Teaching Kitty Genovese: The Importance of Complexity and the Perils of the Single Narrative

Posted by Brian Gibbs on May 21, 2014

I’d taught the story of Kitty Genovese for years and thought I’d read all there was to read on it. I was convinced that I knew the story. It had touched me deeply, shocked me, and moved me. Perhaps that was the problem, I had become far too comfortable with an uncomfortable story, and stopped exploring, asking, questioning. For an old man it was a rookie mistake and one that I’d unfortunately made every year for 16 years.

Abraham Michael (A.M.) Rosenthal’s 1987 New York Times essay “On My Mind; The 39th Witness” about the 1964 murder of a New York woman in full view of her neighbors and friends woke me up. Perhaps it was the macabre that captured my attention and imagination first. That a human being — known in the neighborhood, walking on streets she had grown up on - could be murdered in such a foul, extended, and brutal fashion? It strained comprehension. That there were witnesses who ignored, watched, or chose to look away just deepened the inky despair.

The dominant narrative goes like this. Catherine Genovese, better known as Kitty, was a 28-year-old bartender and part-time New York University student who was in all ways an ordinary young woman. She was interested in having fun, exploring the city, and trying to determine what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Late one night/early in the morning, while on the way home, she was attacked, sexually assaulted, and murdered. She was stabbed repeatedly and fought hard and loudly for her life. “While she screamed her young, sad life out on Austin Street, 38 people, by police count, heard her. Some raised their windows. Not one did anything to help her, no one even called the police,” Rosenthal reported.

It’s a gripping and compelling tale, one that simultaneously makes no sense and makes perfect sense. It spawned a cottage industry of sociological research arguing that we were becoming ever more isolated and immune from responding to people in need as we chose to live in cities that grew into monstrous metropolises all around us. The research strongly indicated that “we” were more likely to walk by than to become involved. In Facing History terms, our universe of obligation had become stunted. Perhaps our universe of obligation had always been small, but this case drew attention to the fact.

An example of how a student or teacher might begin to map their Universe of Obligation An example of how a student or teacher might begin to map their Universe of Obligation

Rosenthal wrote a book about the incident called the 38 Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case, which soon became the most complete and perceived final word on the case. As he argues in his essay, Rosenthal “didn’t really blame the 38 because it could have been any one of us.” And as the title reveals, Rosenthal now feels that he is one of them, a 39th witness — not a witness to Genovese’s murder, but a silent witness to countless other humans in need.

For 16 years I asked my students to write a five-sentence answer to this question, “How responsible are we for helping others in need?” Each year, my students would write for three minutes and share their point of view with a partner. Afterward, we would come back together for a whole class discussion. My students mostly felt that people should help other people, but that they were under no “obligation” to help. The word “responsible” hung my students up. They wanted to help, but didn’t want to feel the yoke of having to actually do so. I next presented students with five events and asked them to react to them.

Students created a chart with the following in their notebooks:

  • What could you do?
  • What would you do?
  • What should you do?
  • What accounts for the difference?

In each scenario they were alone, far from home and the familiarity of their neighborhood. It was nighttime or early in the morning and they had no cell phone. The events involved a scream coming from a dark alley, a possibly homeless person/drunk person/seriously injured person unconscious in a vacant lot, a man beating a woman, a fight on the way to class, and a car accident.

We engaged each event one at a time as a class. I asked students to list what could be done — not what they could do, but what anyone could do. They created a brainstorm list for two minutes, then together we created a list on the front board. Next, students wrote what they would do. Then I asked students to share. They did so, hesitantly at first, but then with gusto. Many students said they would do something, but that something was almost always indirect — running for help, calling the police. Rarely was it engaging in the problem directly. Many other students would keep walking, arguing that it didn’t involve them and that they could get hurt. If they had the vocabulary at this point, they would have said the person/persons were not within their universe of obligation.

This process was repeated for all five events. We then read Rosenthal’s essay, which is a very short piece (less than two pages in length) that provides a summary of the murder and the witnesses. Before even asking them to discuss, my students, filled with moral outrage, would begin to speak.

“No one did anything?”

“Mister, this was back when there was no caller ID right? So it could have been straight anonymous, right?”

"No one even yelled?"

I would quell the energy for a bit and ask my students to write. “Why not?” I would ask. “Why didn’t anyone help? I want five sentences in five minutes.”

My students would write, scratching at their notebooks with a rage and passion rarely visited upon paper.

My students, they knew why.

"No one knew her.”

“No one really knew what was going on.”

