13 March 2014

Kitty Genovese, Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago today, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death just steps away from her apartment in Kew Gardens, NY.

That building is just a few minutes away from my apartment.  I've passed it any number of times.  So have countless other people.

That, of course, is one of the reasons why her murder is still discussed and is studied by students and scholars in sociology, anthropology, psychology and criminal justice.  It gave rise to what people in all of those fields call "The Bystander Effect" or "Kitty Genovese Syndrome", which says that as the number of witnesses increases, the less responsibility each one feels to act.

It's accepted as the standard explanation of why, according to accounts published ever since the day of the crime, thirty-eight people said they heard screams or other commotion, or otherwise sensed that a disturbance was taking place outside their windows, and "did nothing".  One witness said, in a phrase that's become almost a cliche, "I didn't want to get involved".

Recently, the number of people who "didn't want to get involved", or who were even awake at the time of the stabbings (between 3 and 3:30 am) has come into dispute.  What's not in dispute, though, is that when police got word of her stabbing, it was too late to save her life.

But I don't want to get into an argument about that now.  Instead, I want to talk about how Ms. Genovese's victimhood has been portrayed and another aspect of her life that was not revealed until a decade ago.

I was five years old on that cold, windy early morning when she died almost literally on her own doorstep.  I often heard about the murder as I was growing up.  For a few years, she was portrayed, probably correctly, as an innocent victim who had the misfortune of crossing paths with a homicidal maniac.  After all, Winston Moseley would say "I went out that night intending to kill a woman.  When I got such a thought, it remained with me regardless of what else I might be thinking".  And he has remained unrepentant ever since.

However, as time passed, I noticed that some people questioned "what sort of woman" Kitty actually was.  They wondered "what she was doing" when she parked her car and made that fateful walk toward her apartment at 3 in the morning.  That seemed to be a central question in a TV movie that was aired when I was a high school senior, if I recall correctly--probably around the time of the ten-year anniversary of her death.  The movie was fiction, but was not-too-loosely based on Ms. Genovese's case.  In one scene, a police detective (I think) working on the case stops a woman he sees walking home and chastises her for walking alone at night in a skirt that was "too short".

It seemed that whatever people could get book deals, tenure or fame from milking such a claim had gotten what they wanted--and that other people realized that bar managers (Ms. Genovese's line of work) and others who work in such establishments and restaurants often come home at odd hours. More important, the notion that women who are so brutalized are not "asking for it" and don't "have it coming to them" (I can remember when other women used to say such things about girls who'd been raped.) was discredited. So the notion that it was her fault that she'd been attacked by a man who stabbed her, fled when he thought someone else had seen him, and came back to "finish the job" went where it belonged--to the dustbin of history..

Now it is widely accepted, rightly, that Ms. Genovese was an extremely unfortunate soul. However, there is one other aspect of her killing to which a few people alluded a decade ago, but has rarely, if ever, been mentioned again.

As far as their neighbors knew, Mary Ann Zielonko was a friend of Kitty's who shared their apartment--you know, the "2 Broke Girls" scenario. Everyone, apparently, liked both of them, but saw more of Kitty, the more outgoing and friendly of the two. What no one realized--or simply did not say--is that Ms. Zielonko was her girlfriend. No, not in the sense of two young female friends sharing an apartment. They were partners, lovers, or whatever you choose to call them.

Ms. Zielonko did not reveal this aspect of their relationship until she was interviewed on the 40th anniversary of her girlfriend's murder. Of course, there was no reason why she should have. After all, attitudes about same-sex relationships were, to put it mildly, very different from the ones we (some of us, anyway) have now. But what if their union had been public knowledge? How might it have affected the way the case was portrayed?

More important, might Winston Moseley have been aware of it? He has never given any indication, at least verbally, that it played any role in his choosing Kitty as his victim. However, it's hard not to wonder if he approached her sexually and she said--or gave some other indication--that she was gay and therefore had no interest in him. Could that have been a factor in the viciousness of his attack?

Whatever the answer is, or isn't, to those questions, I hope that more people remember that, in the end, Catherine Susan Genovese was murdered because  she was a woman.  Too many of us have met that same awful fate.