Thirty-Eight Witnesses: the Kitty Genovese Case, by AM Ronsenthal***

38witnessesAM Rosenthal was a journalist, but in the 1960’s he was moved to write this relatively brief book—if fictional it would be considered a novella—about the failure of neighboring New Yorkers to come to the aid of Kitty Genovese, a woman that was murdered in 1964. I received this DRC free of charge from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review.

The crime, one that occurred before drive-by shootings and mass killings in schools and other public places became an all-too-frequent occurrence in the USA, horrified New York and all that heard about it. The killer attacked 28 year old Kitty Genovese as she returned home from work. She lived in a middle class neighborhood, and when police later investigated, they would learn that 38 witnesses heard her scream for help. Nobody called the police until it was too late to save her. This is especially horrifying given that the killer left her bleeding after stabbing her several times, and she had the time, while he moved the car, to approach an apartment building and make her way inside its doors. But before she was able to go further, her murderer parked the car and returned to finish the job. She screamed a number of times, and one man opened his window and yelled at whoever was down there to leave her alone. Later the coroner would testify that had any of the witnesses phoned the police sooner, Kitty could have been saved. Instead she bled to death.

Largely Ronsenthal uses this opportunity to wax philosophical, both about the callous nature of people in general, and of New Yorkers. One New York newspaper managed to infer that it was her own fault by referring to her as a “barmaid” and mentioning that she was not living with her husband; the takeaway from this appearing to be that had she stayed with the mister and been home raising kids, she would not have been in danger. In this instance I think we can surmise that half a century later, any journalist who got that kind of misogynistic garbage past his editor would have heard from readers.

I found this little nugget hard to review. Part of it was due to a stereotype I wasn’t aware I carried; I assumed this attack was somehow related to the mafia (note the Italian last name). Whoopsie! Yes, I know that not everyone that bears an Italian name has a mobster in the family. So it goes.

But also, it’s an unusual piece of writing in that it isn’t really a memoir, isn’t really philosophy, isn’t really sociology. But the overall thesis appears to be that human beings don’t take good enough care of each other. He also uses the occasion to speak in defense of New York cops, who performed their jobs as well as they could in this circumstance. But what timing, given the behavior of NYPD of late! The piece hasn’t really aged all that well.

The writer speaks of a time in India when he himself failed to help others, a time when he regularly strolled past beggars that were ragged, often badly disabled or diseased, and he didn’t help them. He brought this item back time and again to where it felt a little like breast-beating and gnashing of teeth. I wasn’t interested in providing the author with the catharsis he seemed to be reaching for. For that, get a therapist already!

In all, I think his narrative is probably geared more toward native New Yorkers, and since the event is long gone and doesn’t really have a modern parallel, the niche that may be interested has shrunk to New Yorkers of Social Security age.

The writing was fluent, as one might expect of a seasoned journalist, but its prime period has come and gone. I was happy to read it free, but would not have wished to pay for the privilege.

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