Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

If you are like millions upon millions of people and like me, you might have heard the name Kitty Genovese in a psychology or sociology class. You might have read her case study where supposedly 38 human beings passively witnessed her murder in Queens in 1964. It was a watershed moment in America, so when I passed by a book with her name and photograph on the cover this weekend, I checked it out from the library. I devoured it in less than 12 hours.

This book, by Kevin Cook, fastens Kitty Genovese’s life and death to concurrent events  and the changes her death galvanized in American society and beyond. Cook mentions how Kitty’s death possibly increased the willingness of New Yorkers to assist each other fifteen years ago today, when history changed so catastrophically that those of us who came to adulthood in the 20th Century could never imagine how we would live in the 21st.

Cook’s biography reveals that Kitty Genovese was a lesbian, and for the first time her partner Mary Ann was interviewed about their life together. They’d lived together almost one year when Kitty was murdered just steps away from their apartment. Heart-breaking was the tale of Kitty’s father taking away bits of her life from their apartment, down to the the black poodle Kitty gave Mary Ann as a gift. Poor Mary Ann, young, alone, and helpless; she was a victim never recognized in all thousands of retellings of Kitty’s death. She was utterly alone in her mourning.

Part of the rationale for stripping Mary Ann of her right to grief were scales tipped toward the primacy of Kitty’s mother, Laura’s, maternal grief. Over and over again the Genovese family is absent at the trial and many parole hearings of her rapist and murderer. Their acts of absence were consciously made to protect Kitty’s mother. The surviving victims, like many witnesses, stayed away from the aftermath of Kitty’s death.

This seemed a pattern until a jolt in the narrative. In one tiny piece of the book, a sentence so deep into the text, that if you weren’t reading closely you could miss it entirely, and laden with the pronoun “she” in  a book full of female characters (real-life women), Cook mentions that after Laura’s death, her surviving children found a desk drawer full of newspaper clippings about Kitty’s assault and death. She knew. Of course she knew. What mother could bear not knowing how her child left this earth? As horrible as the facts were, and they were brutal, the imagination is always darker and more fearful than the secrets from which we hide.

In their zeal to protect Kitty’s mother from the details of their sister’s death, no one ever talked about it. Everyone suffered an extraordinary loss alone, including Kitty’s mother. Mary Ann also suffered alone because there was no space for her pain in an intolerant world beyond her own broken heart. For fifty-two years, people have suffered the death of Kitty Genovese because it was so unspeakable that it felt safer and less unseemly to remain silent. Why must a polite society be one that suffers in silence?

The title of my post may seem tied to Kitty’s sexual orientation and her relationship with Mary Ann, but that’s only part of the story. Extraordinary and pointless is the damage done by not speaking about of things that slowly but profoundly erode our souls. The “unspeakable” acts of the most evil among us grow more powerful and painful in the shadows of our silence. The social constraints that prevent us from expressing  our true selves leave us lonely in the darkness.

Kitty Genovese should be an elderly woman, but she’s not. Mary Ann should have had the opportunity to see if their relationship would have worked out, to see if they could have been married by now. Laura Genovese should have left her children in this world not met her daughter in the next. In lieu of that, she should have been able say, “Stop hiding the truth, I already know it. She was my daughter, and I know the truth.” While so many remained silent, not everyone was afraid. The book ends on the most hopeful note with an unsung hero revealed at last. It may have been too late to save Kitty, but it is never too late for us to learn something valuable from her brief and bright light.

My friend Heather used to tell people, “Don’t should on me,” and 99% of the time I take her advice and avoid telling people what they should do. However, you really should read this book to better understand how a world of secrets produces a universe of shadows where suffering festers and rumor and assumption take root like weeds. Read it and talk about it. Talk about the splinters in your own hearts, and give Kitty Genovese’s tragic story your own hopeful ending that begins with refreshing honesty with yourself and the people you love. Ask, tell, and live your whole life bonding in human truth not withering with the burden of secrets.


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