brother’s keeper, mother’s ruin


Earlier this week, the New York Parole Board denied Winston Moseley his freedom yet again, and thank god: he was the man who brutally stabbed, raped and killed Kitty Genovese in 1964. As most of you know, 38 people in Queens, NY witnessed at least some of the crime and none of them did a single thing about it. I studied the event in college for a psych thesis, but I hadn’t known all the details until now.

Read this article about the incident, but be prepared – this crime was methodical, savage and unbelievably grim even by today’s standards. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, and the face of that pretty 28-year-old Italian girl will haunt you for a long time.

Kitty’s murder went unnoticed for two weeks, when a Times columnist wrote a disgusted treatise asking how thirty-eight people could possibly have watched it happen. It’s so grisly: Moseley stabbed Kitty at her doorstep, then left when he thought he’d been seen. Kitty staggered to the back of her apartment building, and the killer came back, stabbing her again. Spooked by noise, Moseley left and CAME BACK AGAIN to rape and kill her. Three goddamn times he came for her, and the slightest action by any bystander would have saved her life. It’s sickening, even now.

I had a sociology teacher who once said that America did not lose its innocence at Pearl Harbor, nor with the JFK assassination. It happened that night with Kitty Genovese. Strong words, and entire schools of thought were developed to explain why we could be so cruel.

Of course, New York City bore the brunt of it, as it just confirmed what the rest of America already thought: NYC was a trove of uncaring, brutal animals. When the so-called “bystander effect” was noticed even in small towns, it wasn’t so easy to blame those frickin’ New Yorkers anymore.

My social psych prof at UNC, Bibb Latané, was one of the first to give the Genovese Syndrome a real name: the Theory of Social Impact, which states (roughly) that the more people there are in any given situation, the less likely any one of them is going to act.

This theory had so many outlets it was ridiculous. Among them:

– Look at a giant choir singing. Due to the theory of social impact, 10% of them are just mouthing the words. Not only that, but they don’t even know they’re not singing.

– Basketball has a historic 76% home court advantage; football has only 51%.

– The researchers stuck five McDonald’s gift certificates on an elevator wall. When eight people got into the elevator, none of them took the certificates. When ONE person got in, he/she took them ALL.

Add to this the recent book by UNC’s own James Surowiecki, which states that well-informed, diverse crowds make better decisions than individual experts (a book I mentioned here). Pretty weird. That means crowds make wonderful decisions in the theoretical, but catastrophic decisions in the particular.

Why does this stuff get me off? I guess because the definition of being an individual, of being alive, of being present, is to avoid being a victim of either theory. First off, do not consider yourself an expert on anything without giving massive credence to the sway of the spiritus mundi. Don’t be made complacent by the few things you get right.

Secondly, whether you’re in a crowd, or alone: ACT! This is one that has been a nightmare for me, because my first instinct is always to believe that I’M the one who doesn’t get it. But if you hear a kid screaming, feel like something’s wrong on the subway, or, god forbid, see a woman getting raped and stabbed, assume nothing and call the cops! That, and throw a tire iron at the bad guy. A clean shot at the skull can really mess up his plans.

Don’t become a voiceless sheep in the fact of Social Impact! Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, and sometimes a woman screaming bloody murder is actually bloody well being murdered.

0 thoughts on “brother’s keeper, mother’s ruin

  1. Matt

    Good words of advice, Ian, though I’d rather have the option of propelling a piece of lead traveling 1500 ft/s at the attacker from 30 ft than swing a tire iron at him from 2.

  2. kevin from NC

    this is a little like the lacrosse team issue at dook.. a gang rape at a party and no one is willing to divulge any information. Every member of the dook lacrosse team (save one) has to give DNA samples to police. No one will come forward to say what happened. The rape, assault and then the racial slurs are way out of bounds…
    I’m glad Lee is on it!!

  3. Kevin from Philadelphia

    Good piece today. I think this is why I have always been drawn to comic books, especially Batman. Usually the stories revolve around one man or woman who has seen enough of the ugliness in this world and decided to do something about it. Batman – no guns, no superpowers, just one man – with seemingly limitless wealth, granted – and his unbending will and quest for justice. . .or revenge, depending on how you see the psychological factors that went about creating Batman. Is there really anything wrong with a bit of righteous indignation now and again?

  4. lee

    You said it Kevin from NC! This thing at Duke is making me crazy!!
    A party of 40 white Duke lacrosse players; 2 black exotic dancers, one of whom is a student at NCCU, historically black college, and mom of 2 kids; the two women are separated, three men hold the college student mom down, gang rape her, sodomize her, beat, kick and nearly strangle her to death, and yell all kinds of racist things to her. As she’s leaving the house, a neighbor hears one of the guys yell to her, “Thank your granddaddy for my nice cotton shirt!”
    Needless to say, the entire lacrosse team is saying nothing happened and will not come forward with any info. Is there not ONE person in a crowd of 40 with a conscience??
    Thanks for the lob, Ian!

