"I'm not afraid of dying. What I'm afraid of is losing my mother, of being in prison, of being a failure. I'm afraid of living," a resident of a halfway house on the West Side tells Alex Kotlowitz in his new book An American Summer. It is but one of the countless heartrending insights the author gleaned from interviews with some 200 crime victims and perpetrators, their loved ones, and observers of violence on the streets of Chicago in the summer of 2013. The result is a crazy-quilt portrait of life in a city at war with itself. By giving voices and faces to those touched by violence, Kotlowitz makes the reader bear witness in a way news headlines and academic studies cannot. He erases the line between us and them.
The narrative begins in May of 2013 and ends in September of the same year, but often flashes back decades or a couple of years forward. It's a structure that allows Kotlowitz to make connections not only between his interviewees' pasts and futures, but also to those of their loved ones and to the city as a whole. In a few instances, he follows a single person's story through the summer. Thus, although the book is a patchwork of episodes, connections and larger themes emerge. Sometimes the protagonist of one chapter appears as a bit player in another. Even when Kotlowitz's subjects don't know one another, they're part of an ecosystem with the same recurring issues.
A high schooler does the right thing by naming the shooter he witnessed, but gets harassed and ultimately killed for testifying. An overnight reporter's work covering the city's murders takes its toll on his own well-being. A middle-aged man battles heroin addiction—but the drug is the only thing that makes the fire that killed half his family when he was a child melt from his consciousness. An A student fights the impulse to commit robberies with his childhood friends. Each chapter carefully delineates the opposing forces within people forever changed by violence.
Perhaps the central insight of the book is that repeated exposure to violence does not desensitize, as is often assumed. The people Kotlowitz interviews are not numbed to the death and trauma around them. The horrific events they describe are never far from their consciousness. They may survive and move on, but they are never truly "over it." No matter how hard they try to blot them out via drugs or mental gymnastics, the things they've witnessed become part of their waking and sleeping life. Kotlowitz isn't shy about criticizing failed strategies to stop the violence, such as the one proposed by former Illinois senator Mark Kirk to eradicate gangs (Kirk had proposed locking up every member of the Gangster Disciples). With gang leaders long behind bars, their former empires fractured into tiny cliques that war over individual city blocks rather than entire neighborhoods. The Chicago Police Department has a gang database that has been criticized as inaccurate and out of date. Thus, locking up everyone with a gang affiliation would be untenable and likely ineffective, further splintering already-fragile communities.
If one were to base one's view of Chicago's African-American and Latinx communities solely on news reports, the picture would be of a war zone populated by roaming gangsters and cowering victims. Kotlowitz's work over several books, as well as the documentary The Interrupters, which he coproduced, weaves a much more complex tapestry of the forces that contribute to violence in the city. Economic instability, addiction, racism, and the collapse of familial structures all play a part. Kotlowitz has no prescriptive cures. He's not a polemicist, but rather a keenly empathetic witness. He prefers to describe the conditions that trouble him (and should trouble every citizen of Chicago), rather than offer answers. "Many parents take out life insurance policies on their children, not because they're looking to profit off a child's death but rather they are assured of having funds for their funeral," he muses after a particularly wrenching interview.
It's a heartfelt and, at times, surprisingly hopeful portrait of a city battling intractable ills. By giving each and every person he talks to the time and respect to tell his or her story, Kotlowitz evokes fully dimensional human beings rather than the statistics or caricatures most of us are used to in reports on "bad" neighborhoods. The fear that makes children avoid blocks ruled by rival gangs is the same fear that makes "south side" and "west side" synonymous with "murder and mayhem" to certain segments of the population. In fact, as this book demonstrates over and over again, these neighborhoods are filled with all kinds of people, with names and unique personalities, and all the same aspirations as might be found among the inhabitants of the toniest suburb. It's a simple and perhaps obvious insight, but a necessary one at a time when this city and country seem as divided as they've ever been. v