The two books I’m talking about are The Wrong Men by Stanley Cohen and Twisted Confessions: The True Story Behind The Kitty Genovese And Barbara Kralik Murder Trials.
In light of reading Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up, I was reminded of these two books because they were so brutally unsettling to me. Sam’s book talks about how little we know about human consciousness and asks the question, is what we know, really what we know?
If you supplement Sam’s book with these two books, you’ll answer that question, without hesitation, with ‘no’.
The Wrong Men is about wrongful convictions, and the many causes of them. The one chapter that destroyed my entire worldview when I read it, was the one about eyewitness testimony. This was the first book I read about wrongful convictions, and I was shocked and floored and gobsmacked at the fact that eyewitness recollection, even from the most “absolutely sure” eyewitnesses, is correct only about half of the time. Half of the time. Half. Do you know what this means? It means there’s a good chance some of our own memories about our own lives are completely wrong and false! It means our memory is a lying asshole! It means we cannot trust, even what we are sure we saw with our very own eyes!
This realization changed me from a skeptic, to a militant skeptic, unable to even trust my own thoughts, memories and understanding of anything.
Another part of The Wrong Men that opened my eyes to the fact that we are creatures that none of us really understand, was the one about false confessions. Every ounce of your common sense wants to tell you that no sane person would confess to a crime he or she did not commit, but let me tell you, it fucking happens. It happens so unsettlingly much, that this chapter of the book will require you to take breaks just to absorb what it’s telling you. People confess to crimes they did not commit, all. the. time. A confession, just like an eyewitness testimony, means jack squat.
I walked away from this book feeling like I could be sure of absolute bupkus. This book will make a skeptic out of the most gullible believer you know.
The other book I want to talk to you about, is Twisted Confessions. This is a non-fiction account of the trials surrounding the Kitty Genovese and Barbara Kralik murder trials. My interest lies in the Kitty Genovese trial. The book itself is a load of fucktardery after the description of the crime, because the author is just another vengeful cop who’s only out to punish and get revenge rather than look at the causes of crime and the potential to prevent it. He’s just out for blood and I really don’t like people like that. The murder of Kitty Genovese though, is so significant and something everyone should take a closer look at.
You like to think you’re a good and decent person. You’d like to think that if you saw someone being hurt, that you would jump to defend them. But is that true? Are you absolutely sure that this is how you would react?
The murder of Kitty Genovese is where we get the term “Genovese syndrome”, otherwise known as the bystander effect.
Kitty was murdered outside of several apartment buildings in New York City while numerous neighbours looked on and did nothing. Later, these eyewitnesses to the murder of Kitty Genovese stated that they didn’t want to “get involved”. One man is reported to have even turned his radio up to drown out Kitty’s screams.
These several dozen people were all otherwise seemingly decent people who worked hard and paid their bills and took care of their children. These are people who thought of themselves as the type to do the right thing, and yet they did not.
Studies that have gone in to this crime and similar situations, seem to suggest that the larger the number of witnesses there are, the less likely it is that someone will step in and do something. They call it the diffusion of responsibility and the idea is, people feel assured that because there are so many others looking on, someone else will surely take care of it.
Twisted Confessions started my exploration into reading more about morality, because I just couldn’t understand how decent people could let something like that happen. It was so unsettling to think that even though I like to think I would do the right thing, what if the behaviour demonstrated by the witnesses to the Kitty Genovese murder is more the norm? What if that’s how most of us would act in that situation?
Both of these books will shake the foundation of everything you think you know about yourself and how you think and act. Add Picking Cotton and Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, and you’ll never trust anything that happens in your own head again.