, the fallen person would start yelling or screaming, deceptively ascribing his or her fall and injuries to the helper, and ask the helper for compensation. As impossible as it sounds, quite many unfortunate helpers had been successfully blackmailed.

    People soon learnt their lesson, and started to grow timid and reluctant to help those elderlies who actually might be in need. As I implied at the start of my response, to be honest, if I found myself in vicinity with such an elderly, I might act the same way as the massive Chinese society would , or better, at least hesitate for a while before I decide to help, due to the hardship of clearly discerning the nature of the incident.

  11. I recall first learning about this case in middle school. We were told how the 38 witnesses watched this helpless woman get murdered while calling out for help and they did nothing. We discussed after reading the article how they all assumed that someone else would do something and that they did not need to step in and intervene. This was a very memorable class because I insisted that if I saw something as horrendous as a murder taking place I would do everything in my power to stop it, and the teacher disagreeing, pointing to the article, and stating that I would not really know until confronted with a similar situation. Since then I have always tried to be proactive in helping people in need, while also believing I can not trust strangers around me to step in if I really need help.

    It makes me feel a lot better about humanity and our society though to know now how misleading that article was, and how little information a lot of the bystanders had. It is tragic that her own brother had to lose his legs fighting to prove an untrue article wrong, and his bravery proves the selflessness of people. I do not have to think back far to the two man who were murdered while intervening in an anti-muslim rant in Portland. Incidents like that in Portland are saddening, but do remind me that for every crazy, knife wielding, aggressor, there are people willing to step up and fight back.

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