How many of us have heard the story of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and murdered outside her apartment building while thirty-eight of her neighbors just watched and did nothing? I know I’ve heard it repeated by bloggers and authors. Yeah, not so much.
Across the street, a man named Robert Mozer heard Genovese from his apartment. Looking out his seventh-floor window, he saw a man and a woman, sensed an altercation — he couldn’t see exactly what was happening — and yelled out his window, “Leave that girl alone!”
Moseley [the man convicted of Genovese’s rape and murder] later testified that Mozer’s action “frightened” him, sending him back to his car. At this point, Genovese was still alive, her wounds nonfatal.
Fourteen-year-old Michael Hoffman, who lived in the same building as Mozer, also heard the commotion. He looked out his window and told his father, Samuel, what he saw. Samuel called the police, and after three or four minutes on hold, he reached a police dispatcher. He related that a woman “got beat up and was staggering around,” and gave them the location.
Other neighbors heard something as well, but it wasn’t always clear what. Some looked out the window to see Moseley scurrying away, or Genovese, having stood up, now walking slowly down the block, leaning against a building. From their vantage point, it wasn’t obvious that she was wounded. Others who looked didn’t see her at all, as Genovese walked around a corner, trying to make her way home at 82-70 Austin St.
But the police did not respond to Samuel Hoffman’s call, and Moseley, seeing no help was imminent, returned. He hunted down Genovese — who had made it to a vestibule in her building before collapsing — stabbed her several more times, then raped her.
Word of the attack spread though the building. A woman named Sophie Farrar, all of 4-foot-11, rushed to the vestibule, risking her life in the process. For all she knew, the attacker might have still been there. As luck would have it, he was not, and Farrar hugged and cradled the bloodied Genovese, who was struggling for breath.
Despite the attempts of various neighbors to help, Moseley’s final stab wounds proved fatal, and Farrar did her best to comfort Genovese in the nightmarish final minutes of her life.
So, some people did try to help, some were unsure of what was going on, and some were the scumbags we’ve always thought when hearing the story. Also, the police didn’t respond.
What are the lessons we can learn?
1. Some people will always be willing to help (a little like yelling down to a lot like rushing into a dangerous situation to help)
2. Most people need some convincing or directing to help. These are your bystanders that if you give them direction will help in a situation.
3. There are always some scumbags who will not help or will try to take advantage of a bad situation. I will never forget Michael Bane talking about friends of his who returned to their NY apartments after evacuating due to the attack on the WTC and finding their homes looted. All we can do is limit these people’s influence on events (although I wouldn’t shed many tears if they were pounded into the ground).
4. Official help may not be coming. They may be dealing with other emergencies, be hamstrung by bureaucratic rules, or just not give a damn about your emergency. This comes back to the first question of preparedness – What’s Your Plan?
Narratives are rarely as simple as they are made to be. Nothing with humans ever is. Just believing in the bystander effect will ignore the good people trying to help, not stop the bad trying to interfere, and forget that sometimes help isn’t coming. We are much better served by basing our plans on reality than stories that conform to our biases.