By Ken Trainor
Alex Kotlowitz certainly looks the part of the mild-mannered reporter from a great metropolitan news organization, but while his manner may be mild, his writing is anything but. He's not a muckraker or an investigative journalist. He doesn't "break" news. And he goes to great lengths to disabuse people of the notion that he is any kind of public policy proponent.
Simply and eloquently, he tells stories — about people whose stories almost never get told, people who are poor, who live in "distressed neighborhoods" in the inner-city, and whose lives are deeply affected by violence.
Mystery writer Sara Paretsky calls him "America's preeminent narrative journalist." Author Matthew Desmond calls Kotlowitz's latest book, An American Summer – Love and Death in Chicago, "a masterpiece of real-life storytelling."
But he is also a pioneer — in the kind of storytelling few are willing to take on, which is why his first book, There Are No Children Here, about the lives of people living in Chicago's notorious housing projects, made such an impact when it was published in 1991, and why people still talk about it, perhaps because too little has changed.
"The numbers are staggering," he writes in the prelude to his new book. "In Chicago, in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, 14,033 people were killed, another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. … Let me put this in perspective, if perspective is possible; it's considerably more than the number of American soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combined. And here's the thing: Chicago is by no means the most dangerous city, not even close. Its homicide rate doesn't even put it in the top 10."
The projects are gone now, thanks partly, maybe largely, to his willingness to leave his comfort zone and go into "bad neighborhoods," over and over again, to listen to people, establish relationships, honor their stories, bear witness. It's important work.
Call it the journalism of empathy.
That's what Rachel Weaver said, on the evening of March 4 as she introduced him at Dominican University in River Forest, where he was interviewed by Jenn White of WBEZ-FM's Morning Shift before an audience of several hundred. Weaver, the co-owner of Book Table, Kotlowitz's favorite bookstore (his own admission), praised his "empathy and artfulness as a writer."
Dominican, one of eight universities to bestow an honorary degree on Kotlowitz, was the evening's host. A longtime resident of Oak Park, he didn't have far to travel.
Just as we don't have far to travel to reach the neighborhoods Kotlowitz writes about — except maybe psychologically.
"I've been haunted for over 30 years by the stubborn persistence of violence, in communities of color, deeply distressed, isolated, economically depressed, communities that fray and unravel. There is a lack of empathy, which is why I tell stories."
These aren't just stories about violence and death, which he admits would make pretty grim reading. They are also stories about love and redemption and endurance.
He pointed to a single mom in the audience, whose son, Darren, was killed in a shootout. The newspaper story talked only about her son's criminal record, which allows too many of us to let ourselves off the moral hook of doing something about it. He was a gang member, many think. He must have had it coming.
But Darren was more than that, Kotlowitz said.
Lisa, his mother, has a license plate frame that reads: "He was my son. His name was Darren." When his murderer went to trial, the attorneys worked out a plea deal, but Lisa would only agree to it if she could read a victim impact statement at the sentencing. Kotlowitz read her powerful statement aloud.
After the trial, Lisa forgave her son's killer and still corresponds with him.
Such stories come out of a grim and painful landscape, he said, but he also finds positives in them.
"People somehow emerge from all this standing erect and pushing on heroically," he noted, which is why the book's subhead is "Love and Death in Chicago."
"What do we get wrong about all this?" asked White.
"We get numb," Kotlowitz replied. "We are disconnected."
"What would shift this?" she asked.
"Anyone who says they know what will work is lying," he said. "We have a politics of neglect. We do a really lousy job of taking care of our most vulnerable."
But he still believes in the power of story. He ran a writing program for prison inmates some time back, empowering them to tell their own.
"It makes us feel less alone," he said, quoting Tim O'Brien, the acclaimed chronicler of the Vietnam experience. "Stories can save us." Even stories about the most distressing moments of their lives, stories people hate to tell but have to tell.
"Telling stories is how we build connections," Kotlowitz said.
Several audience members asked how we can move beyond "our circle."
"I don't just wander around the neighborhoods," he noted. "I look for people or institutions with some standing to provide introductions." He spent a lot of time at the local Boys Club, for instance, shooting pool, getting to know people.
"I'm not foolish about where I go. You have to earn trust. Fear of the unknown prevents people from doing this. It doesn't come naturally."
These are unsettling times nationwide, he noted, which has allowed "the unseemly side of our country to emerge. It's been there a long time. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that race really matters in this country."
Listening to others' stories is a good place to start. Kotlowitz believes it makes us more human.
"I feel I'm a better person for working on this book," he said.
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