A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Alex Kotlowitz on Underestimating the Effects of Violence and the Stories that Knocked Him Off Balance

by Brendan Dowling on March 26, 2019

Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer focuses on the effects of gun violence on the lives of different Chicago residents in the summer of 2013. Kotlowitz spent four years following various inhabitants of the city’s South Side, using his prodigious research skills to examine the insidious and long-lasting reach that violence has on these people’s lives. The result is an unblinking look at the trauma enacted by gun violence, as well as a testament to the tenacity and courage of the Chicago’s most vulnerable citizens. An American Summer adds to Kotlowitz’s already impressive roster of works of journalism, including The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here, which was listed by The New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century. The New York Times Book Review called An American Summer “a powerful indictment of a city and a nation that have failed to protect their most vulnerable residents,” while NPR.org hailed it as “a painful chronicle about an extremely violent city based on the narratives of those who managed to survive its streets.” Alex Kotlowitz spoke with Brendan Dowling via e-mail on March 23rd, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kathy Richland.

You’ve spent so much of your career focusing on gun violence, from There Are No Children Here to the documentary The Interrupters. What was the impetus for writing this book?

It emerged out of a belief that we have completely underestimated the effect of the violence on the spirit of individuals and the spirit of community. I watched in the wake of the Newtown and Parkland tragedies as we asked all the right questions. What would lead someone to commit such a horrific act? What do we do to prevent further tragedies like these? How do the individuals and the community move on with all that’s bearing down on them? We don’t ask those questions in Chicago – or in other cities where violence has remained so stubborn and persistent. More than anything, I wanted to get on the ground, inside the lives of those emerging from the violence and who are now trying to reckon with it, those who are standing in a world slumping around them, those who are moving forward, sometimes heroically.

The book avoids policy recommendations, instead focusing on the specific lives of the people in the community. Why was that a more effective way for you to explore the topic of gun violence?

We tell stories to ask questions, not answer them. More than anything, I wanted to come to understand as intimately as I could how the violence comes to shape people – and how they work so hard to keep it from defining them. I looked for stories that surprised me, that knocked me off balance, hoping they would do the same for readers. I wanted to challenge what readers think they know. I write out of a fundamental belief that life ought to be fair, and so I often find myself in corners of this country where life clearly isn’t fair, isn’t just. Some of the stories in the book, in fact, speak directly to the absence of justice.

Even though the book focuses on the summer of 2013, you spent four years researching the people whose stories you follow. Why was it important for you to spend so much time with these people before writing about them?

Honestly, I thought this would be a reasonably easy book to report, that I could report through the summer and maybe another six months. I don’t know what I was thinking. Once I came to know each of the people in the book, I  needed time with them to come to know them well. One, Marcelo, was on house arrest during my time reporting and so for a year and a half, every Sunday I would visit him, lunch in hand. We’d eat, then play chess (he’d inevitably beat me) and then we’d talk, sometimes for hours. It also became clear that as many of the stories unfurled over time they revealed so much more – about the people involved and about the violence. I couldn’t let go. I didn’t want to let go. I hope readers will feel the same.

In the book, you talk about the concept of “complex loss.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?

This is a term I first heard from Kathryn Bocanegra, a social worker who helped create groups for mothers who have lost a child to the violence. Kathryn is married to Eddie Bocanegra whose incredibly moving story is in the book, Kathryn is this incredibly thoughtful and wise social worker who better than anyone understands what violence does to the soul. She talks about the fact that so many who have been touched by the violence show symptoms similar to veterans returning from combat. Like war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder, people in the neighborhoods I write about are easy to anger, they can’t sleep, they’re hyper-vigilant, they’re anxious, they suffer from depression, they feel utterly alone. Often they self-medicate. But as Kathryn pointed out to me that there’s a big difference between the people in Chicago touched by the violence and war veterans. For them – the people in my book – there’s nothing post about the post traumatic stress. It’s ongoing. You lose a loved one, and the next day you’re looking over your shoulder trying to fend off what might happen next. And so, Kathryn told me, social workers have an informal term for this: complex loss.

You follow a broad spectrum of people–including victims of gun violence, their family members, social workers, journalists, and homicide detectives. How did you choose which people’s stories to include in the book?

Again, I was looking for stories that surprised me, that upended what I thought I knew. Stories of forgiveness. Stories of holding onto secrets. Stories of trying to do the right thing. Stories of walking a tightrope, between the pull of the street and the pull of what you know is right. Stories of grief and sorrow. Stories of love.

I was looking for people who challenged me, who upended my thinking and who aren’t easy to pigeonhole.  

You break up the stories of the different subjects in the books, so that often an individual’s story is spread out through the course of the book, rather than told in a discrete chapter. Can you talk about how you chose to structure the stories in your book?

This was a tough book to structure. I purposefully set out with this notion that all these stories would be contained during the course of one summer. The season provided a scaffolding. I ended up with fourteen stories (and many more stories contained in those) – and so it was hard to keep them all in my head. I bought a white board so that I could map it out as I went along. As you mention, some of the stories are self-contained. You enter a date during the summer – and hear the story of this one individual. But I felt like I needed at least a few of the stories to pull readers through the summer, stories in which there’s some suspense, some question as to how they’d turn out, something that would keep readers reading.

What do you hope readers walk away from the book with?

First and foremost, respect and admiration for those in these pages. Honestly, my ambitions as a storyteller are reasonably modest. I hope people read these stories and come away looking at themselves and the world just a bit differently. That they come away with a visceral sense for what the individuals in the book are up against, and come away with a sense of urgency. These are neighborhoods that are deeply distressed, and how it is in a country that thinks of itself as so generous and understanding we do so little is beyond me. Maybe, I suppose, the book will be a catalyst for change.