“I don’t think any of them knew about the others…but…still…”

I used this as an opportunity to teach the important concept of “universe of obligation.” I broke down the “we,” “they,” and the “other,” explaining that humans generally consciously or unconsciously sort people into these categories. My students understood almost immediately. It made sense to them and helped them process the depravity of Genovese’s murder. It doesn’t always go this smoothly, but it did the last time I taught it.

“What was up with their universe of obligation?” a student asked, strident passion in her voice. “Yeah, yeah,” the rest of the class piled on. My students were striking their righteous pose, but I was prepared.

“How many people would have helped Kitty Genovese? How many would have done something,” I asked. Every hand in the room shot up. “Let’s look back at the chart.”

A few of the most perceptive students realized where this was going and their eyes began to drop to their papers, to their laps, to the floor, and their righteousness began to ebb.

“Let’s take a look at scenario number one. How many of you helped immediately?” No hands.

“How many of you were going to call the police?” A few hands.

“Doesn’t this scenario sound familiar?”

“Yeah but it’s different,” a student inevitably would say. “These people were in their homes.”

“Did that make them more or less likely to act,” I asked, starting a furious debate. My students were genuinely outraged and confused by this point, realizing they actually do know what they should have done. They faced themselves and didn’t like what they saw. Facing themselves, as my old teaching partner used to say, is the most important thing we can ever have students do.

I then had students go back to the chart and fill in “should have done” in the fourth column. For each of the scenarios students go back through and write what they believe someone should have done and why. Students turn to a partner and discuss which “should” scenarios would be most difficult for them, or perhaps anyone, to do. They discuss. We discuss. I then ask what may be the hardest question.

“What needs to happen to change the would to the should?”

My students are confused. I continue, “What if you recognized the voice?” Students begin to get slightly horrified looks on their faces. “What if the voice was your mom’s? Your little sister’s? Your father’s? Your brother’s? Your prima’s?”

The reaction is almost immediate. “Awww, Hell no,” a student said.

“Explain,” I said.

“I would charge straight down that alley.” The entire class agrees.

“Isn’t it always someone’s mother? Someone’s daughter? Someone’s son? Father? Cousin? Why are ours more valuable? More important?” I push. My students are once again stunned into silence. “We need to grow our universes of obligation and we’re going to start now,” I continue.

The Genovese story always becomes a touchstone for the class. “Come on man, it’s like Kitty Genovese!” or, “What are you a 39th witness, fool?” become common phrases.

The problem is that the murder of Kitty Genovese, like most things, was incredibly more complicated.

Two recently published-books (Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook and Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences by Catherine Pelonero) as well as an excellent New Yorker article all cast doubt on Rosenthal’s narrative.

It begins with the author's personal story. Rosenthal had a sister who was murdered as a young woman in somewhat similar circumstances. One author makes the argument that Rosenthal omitted certain facts and evidence to draw ire and outrage, possibly in the name of his sister.

Kitty Genovese, from the March 27, 1964 New York Times article "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" Kitty Genovese, from the March 27, 1964 New York Times article "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police"

What the authors also reveal is that Genovese, who had been married very young, was divorced and living romantically and openly with a woman. Perhaps this was omitted from press accounts in order to shield the family from the rampant homophobia at the time, but it also points to a possible motive, as both authors suggest. It is possible that her attacker targeted Genovese because she was seen as "the other" due to of her sexuality. It is also possible that some of or perhaps most of the silent witnesses recognized her, but some either refused to assist or ignored her cries because she was in a same-sex relationship. Complicating the narrative further is that people did respond. It’s reported that several people called down from their windows in what were perhaps possible attempts to scare off the attacker, that witnesses did call an ambulance which arrived, and that Genovese ultimately died in the arms of an elderly woman who, unaware of the attacks, had come down at three in the morning to try to help.

The authors don’t agree on everything. Cook indicates that there were at most five or six witnesses, while Pelonero says there were 33. Cook argues that the original story is largely false, while Pelonero argues that it is largely true but needs more detail and isn’t as simple as first told.

Either way, the narrative is far more complicated than the story I swallowed whole and then fed to my students. I will need to examine both texts, mine them for possible excerpts, and dig more deeply. Though the story remains tragic and still slays me, it offers me something that I never had before reading or thinking about Kitty Genovese — hope. Hope that a man did yell, that the ambulance did arrive, and that an older woman stormed from her home to come to a stranger’s aid. I think it still works as a tool for teaching the concept of universe of obligation and helping students to begin an understanding of bystander and upstander mentality, but it’s eminently more complicated than the simple narrative I had presented students for 16 years. Now all that I have to do is track down the 3,000 or so students that I've taught and relay a simple message:

It’s more complicated than I thought…it always is.”

Topics: Choosing to Participate, Teaching, Critical Thinking, Bystander, Upstander, Teaching Strategy, A View from the Classroom

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