Dominic Preziosi

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.

By this author

Rescuing Kitty Genovese

You needn’t be a New Yorker or even of a certain age to know the name Kitty Genovese. The murder of the twenty-eight-year-old woman in March 1964 came to serve as a symbol of the kind of collective apathy thought to have afflicted, if not defined, an era of soaring crime and imminent social breakdown. Thirty-eight people were said to have watched from their windows as she was stalked, stabbed, raped, and left for dead at three a.m. in the vestibule of a Queens apartment building, none having lifted a finger (or phone) even as her attacker returned to finish the deed. Books followed, courses of study were established, and an academic industry was built on the Genovese murder and “the bystander effect”—an interpretation dutifully tended down through the decades by a media reluctant to subject a story this “good” to the greater scrutiny it deserved. In fact, not nearly as many people witnessed the attack; few saw it in its entirety; and two called the police.

That might have been the scoop of James Solomon’s documentary The Witness, which follows Kitty’s youngest brother Bill as he pursues the nagging questions about just what happened to his sister and how in the fifty intervening years her murder became shorthand for a sociological phenomenon. But maybe more important than cataloguing the journalistic flaws—which had already been acknowledged in a 2004 New York Times story and by others reviewing the original reporting—the film helps reanimate a young woman known mainly for the notoriety of her death and by the photo accompanying almost every account of it, reminding us that this was a real person getting her life underway. The dramatic appeal of The Witness comes from the fact that Bill seems to discover certain facts about the life of Kitty Genovese just as the audience does.

As the driven sibling willing to admit the obsessive aspect of his quest, Bill Genovese, now sixty-eight, makes for a compelling guide. A handsome, articulate Marine who lost both his legs in Vietnam, he is polite but dogged in tracking down surviving witnesses and learning what they did or didn’t see. (That he is often shown wheeling himself to meet interviewees forcefully underscores the notion of his dedication to the mission.)  He learns just how an exaggerated and erroneous version of the story that originated with The New York Times took root and became a trope repeated in everything from reports on 60 Minutes to speeches by Bill Clinton to episodes of Law & Order and Girls. He also meets, and shows admirable compassion for, the son of Winston Moseley—the man who killed Kitty—now a middle-aged minister whose own skewed understanding of the crime reveals how damagingly it affected him.

Yet it’s the section of the film that (un)covers Kitty’s life that works best.

The Timid Souls and Their Drowsy Minds

The ample talents of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have been put to better use than with the short story about the 2016 election she has written for this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. “The Arrangements,” set in the run-up to the Republican convention, centers on a day in the life of Melania Trump as she plans a dinner party for her parents, her husband, and a few close guests. “Melania decided she would order the flowers herself” is the familiar-sounding opening line, and in a close third-person narrative we experience through the consciousness of the fictionalized potential first lady what it’s like to be married to the presumptive Republican nominee—while also dealing with children and adult step-children, florists, Pilates instructors, and the pressures of an unlikely presidential campaign.

A lark? A plunge?  An unneeded exercise—another in an ineffectual but still-expanding regimen—in subjecting the candidate to scorn? As has been noted elsewhere, the likely Republican nominee has shown imperviousness to slings and arrows of this and lower sorts, while proving adept at returning fire and deploying other unsuspected skills on the campaign trail (I will not mention here his flair for apophasis). Besides, would anyone who’s supposed to “appreciate” the Mrs. Dalloway framing (or anyone who’d read Adichie or Virginia Woolf in the first place, or the New York Times Book Review itself) be influenced either way? In empathizing with its protagonist, it necessarily does the opposite with her husband. So who does a piece like this aim to persuade?

The abundance of other, similar material speaks to the broader shortcomings in the coverage of this candidacy. Yes, reputable outlets are turning out more solid reporting on suspicious bankruptcies, overstated charitable giving, and possibly fraudulent business practices. And yes, satire can be an effective mode of puncturing an over-inflated public figure, even when the satire might not be mistaken for Aristophanes or Voltaire, H. L. Mencken or Jon Stewart. Yet there remains a tendency toward complacent dismissiveness, which simultaneously showers with free publicity a candidate regarded as a legitimate threat to stability and security. (It was estimated that as of mid-May, the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in free media had been doled out to him.) Some recent polls may bring comfort to those hoping for a more qualified person in the White House, others may not, but either way polls aren’t election results. If this is no joke, then why the practice of so lazily treating it like one?

Data on Faith, Faith in Data?

According to the Diocese of Raleigh, just 5 percent of North Carolina’s approximately 420,000 Catholics are native to the state. Thus about 399,000 have arrived from somewhere else, helping not only to double North Carolina’s Catholic population over the last two decades, but also to foster the hopeful notion that Catholicism is thriving in certain parts of the nation. Indeed, the South in general has seen an uptick in its Catholic population, with 27 percent of the nation’s Catholics now residing there, up from 24 percent in 2004, according to Pew. In the same period, those figures dropped from 29 percent to 26 percent in the Northeast, and from 24 to 21 percent in the Midwest, strongholds built over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries thanks in no small part to Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants and their first- and second-generation descendents.

