We’ve completely underestimated what violence does to one’s sense of self and one’s sense of place in the world,” says Alex Kotlowitz, author of An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Doubleday, Mar.). “You witness one or two acts of violence and you find yourself on the defensive.”
For decades, Kotlowitz, who is 63, has been studying violence in Chicago (mainly on the city’s South Side and West Side), where roughly 14,000 people were killed in shootings between 1990 and 2010—more than the number of Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. In spite of this, Chicago isn’t ranked among America’s top 10 most violent cities by the FBI (according to a 2017 report, which looked at murder along with other serious crimes).
It is a sunny afternoon in October, and we are sitting at Kotlowitz’s kitchen table in his home in Oak Park, a neighborhood near Chicago’s West Side. He is dressed in jeans and a light canvas-colored jacket as he explains how his latest book came together.
The better part of Kotlowitz’s career has been spent documenting violence in Chicago, mainly through intimate portrayals of those affected by it. For There Are No Children Here, his 1992 bestseller, Kotlowitz embedded himself in a public housing project on the West Side, homing in on the experiences of two boys in particular. “In reporting There Are No Children, it was the violence that unmoored me,” he writes.
Kotlowitz’s latest book takes a broader view, studying Chicago violence to examine its collective toll on the human psyche. An American Summer is composed of a series of vignettes—detailed snapshots of the lives of mothers, fathers, young men, girlfriends, and children on the South Side and West Side. “In the wake of trauma, all hell can break loose in your heart,” he writes. “Love and fury and sadness get so stirred together it can be hard to figure out how you’re really feeling, hard to figure out who you really are.”
The 14 stories in An American Summer are about pain, love, fear, and resiliency, and reveal the broad, lasting effects of perpetual violence on individuals, families, and communities.
Kotlowitz is by turns an author, documentary filmmaker (The Interrupters), radio producer (This American Life), contributor to the New Yorker, and lecturer at Northwestern University, where he will soon begin teaching a course titled, “The Journalism of Empathy.”
Empathy, it must be acknowledged, is at the heart of Kotlowitz’s work—both in the subjects he reports on and in the relationships he cultivates. He is a master of creating an atmosphere of trust among his subjects. Keeping an emotional boundary between his subjects, he says, is virtually impossible—nor, he argues, should it be the goal. “When you know all of these people, your life becomes so much richer,” he adds.
In An American Summer, Kotlowitz explores a range of issues that upend what we think we know about the effects of violence. He identifies the way that many of the mothers whose children were killed “live richly in mourning”; the concept of “compassionate relief”—when someone feels a burden lifted after a loved one is killed, since the anticipation of death was so enormous and painful; and the idea of “complex loss”—how PTSD isn’t a sufficient categorization for communities that are perpetually living with trauma. And he examines the way the media will sum up a life through the lens of one single incident and asks why some young men feel more comfortable out on the streets than they do in their own homes, and why hurting someone else can be a tool for relieving pain.
Kotlowitz also explores the complex forces that draw many young men in Chicago toward a life of crime. Membership in a gang, he explains, can happen almost by default—a lot of it is based on the neighborhood, or even street, where someone grows up. But he says he wants to be careful when describing motivations behind violence, noting, “There are choices people can make.” Still, he adds, “Those choices aren’t clear-cut, and they’re more difficult than people might imagine. There’s a lot of pressure.”
Though the 14 stories in An American Summer contain similar elements (gangs, shootings, jail time), Kotlowitz tells me it was his aim to “find stories that knocked me off balance.”
Take Ramaine’s story: “There’s this really good family, and they get out of Cabrini-Green, a public housing project, after it’s been torn down,” Kotlowitz says. “They’re living what seems to be a reasonably good life.”
When Ramaine is accidentally shot, he “does the absolute right thing”—he goes and identifies the shooter, instead of seeking revenge. The shooter’s lawyer, who was usually turned away by victims of a crime, is surprised when Ramaine shares information with him, Kotlowitz reports.
But the story doesn’t end well. Ramaine begins receiving threats. He becomes perpetually terrified, slinking through the city in a black hoodie that masks nearly all of his face.
“And then he’s literally assassinated,” Kotlowitz says. “Not only assassinated: he’s assassinated in broad daylight in a park that’s in a pretty gentrified neighborhood.” In this instance, however, no one present came forward.
“That was a story that really made me realize how we underestimate the fear that exists,” Kotlowitz says. “And that’s an example of where an analogy to war doesn’t really quite hold—because they’re still right in the thick of it.”
After Ramaine first outed the shooter, no one came forward to protect him, Kotlowitz says. But he doesn’t lay the blame on the police. Police, he notes, are there after the crime takes place—not before, to help prevent it. There’s an incredibly complicated relationship between the police and black men, he says. Ramaine’s shooting reflects two truths about crime that Kotlowitz writes about: most of it happens in public, and most of it—19 out of 20 shootings, according to recent data—goes unsolved.
Kotlowitz has spent years highlighting stories like Ramaine’s. It’s tough work, and Kotlowitz says this book was difficult for him personally. There was a period of time during the reporting when he just didn’t think he could handle attending another funeral. On top of this, he realized that he was speaking to many people about some of the most traumatic experiences in their lives—and telling those stories dredged up a lot of repressed pain. He jokes that a project he worked on for the New Yorker Radio Hour last year, to help prisoners tell their stories, felt like a “break” from his other work.
Despite decades of reporting and forming close relationships with many living in the heart of violence, Kotlowitz claims that neither he nor others can ever become desensitized. “This is the mistake we all make,” he writes, “thinking that somehow one can get accustomed to it.” And, he stresses, we aren’t any closer to the answers.
After a shooting massacre, many Americans begin to ask the “right” questions, Kotlowitz says. But in Chicago, he adds, “no one is asking the questions”—and we are still a long way from understanding the psychological toll of violence.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Ky., who contributes to JSTOR Daily, Longreads, Undark, Vice, Vox, and other publications.