Fighting Words

Guilty Bystanders

Michael Devlin’s neighbors make their excuses.

Accused kidnapper Michael J. Devlin

Some newspaper stories quite simply write themselves. This is especially true of the ones that call for comment to be made on predictable occasions. Thus, raging narcissists, when awarded Oscars, will take a brief courtesy break from their egomania to bestow praise on anyone but themselves. Defeated politicians, asked if they might consider running again, are expected to reply that they neither rule it out nor rule it in. (If they don’t say it the first time, they will be asked, “Do you rule it out or rule it in?” until they do say so.) Discredited politicians will say that they wish to spend more time with their families. Press secretaries taken by surprise will answer that they haven’t yet seen the full text. Gaffe mongers will complain that their words have been “taken out of context.” And the neighbors of serial killers, kidnappers, and child molesters feel duty-bound to say that this has come as a great shock, not to say a complete surprise, and that the guy next door seemed perfectly decent—if perhaps a little inclined to “keep to himself.”

Actually, a few years ago, there was a brief disturbance in the natural order, when those living next to Jeffrey Dahmer were interviewed and said that they had been complaining about the yells and the smells for some time to no avail, and that their neighbor seemed like a dangerous, unconfined nut case. But tradition soon regained her throne, and the custom of printing the time-honored quotes on all such occasions has been faithfully followed ever since.

I searched feverishly through the New York Times on Sunday, fearing for a moment that the apprehension of Michael Devlin—a single man who had doubled the size of his informal adolescent brood in a single day—might have been the occasion for another rupture with reportorial protocol. But no—there it was, all right, in the fourth paragraph of page 17:

The charges carry the possibility of life in prison for Mr. Devlin, who was known among his neighbors as a stickler for parking rules, and for little else other than keeping to himself.

Of course, as the story necessarily went on to say, the good people of this section of Kirkwood, Mo., are now slightly kicking themselves for failing to spot their neighbor’s uncanny ability to produce full-grown male children without having a woman on hand. One particular resident, reminiscing at the kitchen table about all the times she saw young Shawn Hornbeck frisking around, even sounded faintly aggrieved. “That’s why we moved here,” she said, “because it’s the type of place where you don’t have to worry about some crazed person bothering you.”

This journalistic tendency probably stems from a famous New York Times story in March 1964 about the murder of Kitty Genovese. This young lady was attacked not once but twice, the second time lethally (and a third time, it seems, sexually and near-posthumously) by the same man, in the Kew Gardens district of Queens, N.Y. She had several occasions to scream for help, and took them. But it did her no good. The night was cold, people didn’t feel much like opening their windows, and it was written that no fewer than 38 residents had heard and ignored her cries. The most commonly given reason for this apathy on the part of the witnesses was that they “didn’t want to get involved.” Later reports suggested that it hadn’t really been that bad, and that very few people could have located the source of the screams, let alone witnessed the butchery of Ms. Genovese. But the original article set off a national soul-searching and became the basis of many stories and movies, as well as a mordant song by folk singer Phil Ochs titled “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.”

The inhabitants of Kew Gardens were living next to the victim, not the perpetrator, which alters things a bit. You don’t have so many chances to react, or to be observant, so you don’t need so many excuses. Nonetheless, I think the Genovese precedent made a real difference. I live in an upscale building that abuts a not-quite-so-upscale neighborhood, and when I heard blood-chilling female screams one night, I know I had the story in mind as I caught up a kitchen knife and ran downstairs. I was almost abashed by the number of my fellow residents outside on the street before me. (The assailant ran off, and we were able to comfort the girl until the cops came—and more than one person alluded to the Genovese case.) But to find that you have been passively watching a crime, or crimes, in slow motion, must make you feel stupid as well as cowardly. This might help explain the slightly plaintive and defensive tone adopted by some of the local Kirkwoodians, such as the lady I cited above who had moved there just to avoid this kind of unpleasantness. “A lot of us are down on our luck and living paycheck to paycheck,” observed Harry C. Reichard IV, who occupied the apartment above Devlin’s. “When you’re just trying to survive, you don’t pay a lot of attention to people around you.” This justifiable emphasis on one’s own priorities extends apparently even to the avoidance of idle gossip—as in, “I see the guy downstairs has just had another teenager.” If the cops hadn’t come, looking for something else entirely, the whole bizarre Devlin menage might have kept on burgeoning, until it either achieved a ripe old age or was forced by pressure of sheer population growth to relocate to a nicer neighborhood where the locals would be even less curious and where such things were noticed even less. And when it was finally uncovered, by some lucky accident, do you know what the reporters would have recorded, no later than the third or fourth paragraph? Of course you do.