The Bystander Effect
When I look over, the man’s hand is already stuck, locked at the wrist between the subway doors.
At first, I just see the hand, like I’m looking at it through a telescope. It looks foreign and it takes a moment for me to realize that it’s a hand, alone, by itself, I guess, because I’m not used to seeing one disembodied. My gaze rises and through the glass, I can see the hand is attached to a raggedy man. He has a beard and torn clothing. He is black. He is unshowered and unshaven. His right hand is on the inside of the train. His body is on the outside.
Then, I look around. The train, an A uptown local, is pretty full even though it’s approaching midnight. Everyone has a seat and there’s room for people to stand comfortably. No one is looking at the man and his hand.
“Help!” the caught man yells, but it’s weak. About a dozen riders near by hear it though because they slightly turn their heads. I can see clearly that he’s homeless, but because of his almost non-reaction to his own danger, it strikes me that it’s also possible he is mentally ill: He realizes his hand is caught, but he seems to lack the necessary panic to know he’s in more than passing trouble. “Help!” he says, again. It’s quieter, but still not that desperate. The train is still silent.
I edge forward on my seat. It’s been a long three minutes and the doors have not opened to release the man’s hand. Maybe the conductor doesn’t know what’s happening.
Open, in my lap, is a comic book by sociopolitical commentator Warren Ellis, one that illustrates the grime and crime of a futuristic dystopian city. The protagonist is an eccentric journalist who regularly serves as a lone vigilante. Like Rorschach from ‘Watchmen,’ he opines on the dark, filthy aspects of humanity, lamenting the dead eyes of city dwellers. It’s a sort of, “My city screams in the night” aesthetic. It’s a cliché in graphic novels.
The caught man calls out again. My heart starts to pound. I shove my book in my bag and stand up.
“He’s stuck!” I yell. “His hand is stuck!” I’m met with silence and confused stares.
The train lurches forward a bit and I’m terrified. It’s going to start moving! Then, it stops.
I imagine what’ll happen when we move: the train will probably drag the guy down the platform for a few seconds by the arm until we hit the concrete tunnel wall. Then, his body will either be smashed between the train and the tunnel, crunching his bones flat, or his wrist will snap, leaving his body on the platform and our subway car with a bleeding shoddily-severed hand for a passenger. There’s a possibility the impact and dragging could kill this man too.
My vision swims. I walk to the middle of the train. “Someone get the conductor! Can you guys see the conductor? Is there a button or — his hand is stuck! Can someone get the conductor?!”
The eyes that meet mine convey one thought: Why is this crazy woman yelling?
“Okay, I’m gonna go head up and get the conductor to open –” I scream, when the doors suddenly do open. The whole ordeal took about ten minutes. The guy’s okay and he doesn’t thank me. For some reason, I’m embarrassed for “bothering” all these people on their rides home.
I sit down. I go to re-open my comic book and I realize I’m shaking.
“i’m all messed up about it,” I later type to a friend on Facebook chat. “i get it. bystander effect, but damn. he would’ve died and they all were looking at me like i was crazy to react.”
“stupid new york,” he simply writes back. Maybe.
“The bystander effect” is a classic psychological term, coined in New York, after all. I remember an old college journalism professor trying to freak us freshmen out by telling us the story: a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death and raped near her apartment building. She screamed for help and no one who heard her called the police.
It was a cold night in 1964. One neighbor leaned out his window and yelled, “Leave that girl alone!” That was it.
The New York Times article had the damning, legendary headline: “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”
“I didn’t want to get involved,” a neighbor was quoted as saying.
A few years ago, a study showed the number of witnesses may have been exaggerated because the layout of the building was such that all 38 people could not have seen the entire attack, but in the end, enough people heard something — and did nothing.
Harlan Ellison called them all “mother-ckers” in an article for Rolling Stone. I think that explanation is too easy to fit such a large number of bystanders. My friend Jason suggests that maybe people didn’t react or help because the man in my story was clearly homeless. Maybe they thought he didn’t matter. What if it was my hand — that of a young white woman — that’d gotten caught? Would the conductor have noticed faster? Would people have responded with concern? Would Nancy Grace have been called? I consider it. One study on Kitty Genovese’s case suggested no one helped her because in the early ‘60s, people were afraid to intervene in what they could have mistakenly thought was a domestic dispute. No one wants to make a fuss and be wrong.
In short: Don’t get involved if the danger meets the status quo. A woman screaming for help is probably just fighting with her boyfriend. A mentally ill person stuck in the train doors will probably be released by the conductor. Don’t the conductors have mirrors so they can see the doors? We don’t need to help. Seconds tick by. Minutes.
Someone will do their job. Someone else will help. I don’t have to get involved.
When I leave the train station, my cheeks are red from riding eight more stops with people staring at me for reacting. Everything outside is wet from the rain and it’s very late. I walk home in the dark, the way Kitty Genovese did in 1964. The two events are hardly comparable. In one, a woman died and in another, a homeless man was once again ignored and a twenty-something was startled out of her commuting stupor. Nothing to see here.
When I get home, I strip my clothes off and wrap myself in my comforter. I am grateful. For hours my eyes are wide open, pointed up at the ceiling. I try not to vomit.
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