I first read about the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1994, thirty years after the fact, in an essay by Harlan Ellison. I soon found myself reading everything I could find on it. The story I kept getting went something like this:
In the early hours of March 13, 1964, in Queens, New York, a young woman heading home from the bar at which she worked was accosted outside her apartment by a stranger – later diagnosed as a necrophile – who raped and murdered her in front of thirty-eight eye witnesses, none of whom did anything to help. The killer even left once (twice in some accounts), only to return after several minutes to finish the job. The two attacks combined lasted forty-five minutes. She was his third victim.
It doesn’t matter very much that that story doesn’t hold strictly to the facts. As Voltaire said of God, if Kitty Genovese didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent her. The well-known version of her murder tells us something important about ourselves, and about what happens when “good men do nothing,” and this, I think, is why it hit such a nerve with me – and why it hit such a nerve with the America of 1964. The facts which contradict the story were never particularly important; it went straight from real-life tragedy to myth in a matter of days.
So when I decided to write a novel based – very loosely – on the events of that night, it was with the myth in mind that I approached it. I wanted to find the heart of the story, and it seemed to me at the time, and seems to me still, that in order to do that, in order for me to let that heart beat, I would have extract it from the constricting facts and put it in an otherwise fictional world.
While the resultant book, Acts of Violence, takes place on the morning of March 13, 1964, in a place recognizable as some version of Queens, New York, while some of the dialogue is pulled from eye-witness accounts, while several of the details are accurate, it doesn’t take place in a real 1964, or a real Queens, and none of the characters are based on real people, with the exception of a few shared biographical details. In a very real sense Acts of Violence is not based on a true story at all; it is based on how that story has been mythologized.
Myths are, after all, how we have traditionally explained our hopes and fears to each other, and though those we discover who we are – and what we are made of.
Acts of Violence is publshed by Macmillan