In March of 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese parked her car in Kew Gardens, Queens. It was 3:20 in the morning and she had 100 feet to walk to her apartment door. She never made it.
On March 27, the New York Times ran a story about what happened next: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” The story was a chilling portrayal of both a brutal crime and the shocking apathy of the jaded New Yorkers who saw it but couldn’t be bothered to call the police. Winston Moseley, a burgeoning serial killer, was eventually convicted of Genovese’s murder, but the Times article had already served a different purpose: indicting a heartless city.
For decades, this version of the attack was the only account available, but a new documentary argues that it might not be the truth. The Witness, which opens on June 3, attempts not only to correct the record but to introduce Kitty Genovese as a person instead of a famous corpse. Kitty’s younger brother Bill, who was sixteen at the time of his sister’s death, teamed up with first-time director James Solomon to document his journey to find out what really happened the night that his sister was murdered.
“At its core, this film is a love story about a brother reclaiming his sister’s life from her death,” said Solomon. To wit, The Witness is about much more than the murder, particularly the parts of Kitty’s life that she had kept private from her teenage brother, like the fact that her roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko, was actually her girlfriend.
The Genovese family never talked about the murder — their attitude, Bill says, was, “Why bring it all up?” His own children only discovered their family’s history in college courses. While in a support group for people touched by violent death, Bill realized he needed resolution, though, and reached out to Solomon. The two had met when Solomon was developing a scripted project for HBO based on Kitty’s death and they teamed up on a mission to find out if Kitty’s neighbors were really as callous and indifferent as the original Times article suggested. “I went back and forth on the number 38,” said Genovese. “I mean, how can that be? 38 people watching this? That’s crazy.’”
What Genovese discovered is that the story of his sister’s murder is essentially a myth. There weren’t 38 eyewitnesses; in fact, no one watched the murder, stupefied in horror or boredom, from start to finish. The neighbors only heard a few shouts over the din of city noise, and then wrote those off as par for the course, an understandable reaction for busy people who heard errant yells multiple times a day. Two people even called the police, and a man who did recognize the cries as ones for help, yelled out his window and scared Moseley off (the killer returned later).
But for Bill, the most reassuring discovery had nothing to do with bystanders, he says. “One thing that always stuck with me, that really killed me, was [that], from all accounts, she was alone [when she died]. She was calling out for help. It didn’t come.” In the film, he discovers that Kitty’s friend and neighbor, Sophia Farrar, rushed to the side of the dying girl, comforting her until an ambulance came. It was never mentioned in the police report, or in the New York Times story, but for Bill and his family it made a world of difference. “Until we did this, I had no idea that she wasn’t alone,” said Bill. “Knowing that there were fellow human beings who would want to help was a huge relief.”
So how did this discrepancy get printed in the so-called paper of record? “Journalists we’ve spoken to over time have said, ‘Some stories are too good to check,'” says Solomon. The Times eventually revisited and corrected the story, but the much-more-scintillating myth surrounding Kitty’s murder was by then beyond anyone’s control. Psychologists still refer to the reluctance of witnesses to involve themselves in a situation as the “bystander effect” or, more poignantly, “Kitty Genovese syndrome.” “The film is really, in many respects, about this notion of how stories, real or imagined, transform us,” said Solomon. “The stories we tell ourselves, whether it’s in the middle of the night or across fifty years.”
The film was eleven years in the making, and while its release and the death of Kitty’s killer in prison a few months ago closed one chapter, the story is ongoing for Bill. “I’ll never be through with it.” It speaks too deeply to being human, he says. “The question always remains the same — what do you do? Once we became tribal and sentient enough to realize that our survival depends on others, it’s the eternal question — what do we owe each other?”
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