The death of Kitty Genovese in 1964 may not have been ignored by as many people as was initially reported, but it nonetheless had a profound effect on American society.
That was the conclusion of “Remembering Kitty Genovese: 45 Years Later,” a two-hour-long panel held March 12 in the Cafeteria Atrium of the Lowenstein Center at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.
The event occurred on the eve of the 45th anniversary of Genovese’s stabbing outside a bar in Kew Gardens, Queens. When word got out at the time that 38 people had seen or heard her being attacked and chose not to intervene, it spurred citywide soul searching.
Marcia M. Gallo, Ph.D., professor of history at the University of Nevada, compared Genovese, who had chosen to stay in the city after her family moved to New Canaan, Conn., to a chalk outline on the pavement after a crime—a symbol of something horrible that had happened.
“Her name and her story resonate because they are useful to so many people. For some, she symbolizes deadly indifference; for others, vulnerability. For many people, she’s attained quasi-religious status, the embodiment of what can happen due to a failure of community, she said.”
Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., professor of psychology, said the lack of a response was an example of what has become known as “diffusion of responsibility.”
“It wasn’t that the 38 bystanders didn’t care about Ms. Genovese,” Takooshian said. “But there was a diffusion. Who would help? Or should she be helped? Or how should she be helped? It created such a confusion that she just wasn’t helped.”
Understanding this has made people more aware that they need to be vigilant, he said, noting that in experiments conducted in the 1970s, children who told strangers that they were lost were helped half the time. In recent years, similar experiments have yielded assistance rates of 80 percent.
Genovese’s younger brother, Vincent, who brought along a film crew to film his participation for a documentary he is making, reminisced about his sister, who was 12 when he was born.
“She’d come up to New Canaan and we’d spend till 3 o’clock in the morning talking about relativity,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know she was married for a couple of years to a person who turned out to be a fairly well-known nuclear engineer. I’d ask, ‘What’s that belt buckle made of?’ and he’d tell me: limestone, iron ore, charcoal. All that stuff would interest me.”
He also addressed some questions about the official account of his sister’s killing, as reported by New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal in Thirty-Eight Witnesses (University of California Press, 1999).
“What we’ve discovered is that we think maybe there were five or six people who actually knew what was going on,” Genovese said. “Whereas 38 may have heard something, it was a city kind of thing—screams in the street at 3 o’clock in the morning with an active bar across the street.”