January 19, 2020

‘The Witness’ and the truth behind the Kitty Genovese murder

Who doesn’t know the story of Kitty Genovese, the 28-year-old woman stabbed to death on a New York street while 38 “witnesses” heard her screams and reportedly did nothing?

I first learned of this case in a high school psychology class, where the crime drama served to illustrate the “diffusion of responsibility” concept and the “bystander effect.” The idea that nearly 40 people heard bloodcurdling screams yet simply went about their business while a man “stalked and stabbed” his victim during two separate attacks — spanning 30 minutes — spawned a powerful cultural mythology in the worlds of academia, entertainment and criminal justice. Some 50 years later, the Kitty Genovese narrative remains a powerful cautionary tale as to what can happen when ordinary people are confronted with evil and do nothing.

But what if most of what we think we know about this event — and the cultural phenomenon it inspired — is wrong? 

That there is much more to the Kitty Genovese murder and its atypical aftermath is the subject of a new documentary, “The Witness,” by James Solomon. It is a stunning re-examination of what happened on that fateful night in 1964, and how the mostly false narrative that resulted had profound personal and political consequences. Among them — and the emotional center of Solomon’s tale — is the unresolved grief of Bill Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother, who was just 16 at the time of her murder. It is through his eyes, and the investigation he undertakes, that we revisit the circumstances surrounding Kitty’s death and discover startling new details about her life. 

“What people think this film is about, and what it is actually about, surprises just about everyone,” Solomon told me during a phone interview from New York. “For 52 years, we’ve been trafficking in the Kitty Genovese business — we’ve been telling her story. But we’ve never really heard from the people who knew her best.”  

The family’s narrative of grief and brokenness was roundly overshadowed by the shock value of the 38 witnesses. “Kitty became this kind of cipher onto which [others] could project what she represented,” Solomon said. “In 1964, [accounts of her murder] satisfied an agenda to define what New York and, by extension, America was at that time.” So while the film delves deeply into Kitty’s murder, her mysterious, unconventional life, The New York Times article that gave birth to a myth and the impact of that myth on the American psyche, it also tells a more intimate, personal story of family, love and loss. 

“To all of us, Kitty is only known for the last 30 minutes of her life,” Solomon said. “But what was shocking to me was that Kitty was also only known within her own family for the last 30 minutes of her life. The [death] narrative was so powerful, so public, so horrifying, that her own family couldn’t talk about her life. [And] she was 28 years old. She was a girl you’d want to know.”

Solomon first considered turning the story into a movie when he was sent a copy of New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal’s book “38 Witnesses.” But plans for a feature changed when, in February 2004, on the 40th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s death, the Times ran a follow-up story questioning the veracity of its original report and, therefore, the integrity of Rosenthal’s account. Solomon began researching the story and met with Bill Genovese, who was determined to uncover the truth behind his sister’s murder. In the Bible, brothers avenge their sister with violence, but Genovese sought to give voice to a life overshadowed by death. He was ruthless only in his pursuit of truth. 

Some witnesses allege that they did respond. And watching the muscles of sorrow and gratitude stretch over Bill’s face when he discovers, for the first time, that his sister did not die alone, but in the arms of a friend, adds a layer of grace and relief to much ugliness.

Solomon recalled during an appearance at a Los Angeles screening that Bill’s motive was not mere curiosity but morality: “He said to me, ‘I’ve needed to prove that not only would I have been someone who opened the window that night, but someone who would have gone down into the street.’

“His whole life had been deeply affected not just by the loss of a sister who he adored, but by that narrative, that story” — that no one cared.

The impact of this violent act upon the Genovese family literally crippled them. In the five years following Kitty’s murder, their mother had a stroke; Bill went to war in Vietnam and returned a double amputee; and their father died, at 59. According to Solomon, Genovese’s disability — on full display in the film — was disarming to many of the people interviewed. “I think people see in Bill the embodiment of trauma and are therefore willing to share [their own traumas] with him.” 

During filming, Solomon experienced a trauma of his own when his brother, Jon Solomon, a journalist and father, lost a battle with leukemia. 

“What began as a sort of abstract understanding of Bill’s loss [became for me] a glimpse into what [he] must have experienced,” Solomon said. “The film is ultimately a sibling love story, and it is by far the most personal and important thing I’ve ever done.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.