Who’s fueling the southern boomlet? To a large extent, immigrants—the majority from Mexico and Central America, and many of the rest from Vietnam and the Philippines. But a significant number of the non-native Catholics are transplants from those old strongholds up north, including retirees lured by the weather and lower cost of living, as well as young professionals lured by jobs in corporate centers like Charlotte, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Atlanta. Those cities and their surrounding suburbs are of course growing in general. The population of North Carolina’s southeastern Brunswick County, for example, is projected to hit nearly 130,000 in 2019, almost double what it was at the turn of the millennium. (By way of disclosure and illustration, I have family in the region, and when I visit I am struck by the number of people I meet who are originally from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois, many Catholic. This anecdotal evidence adds flesh to impersonal statistics indicating that the rise in the South’s Catholic population is tied to the drop in the North’s.)  

The demographic shift is seen in some areas as an opportunity to try new approaches to establishing and nurturing vibrant Catholic communities. Regional characteristics and behaviors like relatively low population densities and the entrenched driving lifestyle, for instance, could guide capital planning and resource allocation in a way that might mitigate against what seems in retrospect the “overbuilding” of churches and other infrastructure in the northern cities and suburbs, the closures and consolidations of which have been painful for those whose parishes had defined their communities. The multicultural quality of congregations could offer (and in many cases, already is offering) new opportunities for cross-cultural outreach and enrichment. And the South’s largely Christian culture might itself factor in. Interviewees in a recent report on Catholicism in the southern United States by OSV Newsweekly spoke of finding it easier to be open and “intentional” about faith given evangelical, black Protestant, and mainline Protestant neighbors who live theirs so outwardly. An Atlanta-area woman originally from New York said being challenged by Protestant friends on why she’s Catholic has “really pushed me to figure out and to learn why we do what we do.” Up north, she said, you answered the question by saying “because mommy does it and grandma does it. And that’s all you need to know.”

But positive regional trends continue to run up against larger general ones.

Rock of Ages?

There’s a scene in director Luca Guadagnino’s current film A Bigger Splash where Harry, the manipulative music-producer houseguest played by Ralph Fiennes, guides his hosts through a Rolling Stones track from the Voodoo Lounge album, revealing the tricks he used to get certain sonic effects. It’s not a bad song, but only a few bars are heard before he puts on another record. What plays now is the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue"[*] which Harry can’t stop himself from dancing to. Is it a better song? Yes, but maybe it’s the context—the way Fiennes, shirt open, is shot under a hot Mediterranean sun; the funny-creepy irony of the lyrics in that moment; the cranking up of the soundtrack; a glimpse of the LP spinning on the turntable. Another character asks if he produced this one too. “Honey,” Harry shouts back, “I was only sixteen when they did this!” For Harry, clearly it’s not just a better song, but a great one.

And what makes a great song—we’ll stipulate rock songs here—is different from what makes a song representative of the genre, criteria for which Chuck Klosterman discusses in a New York Times Magazine piece headlined “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?” On the same day it was reported that Gus Wenner, son of Jann, would be harnessing the brand power of Rolling Stone magazine to launch a website on video-gaming—“It’s the new rock-and-roll,” he declared—Klosterman predicted that three hundred years from now, almost no one would even know what rock-and-roll was, and that maybe just a single artist, based on the staying power of a single composition (think Sousa and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) would be the future’s only link to what he calls the “most important musical form of the 20th century.” And that artist and song are?

Questionable premise, annoying certainty, a unilateral pronouncement guaranteed to elicit complaints about overlooked nominees—well, that’s all part of writing about rock-and-roll (see Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Pitchfork’s best-ofs). Tower Records at its height not only anchored street corners and retail centers but also produced its own monthly magazine, Pulse, pages of which were given over to “desert island discs,” reader-submitted lists of can’t-live-without records—the ceaseless output of a subculture defined by its compulsion to collect, catalog, and rate. Klosterman’s piece, if not explicitly intended to generate similar response, has of course done just that. It got about thirteen-hundred comments in a little more than twenty-four hours, many no doubt from people who went straight to the end to learn Klosterman hadn’t anointed Mick or Bob or Paul or Jimi or Aretha, or James Taylor or Janis Joplin or the Beach Boys or Radiohead or REM or anyone else who hands-down, no-doubt, unquestionably deserves it over the ultimate choice: Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode.”

