Based on a True Story
Pretty much every crime novel, every novel, every piece of fiction, has some real event as its inspiration.
My own novels have gone from having only a slight connection to the real events that inspired them to containing many specific details about real world events. And often I wonder if I have any responsibility to these events. Do I need to get them right?
The short answer is, of course, no. The first priority is always the story.
But sometimes I wonder how big a gap should there be between the first and second priorities? And third and fourth?
Because how real events are portrayed in fiction has a very big effect on how they’re remembered. If the fictional accounts are wrong it can have serious consequences.
In recent history maybe the best example is the Kitty Genovese murder in New York.
But it wasn’t true.
As Kevin Cook writes in his book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, the editor, “felt a spark running up and down the back of his neck, the spine-tingling sense that he was onto a story readers would never forget.”
The story wasn’t the murder, the victim, or the perpetrator; the story was the witnesses. That’s the story that got told and retold for decades. It even led to something called the Bystander Effect or the Apathy Effect.
Thirty-seven people were aware that a woman was being brutally murdered and chose not to do anything about it. Not to get involved. Not to even pick up the telephone and make an anonymous call to the police.
That’s the story that was accepted uncritically.
Does it matter that it wasn’t true?
The first fictionalized account I remember was a made-for TV movie in 1975 called Death Scream starring Cloris Leachman and Ed Asner. The imdb description says it’s about a murder committed “while nearby residents watched but did nothing to help.” The story had already been used for the basis of an episode of Perry Mason in 1965 called, “The Silent Six,” in which a woman “is beaten within an inch of her life while her neighbors sit and do nothing.” The TV show Law & Order has used the story more than once.
Harlan Ellison wrote a short story called “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” in 1973 and wrote in a number of articles that thirty-six people, “stood by and watched” Genovese “get knifed to death right in front of them, and wouldn't make a move.” (the difference in number of witnesses is an odd minor point. Sometimes it’s 37, sometimes 38, Ellison uses 36 and later research discovered the police had taken statements from over 40 people).
The story has been retold in novels, comic books, and in movies made in France and Denmark.
It seems that witnesses knowing a murder is being committed and not doing anything about it is a story that we can easily believe.
Does it matter that it wasn’t true?
Background and context are important. We say things like, “I just like a good mystery,” and don’t want there to be too much politics, which I certainly understand, but if we’re going to use real world events in our fiction maybe we should be a little concerned about the context. In 2015 Marcia M. Gallo published a book called, “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy.
As the publisher, Cornell University Press, says about the book, “No One Helped places the conscious creation and promotion of the Genovese story within a changing urban environment. Gallo reviews New York’s shifting racial and economic demographics and explores post World War II examinations of conscience regarding the horrors of Nazism. These were important factors in the uncritical acceptance of the story by most media, political leaders, and the public despite repeated protests from Genovese’s Kew Gardens neighbors at their inaccurate portrayal.”
In 2015 Kitty Genovese’s brother Bill Genovese was the subject of a documentary film, The Witness, and he says, “I think we now know for certain that this description was inaccurate. Most people were ear-witnesses rather than eyewitnesses: They didn’t see what was going on in the dark parking lot, and they didn’t realize a murder was taking place. A neighbor named Karl Ross called Kitty’s friend, Sophia Farrar, who ran down as fast as she could to help my sister. So the reality of Kitty’s death was substantially different than the description in Gansberg’s report. We now know that Ross also called the police shortly after Moseley left, but it was too late… The police log only showed Karl Ross’ phone call, but maybe other neighbors called. A woman named Patti said to me that she called the police that night and was told that they’d already received a call about this case. Another neighbor wrote an affidavit later on, claiming that his father called the police around 3:30 A.M., but this didn’t appear in the official police records. So who do you believe? Did the police operator forget to log some phone calls or simply ignore them, thinking it was just a ‘lovers’ quarrel’? Eventually, the New York Times’ inaccurate report shaped the collective memory of this event as ‘38 saw murder and did nothing.’”
In 2016 the New York Times finally called its initial story flawed. “While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.”
How different would things be now if the true story had been the one told over and over? How different would it be if we didn’t believe so easily that all of our neighbours would turn a blind eye?
When I made the move from writing novels vaguely inspired by real events to novels that include some detailed descriptions of the real events I never even thought about the need to get the facts straight. The story is always the number one priority.
But is the fictional story the only priority?
What are some of your favourite novels based on true stories? And do they get the facts straight?