  5. scruggs

    Lee, from prev. blog information, don’t you live near Dook? Was this your neighborhood? That is crazy! Does not one of those boys have a soul?

  6. salem

    Great post. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” goes into detail on how powerful this “Social Imact” can be. Apparently, no matter how intelligent or sophisticated, we are almost doomed to this behavior unless we conciously “train” or actively condition ourselves to act against our nature. I still remember watching a majic show on the street at Myrtle Beach when I was eight years old. I heard my grandmother shout. I turned to see her sitting on a bench 20 feet away with a shirtless 20-something punk pulling at her purse. It was so odd that I was simply confused and almost paralyzed by the confusion. I was eight but the thousands of adults teeming down the boardwalk were equally non-responsive. I distinctly remember hearing a man scream from a very long way away. I looked in the direction of the scream and saw a big ass off duty Marine running through the crowd in a t-shirt and jeans. He had been crossing the street with his girlfriend over 50 feet away in a summer time crowd on Ocean Boulevard. His training had registered an anomaly amoungst this chaotic summer beach scene and he was now fighting his way through the crowd to protect my Grandmother. He was so far away that the purse snatcher had given up and fled by the time he had navigated through all of the oblivious bystanders. Four other adults were sitting on the bench with my Grandmother and this soldier from 50 feet away was the only one to respond. It’s odd to think that we may have to actually anticipate and train in order to do what we all agree should be common sense. Apparently, Grandmother Suber and the Agner purse company had trained for this threat. She never let go of her purse. I’m not sure if it was her fearlessness in facing the robber or her fear of not having enough “Skee-Ball” money to keep me occupied.

  7. Neva

    Yes, the Duke Lacrosse stuff is horrible!
    On a more positive note there was a wonderful story in the N and O this weekend about this CD – a compilation of songs from Chapel Hill bands that is for a great cause. Sometimes “group think” can be positive as well as with benefits like this.

  8. salem's little sister

    Brother(Salem), She didn’t want to give up the foil wrapped block of banana bread she had in her pocketbook for snack emergencies. Just think if she had conked him over the head with that thing.

  9. Neva

    Social psych was also one of my favorite classes too. I was always haunted by that Stanford Prison experiment where typical Stanford students start to go along with all kinds of horrible behavior (including torturing others) because others are doing it. To me this always explained fraternity hazing, medical residency and now the Duke lacrosse team!

  10. Bud

    Lee: “Is there not ONE person in a crowd of 40 with a conscience??”
    Doesn’t dook do pre-admission screening to exclude people with a conscience?

  11. Anne D.

    Salem (above) beat me to the Malcolm Gladwell reference.
    And, not to be gross, but I think this is a realistic question: How long before we have the TV movie of the Dook lacrosse-team incident? (Remember that the New Bedford MA gang-rape in Big Dan’s bar/poolhall was made into a theatrical movie starring Jodie Foster. But I think back then, the filmmakers at least waited a decent interval.)
    Anecdote regarding action vs. inaction in emergencies: My husband, young kids, and I were waiting at a subway station in the Wall Street area late one evening after Christmas about 7 years ago. There was a commotion on the opposite platform, terrible shouts and pushing, then a man hurtled across the tracks and over the fence separating them and clambered up on our platform, swinging a handgun wildly and shouting angrily at the opposite platform. He looked desperate and crazed.
    Honest to God, most of the waiting people (make that sheeple) just stood still, staring — or not even bothering to look. Hubby and I grabbed our kids’ hands and set a world record sprinting back through the turnstiles and up all the subway exit stairs to the sidewalk. Was everyone else afraid to make the first move to safety? Were we just overreactive out-of-towners?
    The site of that gun made me BLINK, all right.

  12. Sean Williams

    Having played in orchestras, performed in choirs and stared at chorus members my entire life, I’ve always sorta doubted this thing that Ian has described to me on several occassions. I promise you, if you are watching the 60 violinists during “Night On Bald Mountain”, even when the horns are playing the melody, they are all sawing away. The only choir members not singing are the ones taking a catch breath, and living in New York, it seems like everyone is willing to be the first one to step up and prove they are tough.
    But, I haven’t ever argued the point, simply because I don’t necessarily believe that my personal frame of reference is automatically universal. That being said, the wikipedia entry on Kitty Genovese is pretty illuminating.

  13. oliver

    Actually, maybe I do have something deviant to contribute: I think things are different in the anonymous/psuedonymous interactions people have on the Web. I personally have been known to use psuedonymity as my Powder Milk Biscuit (i.e. giving this shy person the courage to do what needs to be done). So I think partly the sociological effect you’re talking about, Ian, is at least partly the fear of standing out. I agree there’s also something sort of metaphysical/perceptual/reality-shaping going on, but I think shyness and fear are somewhere in the mix, at least sometimes. I dunno. Humans can be a little hard to explain.

