The Ones Left Behind by Mia Styant-Browne
I recently watched a documentary on Kitty Genovese. It was called The Witness. Famous for her murder in the 1960’s, she became the poster child for witness apathy. 38 witnesses. Despite her screams, no one came. No one rescued her. She was stabbed repeatedly. She died.
The film is an attempt at debunking much of this narrative.
The documentary was produced by one of her brothers, Bill, who was also its subject. I wondered what it must feel like to not only lose a sister but to have the whole world weigh in on her death.
It’s 2016. Kitty died in 1964 at age 28. Her death is still a topic of debate 52 years on.
What is that like for her family? The ones left behind. The ones that were left to carry the pieces. The burden was thrust upon them. They will never be unencumbered.
The death of a child, even if that child is already an adult essentially destroys a family. Lives continue, as they must. Time doesn’t stop. But the world is a little less sweet. Colors, a little less bright. Happiness, complex previously, becomes more so.
Bills still need to be paid, pets fed, plants watered. Life’s minutiae don’t cease despite the impossibility of circumstances. You find yourself performing these rote tasks, contemplating the point of it all. Why are we here? Why do we continue on? Why do we engage in this futility?
Kitty’s family had to move forward. They lost Kitty. Shortly after, Vincent, her father, a heart attack. Bill, her brother, went to war, Vietnam. He lost both his legs.
There’s no cap on tragedy. It’s not a finite quantity. Just because Kitty had died didn’t mean the rest of the Genovese family was spared further tragedy. It didn’t mean that bad things couldn’t happen anymore. There was no force that declared “enough” and made it so.
Kitty’s mother found God. That was how she got through. By inserting some higher power I suppose into what were otherwise irreconcilable circumstances. It seemed that people often found God in grief or grief in God, I don’t know which.
I never really understood this. If there was one godless place in this world, wasn’t it in tragedy? Why would God have let Kitty die? Why would God have created her killer Winston Mosley? Why would God have saddled her family with this impossible burden?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Even if they exist they aren’t clear-cut. Maybe I’m missing something.
When my sister died this year my dad started attending church. He is a devout atheist. That hasn’t changed.
At first, I asked why he goes? What he gets out of it?
I don’t get it. You don’t believe in God.
It’s the same church where my sister Georgia’s funeral was held. Presumably, he sits in the same pews he sat in on that day. I don’t know. I’ve never been. I don’t want to.
He must take up the same space as when he waited for his name to be called on that warm May day. Time for the eulogy.
Minister? Pastor? Reverend? I’m not sure which, if any, is the correct denomination. I avoid asking questions. Questions about this anyway. Questions make people sad. Questions make people remember, which makes people sad. When I say people I mean dad.
Maybe he goes to feel closer to some piece of Georgia. Maybe by coming to the location of her final testament, he can stand in the chasm that exists between life and death. Not purgatory, not heaven, not hell. Just that in between place that straddles the two worlds. Maybe it is in this space that he connects with her, feels her inside him, can speak to her freely. Maybe here Georgia isn’t dead. Maybe here he can pretend.
I’ve tried asking him about it. His response is usually terse and unhelpful. I am typically left more confused, with a greater number of questions than I had before initially engaging. I stop. I don’t want to see the sadness in his eyes. I become the peppy cheerleader in compensation. I try to keep things light. Keep things moving.
According to Bill, Kitty’s parents were never really happy again after their daughter died.
After being denied bail for the 18th time in 2015, Winston Mosley died this year. Kitty’s killer is dead. Does this change things? Does this make the loss easier to bear?
In the documentary Bill reached out to Mosley. Mosley, the coward, refused to meet with him. Instead, Mosley sent a letter. The letter was a delusion. He didn’t take ownership for the death of Kitty. He blamed it on someone else. I wondered if he was crazy before he went to prison or if a half-century institutionalized had made him so.
After Kitty died, her family stopped speaking about her. The children of Kitty’s siblings knew almost nothing about her life. They read about her more in school texts then they heard about her from their uncles and aunts.
I think perhaps this happens when the circumstances of death are particularly tragic. It becomes easy for that person’s existence to become conflated with the method of death. That comes to define them. It becomes the piece that constitutes the whole.
Kitty, for example, was married and divorced. She worked at a bar. She went to jail briefly. She lived with a female partner. She was gay. What must this loss have been like for the woman she loved? She would have been alone in her grief. Although, I suppose, ultimately we all are.
