When I started Curious Minds in 2021, my plan was to follow my curiosity - and write fun, light stories about what I learned.
And I’ve written a lot of stories that I’d classify as fun and light (the glitter gel pen stories, if you will).
But I’ve also uncovered stories that weren’t so fun and light, but that were interesting - and worth knowing.
And I believe it’s important for us to interrogate the things we “know” - and that’s the inspiration behind today’s story.
If you ever studied psychology or sociology, you probably heard the name “Kitty Genovese” and the term “The Bystander Effect.”
But who was Kitty Genovese — and what can we learn from her story?
I was curious…
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Kitty Genovese was born in 1935, and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
After she graduated from high school in 1954, her family decided to move to Connecticut.
But Kitty decided to stay in the city.
She had various clerical jobs and then began working as a bartender in Queens.
But she is most well-known for what happened to her on March 13, 1964.
She was coming home from her job as a bar manager when she was brutally attacked, raped, and killed.
Homicide wasn’t unusual in New York City at that time — and Kitty’s was one of 636 homicides reported that year.
But her case garnered special attention when it was reported that 38 neighbors heard her screams – and did nothing.
The New York Times ran a front page story two weeks after the murder with the headline ‘37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call The Police’ – increasing that number to 38 in the story’s opening paragraph.
Kitty’s story is held up as the prime example of apathy.
It is referred to when people talk about the Bystander Effect (also called The Genovese Syndrome) – the theory that states that an individual’s likelihood of helping decreases when passive bystanders are present in an emergency situation.
And versions of the story often suggest Kitty was murdered in the early evening – at a time when her neighbors were home – and awake.
The story frequently told is that she was viciously attacked for 35 minutes while her neighbors watched, and that no one called the police or tried to help.
The line from the famous New York Times story said: ‘38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks.’
But that’s not what happened.
For starters, there were two attacks, not three, and they occurred after 3 am – when most people would have been asleep.
The New York Times reported the attack began at 3:20 am.
And it also reports that someone did react – a neighbor yelled, “Let that girl alone!” causing her attacker to flee.
Kitty managed to stumble to the back of her apartment building, but her attacker returned for a second (and final) time, and continued stabbing her in a tiny vestibule at the back of a building – not on the street.
One neighbor, Karl Ross, did see part of the attack – and debated calling the police.
His line, ‘I didn’t want to get involved’ was held up as proof of big city apathy.
But who was Karl Ross?
Ross left the area after the attack, and while not much is reported about him, an article from The New Inquiry revealed this:
‘We do know a few things about Ross. We know that he was a drunk, and that he was drunk that night.
We also know that he was gay, that he was closeted, and that he was afraid of the police.
For Ross, cops weren’t just a potential source of assistance. They were also a potential threat.’
Homosexuality was illegal in New York City in 1964, as it was in 49 of America’s 50 states.
Three months before Kitty Genovese’s murder, Page One of The New York Times ran a story with the headline “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.”
It noted that the presence of the homosexual population and its ‘increasing openness’ was a ‘growing concern’ for law enforcement, and that in each of the last four years, 1000-1200 men had been arrested in New York City for ‘overt homosexual activity.’
Perhaps knowing that background sheds more light on why Ross didn’t want to get involved.
He may not have behaved like the hero we’d want, but he might not be the black and white villain we were handed.
The same article reported:
‘He had called a friend for advice. When that friend told him to stay out of it, he called another. That friend told him to come over to her house, and he did — climbing out his window to avoid the scene in the lobby. When he got there that friend called a third, who called the police. The cops arrived a few minutes later.’
In the 2015 documentary The Witness, Kitty’s brother Bill investigates her case and discovers that some who heard her screams did look – and couldn’t see Kitty (as the second attack did not occur on the main street).
Others thought the noise they heard was a drunken brawl or a fight between a man and his wife – things that may not have been unusual at the time.
One can imagine that most residents would have been asleep at that time of the attack – with their windows closed during a cold New York winter’s night.
Charles Skoller, the former assistant district attorney, also cast doubt about the number of witnesses.
“I don't think 38 people witnessed it,” he said.
“I don't know where that came from, the 38. I didn't count 38.
“We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use.”
But perhaps the worst omission from most of the news articles and textbooks is the role Sophia Ferrar played that night.
Sophia’s name wasn’t in The New York Times article – but she was interviewed by police, and testified in court when Kitty’s murderer was tried.
According to Sophia’s New York Times obituary in 2020, Sophia ‘actually raced from her apartment to rescue Ms. Genovese, knowing she was in distress but unaware whether her assailant was still on the scene.’
Sophia was not apathetic.
She cared – and risked her life to help Kitty.
Sophia held a dying Kitty in her arms until the police arrived.
‘I only hope that she knew it was me, that she wasn’t alone,’ Mrs. Farrar said in The Witness.
Kitty Genovese’s story has long been the imprint of bystander apathy.
Her story is held up to show us how awful people can be, with the moral of her story being, ‘If you see something, say something.’
But perhaps the other message we should take away is that just because a narrative is accepted doesn’t mean it’s true.
You can find scores of articles about the murder of Kitty Genovese.
Most will talk of apathy. They will omit Sophia Ferrar – and the heroism she showed that night.
Why didn’t The New York Times report that 38 witnesses didn’t actually ‘watch’ what happened to Kitty?
Why didn’t they say that 38 neighbors hadn’t realized a murder was taking place?
Why didn’t they mention the heroic actions of Sophia Ferrar?
Perhaps, because it would have ruined the story.
Kitty’s story has always had a villain - but it also always had a hero.
*Also worth noting: The national emergency number 911 was introduced in 1968, four years after Kitty’s death.
One more thing…
Another part of the story that was omitted from many tellings is that Kitty Genovese was in a lesbian relationship, and lived with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko.
Though the two women had been together for a year, most people thought they were simply roommates and friends. Mary Ann learned of Kitty’s murder when police officers knocked on her door in the morning.
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How Can I Help?
I’ll keep saying it: Communication matters.
And if you want to improve your communication (and get all the good things that come with that), I’m your gal.
So many companies could reap significant benefits – from performance and culture to retention and engagement – by improving their communication.
So, if you know someone who could benefit from some help (as even the most seasoned leaders do), please get in touch and check out my website for more information.
You can also see my Top 10 list of what I can (and can’t) do for you here.
And if you see any communication examples (the good, the bad, and the ugly) that you think are worth analyzing or sharing, please send them my way!
Until next time, stay curious!
In the famous graphic novel (later adapted into a movie) The Watchmen, the death of Ms Genovese figures prominently in Rorschach’s origin.