Saturday, April 01, 2017

Guest Blogger: John McFetridge

Type M would like to welcome our guest this weekend, John McFetridge. He’s written a very interesting piece about the “fiction” surrounding the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964.

John McFetridge is the author of three Constable Eddie Dougherty novels set in Montreal in the 1970s, where he grew up, and four novels in the Toronto Series, where he now lives. John will be appearing at the ImagiNATION Literary Festival at the Morrin Centre in Quebec City on April 9th, 2017.

 Based on a True Story

By John McFetridge

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.

“37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.”

That was the headline on the New York Times article. That’s the way the story was told, in journalism and in fiction. In making the story the number one priority, that was very successful.

But it wasn’t true.

In fact, the newspaper article with that headline wasn’t published until a few weeks after the murder. There had been small stories about the murder in newspapers after it happened but none mentioned witnesses not coming forward. It wasn’t until the Police Commissioner talked about the story while having lunch with the New York Times city editor and said, “Brother, that Queens story is one for the books. Thirty-eight witnesses. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything,” that the story of the witnesses first appeared.

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?


Rick Blechta said...

I remember this incident well since it was all over TV and the New York papers for quite a long time after the Times article (the mistaken one). People were shocked that no one came to help and it was a hot topic. Really tragic. I had no idea of the follow up in later years. Thanks for sharing it, John.

Redstar said...

I am intrigued by this topic.I have assumed when I am reading fiction that touches on real life events that the author has tried to stay true to the facts, but I guess that's a naive thought as an author of course has every right to create a new narrative. When it is a big event though, I want to believe things unfolded in the manner the author touches on and one starts to meld fiction and facts you believed happened as they are written about. One of favourite novels is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. It revolves around the assasination of JFK. makes me wonder now, how much he embellished and created with his imagination beyond the basic facts of that fateful day in Texas. This topic of course has been countlessly written about and it makes me think no one really knows the true facts anyway so perhaps whatever Stephen King wrote in this novel is as true as anything else out there.

John McFetridge said...

sometimes we may never know the truth. Stephen King has said he did a lot of research and came to the conclusion Oswsld acted alone but then he said his wife read all the same research and believed a conspiracy was a possibility. I have to say, King convinced me that Oswaldcdcted alone by making him such a real character and by making the story do plausible.

Karin said...

Gary Indiana has written several novels based on true-life crimes. I thought Depraved Indifference was the best. He used a lot of verbatim testimony from court transcripts and interviews, but had to make up some stuff, of course. He's an excellent writer, always with a sardonic sense of humour.