Bill Genovese was 16 years old when his big sister Kitty was stabbed to death in Queens, New York. Her 1964 murder shocked and scared the nation as news got out that 38 of Kitty’s neighbors watched and did nothing to intervene as the 28 year-old screamed for help and fought for her life.
It’s actually a horrifying image that has always stuck with me ever since I first read about it in Social Psych. How could 38 people watch from their apartment windows as their neighbor was in such immediate danger? This question inspired a new subfield of social psych research and was one of the main reasons why I continued to study (and pursue a career in) psychology. It inspired Bill Genovese to enlist in the Marines when the Vietnam War began because he vowed to never be the guy standing by and doing nothing. And I just found out that it’s a fucking lie.
Obviously and tragically, some of what I learned about Kitty Genovese in college was true. Yes, she was brutally murdered by a stranger outside her building as she screamed for help. Yes, police later interviewed 38 witnesses to the attack. But the claims that 38 people knew what was going on and (shockingly) even that no one tried to help her are erroneous products of some sensationalist and irresponsible journalism published in the New York Times.
The Witness follows Bill Genovese over a ten-year period as he attempts to separate fact from urban myth in the death of his sister. For forty years, the Genovese family believed the same fiction that I did. What that must have been like, to not only lose a daughter and sister to such a brutal attack but to believe that her own neighbors stood by and did nothing, I can only imagine. For a long time, the subject of Kitty’s death (even her life) was too painful for them to even talk about. Until one day Bill can’t take the silence anymore and starts looking for answers.
Sure, the Genovese case received national attention which may have brought about some real positive changes. And, no, that may not have happened had the story been reported as it actually happened. But The Witness makes a fairly strong case that the truth- in journalism as well as in healing from personal trauma- is always important. At some point while watching this documentary, you’ll probably start to wonder if Bill’s obsession with finding the truth is getting a little unhealthy. But by digging deeper into the details of his sister’s life and death, he’ll come to feel closer to her than ever and he honours her memory by reminding all who see it that Kitty was so much more than the last 30 minutes of her life.