BookPeople Review: KITTY GENOVESE, The Crime That Changed America

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America by Kevin Cook
Reviewed by Molly

The story of Kitty Genovese’s story has already been told. Her murder, in front of many witnesses, has become the classic textbook example of the bystander effect. Slow police response time to her killing led to the establishment of 911 and centralized dispatch. Her death shocked a nation and ushered in a new era of academic study of urban apathy. But Kitty Genovese’s story is more than just a murder, even a murder with such important consequences. Kitty Genovese’s story is the story of a life – a life cut short, but a life with agency, nonetheless.

In Kevin Cook’s new book, titled Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, Kitty Genovese is not just a murder victim. She is a complete human being, who loved and lived life to the fullest. Particularly of note is his delicate treatment of Kitty Genovese as a lesbian, something that did not play a part in her killer’s selection of her as a victim, but substantially shaped her life and the ability of her partner to grieve openly over her lover’s loss.

If fact is stranger than fiction, then the complex combination of fact and fiction playing out in the aftermath of Kitty Genovese’s death is even stranger. The writer painstakingly corrects the inaccuracies of the accepted version of her story in order not just to explore the reality of her murder’s consequences, but the ways in which fiction was integral to the positive (and negative) outcomes resulting from a nation’s outrage. He walks a careful line between condemnation and sympathy for her killer and her neighbors, and creates a portrait of an America on the cusp of discovering the consequences of alienation in modern life.

This book does what narrative history does best – it takes one moment in time and explores how that moment relates to society in a number of idiosyncratic ways that, in the end, show a varied and multifaceted view of a changing society. Race, class, gender, orientation – this book covers the story from every angle of analysis, yet still manages to produce a respectful portrait of a vibrant woman whose level gaze stares at the reader from the front cover, daring us to learn not just from her death, but her life.

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Copies of Kitty Genovese are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

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