I’d thought a lot about this recently. This erasing of life with the passage of death. Both my parents have erected shrines to Georgia in their homes. I look out the door of the bedroom I’m currently in and see Georgia’s old room. The place she died. It has been left intact. From the doorway, I can see her ashes. The butterfly covered urn that she has been interned to. Casting my eyes downward I can see a pair of velvet, maroon Doc Martens. The same pair that I saw another woman wear while commuting. It seemed odd that more than one pair of these shoes could even exist. The same pair she was wearing at her viewing.
The viewing that happens after death where the body is composed, dressed, made up, prepared for the family to have a final moment.
After the viewing, after the funeral, she was cremated. Before she turned from body to ashes the shoes were removed at my dad’s behest. He wanted to keep them. She had asked for them as a present, carefully sourced them somewhere on the Internet. They now stood next to several other pairs, belying their own significance.
So there she was, those ashes and those shoes. That was it. All that was left.
I live in a family where few words are verboten. Nothing, it seems, is too crude or too profane.
The word Georgia, though, has come to be the weightiest. It’s the one word that when uttered kills the vibe in a room. You can visibly see as people look down, find an excuse to change the topic. People stop saying her name.
My siblings and I whisper it to each other. Out of earshot of our parents. We’re affected, but not like they are. We want to protect them. We know it’s impossible.
But why do we stop talking? She was more than the way she died. She was more than those final moments. She did good things. She did bad things. She was human before she wasn’t. Alive, before she was dead.
It must be so strange for the nieces and nephews of Kitty to have grown up knowing that they were related to this person. This person whose death was never discussed in the home, only read about in the media. It seems a disservice to Kitty’s memory.
There was value in the generation that had come following Kitty’s death knowing about her life.
Kitty was close to her siblings. Her relationships with them were important both to her and her brothers and sister. It must have been hard to not share that when they had their own children.
I don’t know. There’s often something to be said for pushing things down, trying to move forward, forgetting. The dead get to be dead. We can’t. They’re gone. We stayed.
And as long as we’re alive we have to figure out a way to navigate the world. Sure, we all carry pieces of the dead with us. Some days they are larger than others, but they’re always there.
There certainly wouldn’t be a day that I go without thinking of Georgia. Sometimes an hour passes and I realize her name hasn’t come up in my head. That’s about the longest.
I’ve learned to live with that voice, those thoughts. I’ve learned, I suppose, to not let them get too loud. I don’t let them drown out everything else. Mostly they’re a whisper. They’re something I consciously try to not to increase the volume of.
I’m pretty sure the voices are always screaming in my dad’s head. I can tell just by looking in his eyes.
But it’s only been six months. Early days. Maybe things will change. Maybe my dad will figure out how to survive in a world that she is not a part of.
I thought of Joan Didion. When she said, “a single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
My dad understands this acutely, viscerally.
I guess we have to hope that the rest of us can come to be enough. That the love we give can keep my dad from drowning. At this point his eyes, mouth and nose seem to barely breach the surface of the water. With time maybe his whole face will emerge, then his neck, his torso, his legs, his feet. Maybe one day he won’t even feel the water at all. I doubt that.
But that’s ok. Sensing Georgia, carrying her now is his version of the afterlife. There may be no heaven, but there is this life and we can all try and carry the best pieces of her with us. I guess that’s our way of honoring her, remembering her, keeping some small part of her alive.
And maybe that’s the best all of us can do. Maybe that’s why Bill Genovese made the documentary about his sister. He shared her life before her death. He told the world she was a person before she was the victim of a crime.
There’s one beautiful scene towards the end. Bill enlists a surrogate who reenacts that night. She screams the words Kitty screamed on the street Kitty screamed them in the early hours of March 13, 1964. She makes the movements Kitty made. She starts at the sight of the first attack from Mosley before staggering to that of the second. The second place. The place where Mosley returned half an hour later and finished what he had started.
No one’s lights turned on. No police came. No one responded to the screams of the surrogate. This could have broken Bill, but I don’t think it did. He hugged the woman. The one that stood in lieu of his sister when she couldn’t. He cried. I cried. I wondered if this moment helped him come to some kind of peace, if it helped him reconcile his own choices that he had made in the wake of Kitty’s death, because of Kitty’s death, in spite of Kitty’s death. Would he have made them if she hadn’t died? Does it matter?
He carries Kitty with him as I carry Georgia with me. He made The Witness as a love letter to his sister in some ways or at least that’s how it seems. He shared her life. In that way, he made her immortal.
By Mia Styant-Browne