Author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz stays in Chicago for his most recent book: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. In it, Kotlowitz examines Chicago’s gun violence through the experiences of the people — both victims and perpetrators — who live with it, and the resulting fallout everyday. We’re left with a complicated picture of what happens to individuals and neighborhoods when violence and fear are a consistent undercurrent.
Alex Kotlowitz joins the Morning Shift to discuss the people and ideas in his new book.
On talking to Chicagoans about violence
Alex Kotlowitz: I think we’ve completely underestimated the effect that the violence has had on the spirits of individuals and the spirit of the community….I go into communities, and I’m always, by the nature of what I do, an outsider, if not by race [then] by class, geography, religion, age, you name it. But certainly, you know, I’m an outsider in these communities, and so I recognize that I’m writing about people who have absolutely no obligation to talk to me. And so for me it’s a real privilege to be invited into their lives.
And everyone, I think, has their own reasons for sharing their stories, and...I was talking to people about the moment in time [that] was the most distressing moment in their life. I think...one of the things that became clear to me, first of all, for so many people who experience violence in this city, is how they don’t talk about it. It just builds up inside. And they don’t talk about it, one, because there’s a sense that no one will understand. There’s also the fear that if they talk about it they’ll be held culpable for the crime at hand. And so it just simmers, and it leads to this kind of utter loneliness. So there was something, I think, cathartic for many of the people in the book, to talk about their stories, to share them, to try to make sense of them.
Myths about gun violence victims
Kotlowitz: The immediate thing [parents of victims] would want to say to reporters is they would want to defend their child, and their child’s name. ‘Cause there’s this notion somehow that, you know, what goes around comes around, that, if somebody’s killed, they must have done something to deserve it. And so I find that people right — immediately are in this kind of defensive stance.
What he hopes his book will teach
Kotlowitz: For me, the kind of centripetal force of storytelling is this notion of empathy: just trying to be able to imagine yourself as someone else, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if nothing else, I guess what I hope with this book is that readers will pick it up and imagine themselves living in these communities, whether it’s in Englewood, North Lawndale, Austin, and try to imagine what it must be to contend with this economic distress in your community, and the violence. And so I guess, if nothing else, [readers should] come away with a better understanding of who these people are, and greater admiration.
GUEST: Alex Kotlowitz, journalist and author
LEARN MORE: More about An American Summer (Penguin Random House)