In 1964, Kitty Genovese was knifed to death in the alley beside her apartment in New York. Two weeks later, the New York Times published an article with the famous headline "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" -- an account so inaccurate that the paper retracted it in the killer's obituary 52 years later. Still, the original version of the story entered public consciousness to the point where the phrase "Kitty Genovese" became shorthand for the apathy of bystanders. Not long after the incident, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs opened a composition by ridiculing those involved: "Oh, look outside the window, there's a woman being grabbed / They've dragged her to the bushes, and now she's being stabbed / Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain / But Monopoly is so much fun, I'd hate to blow the game..."
The thing about inaccurate news stories is that they're often wrong only in a specific sense. Thirty-eight people may not have actually stood by while Genovese died, but similar things have happened to others. As a species, we tend to come up short in moments that call for intervention. I'm hardly one to cast stones; once, I took part in a CPR class in which we practiced giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to plastic babies. After a series of scripted drills, the instructor dropped one of the babies on the floor and ordered us to act as though it were a real emergency. We all stood blinking at each other, expecting someone else to pretend to call 911. We were mired in our own comfort zones, clinging to our even keel the way Ochs' characters clung to their game. Of course, that was a plastic baby. A real one would have fired up our endorphins and spurred us into action. It's nice to tell ourselves that.
A college professor of mine once said that we're more likely to intervene -- particularly in a violent incident -- if we're in a bad mood. Then, we're more inclined to punch a mugger in the face or chase an assailant who towers over us. If we're feeling decent enough, our inhibitions take over. We worry too much about going off script. Think about the template that most of us wake to each morning: We will rise at the usual time in a comfortable bed, shower and have breakfast inside a sturdy roof and walls, and fire up the car that runs dependably. The clerks at stores will be polite and helpful. The people that we pass on the street will smile but stay out of our way. We will have a few chosen interactions with friends and family members who serve as confidants. At work, we will be productive, complete our regular tasks, and move in a general direction toward a future that is healthy and prosperous. We will fit in a favorite song or two, enjoy a drink or movie when responsibilities are done. Our phone and credit cards will await us in the morning. Yes, we know that chaos exists, but that's the principle of yin and yang -- we recognize things by their opposites. If misfortune strikes, it will strike someone else, and that will serve to illuminate how easy our own path is.
We spend a fair amount of our day near windows. They're one of our more symbolic inventions: a clear view of the outside world that's separated from us by an invisible pane. My poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, "Woman Next Door," centers on action that takes place on both sides of a window. A couple lives on one side; they're bystanders, like the fewer-than-38 who ignored Genovese. On the other side is the title character, who appears in the midst of a blowup with her partner. We only see her; the man stays inside the house as she hurls his guitar onto the lawn, flips the middle finger, then ends up flustered at the street corner, radiating indecision about where to go.
Does the couple intervene? Well, would you? Look out the nearest window right now and imagine that you witnessed a similar scene. Probably your mind would start ticking off a list of criteria. Has the woman actually been attacked? No -- there doesn't appear to be any physical abuse. Is she the victim, still? Maybe not -- she is obviously strong enough to fight back. Do you know her? Not well enough to offer her your guest room. Do you know him? No, and it's probably good that you don't. If the people outside were your sister and brother-in-law, you might be outside right now pleading for a ceasefire. We all have it in us to be heroes. Typically, we require the right preconditions to do it.
The poem ends happily, at least in part. While the marriage next door melts down, the narrator surveys his room and notes all the positive signs: "the corners / without guitars or amps, the books we've checked out / for each other, the hour's small talk priming the air." The eruption outside reminds him of how well he's nurtured a happy home, how much he's profited from staying on script. That's one of the perks of being a bystander. Sometimes, we get to enjoy our own show.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.