Martyrs, Memory, and a Papal-Photo Mystery

The church of La Sagrada Familia in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City is the de facto headquarters in the cause for the canonization of Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit priest executed in 1927. The story of Padre Pro is recounted on a plaque beneath his portrait, which is mounted to a pillar behind the altar rail. Born in Guadalupe and dedicated to serving the poor, he is said to have been humorous, charming, and a master of disguises. The last was a necessity of his underground ministry; with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the government in the mid-’20s had commenced to enforce with brutal severity the anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s 1917 constitution. Pro, long under surveillance, was eventually arrested under the pretext of involvement in the attempted assassination of Calles’s predecessor, Álvaro Obregón, and convicted without trial. Still conscious after the initial barrage of the firing squad, he supposedly shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before taking a final, fatal shot at close range. The government publicized photographs of the execution as a warning to the people, but tens of thousands of Mexicans attended Pro’s funeral—a fact portrayed as a courageous and defiant rebuke to Calles.

Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world, from collections of fine art and archaeological rarities to the personal effects and relics of notable figures—including Padre Pro, a museum in whose name adjoins Sagrada Familia. Within steps of one another in the Coyoacan neighborhood are Leon Trotsky’s preserved home—its walls not only adorned with photos and artifacts but also pocked with bullet holes from a firefight preceding his 1940 assassination—and the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where the tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the artist’s 1954 Self Portrait with Stalin, in which the murderous Soviet leader assumes the role of watchful saint.

Padre Pro’s remains are interred at Sagrada Familia. A steel box beneath his portrait has a slot wide enough for written testimonials of miracles. One sign asks politely that no flowers be left; another warns against touching the candles. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and perhaps two dozen people were in the church, some praying the rosary, others sitting quietly. A few days earlier, an international human rights team investigating Mexico’s handling of the September 2014 disappearance and presumed murders of forty-three students from the state of Guerrero had released its final report. In contending that evidence had been suppressed and torture used in extracting confessions from alleged suspects, it called into serious doubt the “historical account” of the matter that has been put forth by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As such it had given hope to the families of the missing as well as human rights advocates inside and outside Mexico that the real details of the case, and maybe even justice, would be forthcoming.

Yet the report seemed to generate little local reaction, adding to worries that indifference was setting in. Banners commemorating the missing may yet hang in various squares and markets across Mexico City, and cement sidewalks are etched with the command “never forget,” but two years later, the colors are fading and the edges are worn. Pope Francis had not met with the families of the missing during his February visit, as some had hoped he would, and a semi-permanent protest outside the National Palace has all but folded its tent.

Is Now the Time for Women Deacons?

"Perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions." That was Phyllis Zagano, writing in Commonweal in 2012, when she made the case for ordaining women to the diaconate. Yesterday, commenting on Pope Francis's announcement of a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, she told NCR: "It's very hopeful.

'Zero K'

The husband and wife at the center of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise both flirt and despair over the question of who will predecease the other. Why do we have to die? is the existential plaint behind not only their pillow talk and estate planning but also the narrative itself, which proceeds less as conventionally plotted drama than as darkly comic, special ongoing coverage of the ever-approaching encounter with life’s end.

What Lights the Political Spark

Somewhere in a shoebox holding the detritus of my youth there may still rest a signed, black-and-white photograph of Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, who lent his name to legislation related to military engagement in Vietnam and Roe v. Wade and who in 1975 led the committee investigating intelligence-gathering abuses by the CIA and FBI. But none of these had led to me ask for the portrait that would arrive in the mail, tucked snugly into an official-looking envelope emblazoned with an official-looking seal. I was only following instructions: For a middle-school social-studies class, I had to do a report on a U.S. senator, and I was randomly assigned Church. I can’t remember anything about what I might have turned in; what I can remember was that in the months and years to follow, when encountering references to Church amendments or the Church Committee, I had a clue of what was being talked about. And that, as I triumphantly remind my children, is why you do your schoolwork.

Classes in history and government may acquaint young people with history and government, but what sparks the romance with politics? My seventh-grade daughter has shown flickering signs of interest in the current presidential election, and last Wednesday attended with a friend and her parents the rally for Bernie Sanders in New York’s Washington Square Park. She came home tired and bleary-eyed, excited and talkative, with stickers and buttons and a Bernie (first name only, please) poster in the style of a Grateful Dead album cover—bought with the money she was supposed to use for food. She had gripes about the crowds and the clouds of marijuana smoke, but these were minor next to the views firmly expressed well before the event on why women shouldn’t be expected to vote for a presidential candidate just because the candidate is a woman.

From poorer soil plants can also grow. Around the time of my Church report, I remember watching (as apparently do others) an episode of the TV series Happy Days, set if you recall in an idealized version of the 1950s, in which main character Richie Cunningham defies his father to campaign for Adlai Stevenson. When Dwight Eisenhower wins, Richie and the kids—and by extension a generation—are distraught. Was it really like that? I asked my mother. The wistful solemnity with which she answered “yes” made a lasting impression. But so did watching with her, one year before, the resignation of Richard Nixon on a nine-inch black-and-white TV, and, one year after, listening to my father bemoan the failure of Republicans in Kansas City to nominate Ronald Reagan. It was up to me to make sense of it all.

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