Fake News and Phantom Legs

Lots of folks are talking about fake news and how to discern the difference between real and not-so-true reports. Amid all the discussion I can’t stop thinking about Bill Genevose. He is the brother of the deceased Kitty Genovese, the woman whose murder in 1964 turned into a parable of urban life and crime:

Before we had the Internet to blame for everything, news of the brutal murder of 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese went wide as a parable of urban indifference. Genovese was far from the only New Yorker to die on the street in 1964. Nor was she the only woman Winston Moseley, a married father of two, admitted killing. By his own chilling account, Moseley drew no distinction between murder and the routine burglary by which he supplemented his income. The other victims languished in obscurity, while 50 years on, the meaning of Genovese’s murder still fuels a gallery of books, movies and television shows, up to and including a recent episode of Girls. All this — according to a new documentary by Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese with filmmaker James Solomon — because of an influential article in the New York Times that attributed her late-night death on a quiet street in Queens to the inaction of 38 witnesses who heard her screams twice (Moseley returned to stab her a second time) and allegedly failed to call the police or rush to her rescue.

The NPR story about Genovese’s death goes on to make the astute point that all news comes with spin that takes truth in the direction of fake:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. Genovese likens his sister’s death to a Rorschach test, and at its sharpest, The Witness is a careful inquiry into the tricks memory plays, and into how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives that fit individual and collective needs. Almost everyone Genovese interviewed — from surviving witnesses and their children, the prosecutor and judge in the case, police, journalists, and A.M. Rosenthal, the Times editor who handled the story in 1964 and wrote the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses about the case — has, however unconsciously, polished their own version of the truth. Some of the testimonies are sober and corrective, some defensive, others wacky or poignant or both. One witness’ son argues that most of the neighbors were Holocaust survivors and “therefore” would be reluctant to contact authorities. Moseley himself, who died in prison in March of this year, would not allow Genovese to visit him in prison, but wrote him a rambling, outlandish account. The film shows commendable compassion for Moseley’s anguished son, the Rev. Steven Moseley, whose pitifully bizarre contextualization of the murder shows that the damage it did went far beyond Kitty and her family.

The documentary that Bill Genovese made about his sister complicates the legend that this murder created. The mainstream media had a narrative and they kept telling it. It became so convincing about the indifference of Americans to crime that Bill Genovese himself volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He wasn’t going to be guilty of the sort of social character than abandoned his sister. And what happened? On a patrol Bill stepped on a mine and lost both his legs.

Which brings us to Bill Genovese, who as executive producer and narrator is both the film’s subject and its chief interpreter. Having lost both his legs in Vietnam, the handsome Italian-American is a visually dramatic figure, a sleuth in a wheelchair as he follows leads. Kitty’s death moved him, he says, to enlist in the Marines, and his continuing obsession with her murder (his siblings appear briefly, cooperative but baffled by a mystery they no longer seek to solve) stems from a desire to know that he “didn’t lose [his] legs for nothing.” There’s little reason to doubt their brother’s sincerity, yet his declared motives and his quest for “closure” — a glib buzzword that’s overdue for retirement — seem at once too tidy and a causal stretch.

Fake news or not, you should always take even the real news with a grain or two of salt.