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How Alex Kotlowitz Tracked One Violent Summer in Chicago

The journalist discusses his new book, An American Summer.

Alex Kotlowitz
Photo: Lucy Hewett

An American Summer looks at the lives of people affected by violence rather than proposing solutions to it. Why?

I didn’t want to deal with public policy. This is part of my point: Nobody’s figured out what we need to do. Or maybe we’ve figured it out, but we’re not going to do it. I mean, part of it is investing in these communities, which seems so goddamn obvious. But what I’m ultimately after is empathy. If nothing else, I hope that people will read the book and imagine what it’s like to live in these communities that have been abandoned by the rest of us.

What was the emotional experience of reporting this like?

There was a period of six months or so where I was just paralyzed. I remember not being able to smile, even when I tried to. I had a friend who said, “You just need to go sit down and write.” And I just sat down to write. It was my own kind of therapy.

Do you think Chicago deserves its reputation as the violence capital of the country?

I want to be clear: This is not a book just about Chicago. What’s happening here is happening in so many major and midsize American cities.

Do you think of this as a depressing book?

The stories are heartbreaking. Yet it’s really about all the people who are still standing. One of them is Lisa Daniels. Lisa’s son was killed. She goes to the trial of the young man who shot him, and she forgives him. She gets up in court and asks for leniency for this guy. She’s created a foundation to work with people who’ve been touched by violence. If it was me, I might be curled up on my couch.

What was the most memorable moment from your reporting?

I was spending time at Schwab Rehab, where a lot of young men who have been shot and paralyzed end up. It’s this place of despair but also of incredible hope. One day there was a guy in a wheelchair who had been shot with a semiautomatic rifle in a robbery. He was mostly unresponsive to me — in fact, kind of surly. I was walking out with him, and he turned around and said, “Don’t forget about me.” That’s what I want to say to my readers: Don’t forget about him. And don’t forget about all these others.

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