  14. Sean Williams
    Another opposing view to the Times article on the Genovese case.
    Now, I should say, I’m not trying to insist that there is no problem with acting responsibly in large groups, certainly if there are more people around, the guy willing to stick his head up is the guy that’s gonna get it. If you stand in front of a class and say “okay, who did this?”, nobody’s gonna raise their hand.
    New York seems to me to have the problem of being *over*-involved in people’s lives. When a woman fainted in my neighborhood last year, two people caught her, that’s how fast people were willing to be involved. There was a group of twelve or so people, and three gypsy cabs willing to drive her home for free.
    Again, my experiences don’t automatically make them universal, I’m just saying…

  15. xuxE

    it’s funny that negative social phenomena like these always seems to be about “other” people or groups in general, but not specific and not personal… as a general approach you learn and grow by looking inward, because that’s where you control the most change, right?
    not everyone does this, maybe because of guilt or shame and the basic unpleasantness of reflecting on our own inactions, and its easier to think about the evil bystanders as others.
    so we only reflect on the heroic times when we didn’t act as part of the borg.
    but was there really no incident when any of us were part of the problem?
    maybe it’s perverse, but i think that is way more insightful, actually. plus i think if you’re engaged in this kind of a discussion you’re already at a point of consciousness or awareness, so it’s like the next logical step, right.
    it’s also a challenge to go through your own memory bank and evaluate what you were feeling at the moment when you were part of the frozen group and DIDN’T act the way you wish you had, in retrospect.
    i’m trying to think of one from my own experiences right now, and i’m doing a piss poor job of coming up with one. sure i can remember all the times i stood up and did the right thing, but i can’t very easily remember those times i didn’t. i’m not talking about bloody violent incidents that would haunt me for the rest of my life, but just encounters with the average type crime, cruelty and indecency.
    i definitely don’t think the reason is because i’ve always been heroic. i actually think it’s because the times when i stood idly by, i must have rationalized my way into believing that nothing bad really happened or there was nothing i could have done or that i had no personal accountability in the matter, i.e., none of my business. and so now even the memory of it almost non-existent.

  16. Chris M

    Interesting issues, for sure. I recall this was initially framed as “bystander apathy”, but that a number of later studies showed that bystanders tended to lack confidence in their perceptions about what they were seeing and hearing (is the screaming woman horseing around, or being raped). Bystanders also feared that the person you are trying to help would also reject assistance (guy is menacing woman and you intervene and both the man AND the woman — who know each other — tell you to “butt out, idiot”).
    Assuming the worst can be risky — at least here in NYC where people often scream bloody murder (by my personal standards), but are socializing with friends (by their personal standards). Not only do you risk embarrasment but, especially if the person is from a different racial, ethnic, or age group, you also risk insulting them because they perceive you as some white bread, controlling Frank Burns telling people to keep it down and behave.
    Several years ago I intervened to prevent potential disaster on a crowded Brooklyn street. A guy was driving and, while stopped at a red light with the car in “drive”, he had what appeared to be a gran mal seizure that made him simutaneously, and completely, depress the brake with his left foot and the accelerator with his right. His body was stiff and straight behind the wheel. The car wasn’t moving but was making some serious gyrations while pointed at a busy intersection (Court St and Atlantic Ave) and, if it made it across the street, a very big brick bank. If his foot slipped off the brake, there would have been serious carnage. I noticed something weird was going on and was staring at the car while walking by. The woman looked at me out her window and screamed for help. That made it clear — so I helped by simply running over and telling to her to turn off the ignition, providing a little first aid, and getting somone to call an ambulance. Sounds easy, but she was in shock — the guy had never had a seizure before — and had no idea what to do. It was a pretty sudden turn of events for me, too. After the ambulance took him away, I never saw them again. All I know is that he was her fiance. Maybe they got married and had kids. Hopefully that’s indicative of the flip side of life in the big city: Anonymous Bystander Help.

  17. lee

    this is a fascinating article on why athletic teams/ frat boys rape or gang rape and why others in the group don’t stop it or turn them in. it’s crazy.
    i actually went to a rally today at dook’s west campus and was surprised that there were really a good 100 dook students there who were outraged and pretty cool. i guess you can’t hold a bad decision SOME of them made when they were 17 against them forever.

  18. cullen

    As much as I hate dook*, I only really revel in their shortcomings on the hardwood; this is just another enfuriating, frustrating and fully sad, sorry story. HOpefully, the authorities can make some headway into finding out exactly what happened. To echo Ian’s constructivism though, social conscience is the concept that’s missing altogether.
    Here’s hoping the shit hits the fan….C


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