Like Most Urban Legends, The Story Of The Death Of Kitty Genovese Is Not Really True

June 16, 2017 — It has been more than 50 years since her death, but the name Kitty Genovese still represents urban apathy at its most incomprehensible.

Genovese was raped and murdered outside of her apartment in Kew Gardens Queens. According to The New York Times story that would make her a household name, Genovese was attacked three times and called for help during her struggle. Her neighbors turned away.

They didn’t help, they didn’t call the police, they didn’t try to stop the attack. They closed their windows to avoid hearing her scream.

This, The Times said, was the ultimate betrayal. Eventually it was one of the reasons for the institution of the 911 phone number used for reaching emergency services (which has since spread to many other countries); it spawned many sociology and psychology classes which study the “bystander effect” —  an idea that was entirely spawned by the story. It colored the way that people looked at urban dwellers, tagging them as heartless, disconnected and uncaring.

And on a more personal level, it changed Kitty Genovese’s family forever.

Most of her family wishes to put the whole issue behind them. They not only lost a family member, they were hounded for years because of the notoriety of the incident. For her brother, Bill, however, just getting over the situation is not a reality. Determined that he would not be one of the apathetic on-lookers, Bill enlisted in the Army and went to Vietnam. There he lost both of his legs.

40 years after her death, The Times sent a reporter to do a follow-up on the original story. What the reporter discovered was that the story could not have happened the way the article said it did. The reporter found enough discrepancies to convince Bill Genovese to look into the incident.

Bill was 16 at the time of Kitty’s death, and living in Connecticut with the rest of his family. Only Kitty, who lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, had stayed in New York City. Bill was especially fond of Kitty, but over the years he has realized that he didn’t know much about her life. Her death crowded everything else out.

The Witness, a documentary directed by James Solomon, is Bill’s attempt to recover some of Kitty’s life. In researching what really happened on the night of her death, Genovese comes to grips with some of the things he never knew about his big sister — and he also discovers some of the mistakes in the original story that had never come to light.

The Witness is a highly personal journey, undertaken by a relentless and remarkable man who first lost a sister to a horrible crime; he would later lose the memory of her to a narrative that never lost its power to grip people. In the film he recounts, “I’ve come to realize‎ that the whole truth about Kitty’s death will never be known, …but maybe that’s why the story continues to fascinate people.” 

The Hollywood Reporter described The Witness as a  “…gut-wrenching doc [that] is as deeply moving as it is enlightening … few films feel as cathartic.”

Stream The Witness on Amazon Video or buy the Special Director’s Edition of the Blu-ray or DVD.

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