KRWG

'An American Summer' Looks At How Gun Violence 'Gets In People's Bones'

Mar 5, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 9:33 am

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After mass shootings, like the ones at Newtown and Parkland, we ask, how can this happen? How do we carry on in the aftermath of such violence? My guest, journalist Alex Kotlowitz, says those are the right questions, but we don't ask the same questions when it comes to the children and teenagers in our city's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, like Chicago's South and West Sides, who are watching their friends and family members get shot. Kotlowitz tells some of their stories in his new book, "An American Summer: Love And Death In Chicago."

The summer he writes about is 2013. He interviewed people who survived shootings. He interviewed the loved ones of people who didn't survive and people who confessed to taking another person's life. Kotlowitz says he also attended bond hearings and trials, hung out on street corners, attended funerals and vigils, visited people in prison, showed up at crime scenes and embedded with a homicide unit.

Kotlowitz wrote the 1991 book, "There Are No Children Here," which followed the lives of two boys, brothers growing up in one of Chicago's housing projects. One of those boys, Pharaoh, later lived with Kotlowitz for six years. Four of the kids Kotlowitz befriended while writing that book have been murdered. Kotlowitz was one of the producers of the documentary, "The Interrupters," about a group of men and women in Chicago who try to show up on the scene and stop gang violence before it erupts.

He's received a George Polk Award, two Peabodys and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. He teaches at Northwestern University. Alex Kotlowitz, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: There's a line or two I want you to read from your book before we start talking. And I've told you what that part is. So if you could read it for us - 'cause I think it helps set us up for the stories you're going to be telling us.

KOTLOWITZ: Sure. (Reading) Chicago has become a symbol for the personal and collective wreckage, a kind of protracted cry of distress in the streets of the nation's most impoverished and segregated neighborhoods. Citizens killing citizens, children killing children, police killing young black men. A carnage so long-lasting, so stubborn, so persistent that it's made it virtually impossible to have a reasonable conversation about poverty in the country and has certainly clouded any conversation about race.

GROSS: Why do you think violence has made it so hard to talk about violence, or race or poverty?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you know, the problem is, is that for many, I think that many look in on these communities and see this violence as something pathological, that there's something wrong with these communities. And, you know, they're just killing each other. And so it's really difficult to see past that to sort of understand why the violence, and why it's so deeply related to the poverty and to the isolation of these communities, which has everything to do with the history of segregation in this country.

GROSS: So why do you want to write - instead of writing about policy and looking at, like, the really big picture, you're focusing on the lives of individual people who are caught up in this violence and whose lives are ended or permanently changed by violence.

KOTLOWITZ: You know, for me, I mean, I've been writing about this for some 30 years now, and the thing that's most striking to me is the kind of glibness that we speak about the violence in our cities. You know, we're constantly talking about the numbers and reporting on these horrific murders, and there's little understanding of what that has done to the spirit of individuals and to the spirit of communities over the long-term.

I mean, I do think there's a bit of a myth that somehow people living in these neighborhoods get acclimated or hardened by the violence, and yet that violence comes to shape them. I mean, it becomes a part of who they are. It's - once you've had one act of violence around you, it's hard to escape it. And so I just wanted to get at how the violence gets in people's bones.

GROSS: So there's a story I want to focus on right now, and that's the story you tell of a woman named Lisa Daniels, who was working as an administrative assistant to a vice president at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Her son, Darren (ph), was shot and killed. How was he killed?

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. So she had two sons, and her older son was a engineering student at University of Illinois, and her younger one, Darren, kind of wandered. He strayed. And everything - she tried everything she could to kind of keep him on the straight and narrow, but he was out selling drugs. And on one afternoon, he goes to buy some marijuana, though it looks like he had all intentions of robbing the drug dealer. And the drug dealer, it seems, may have well had intentions of also simply taking their money and not giving them any drugs.

And so this drug transaction takes place in this really small, confined area. There are three of them in a car. There's Darren and his friend, and then this small-time drug dealer. And they get into a gunfight, and Darren ends up getting killed. And it could just as easily have been the drug dealer. And Lisa finds out through Darren's friends. And Lisa's this kind of an amazing woman, and she's kind of - her experience runs so counter to what you would expect. I mean, her first instinct was to be really angry at Darren's friends, who were really upset by it all. And she's just telling them, you know, this is what he did. This is what you can only expect if this is what you're involved in.

And she also is really angry because when the newspaper report comes out about Darren's death, all it talks about is his criminal background. And she wants the world to know that there's so much more to her son than just that.

GROSS: You also write that she felt a sense of relief. Did she explain what she meant by that?

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah, this kind of - what has been described to me as kind of this compassionate relief. She worried about Darren all the time. She worried that he was going to get hurt. She worried he would get arrested. He did, in fact, spend a year in prison. And so when it happened, she, I think, felt some sense of relief that this is what was inevitable, and she didn't have to worry about him anymore.

GROSS: So after Darren is killed, Lisa writes a Facebook post. And I'd like you to read an excerpt of that for us.

KOTLOWITZ: So she writes, (reading) another mother has lost her son. Only, this loss is different. Today the man who shot Darren has been charged with first-degree murder. There is no victory here. And I can only imagine the weight his mother carries. I will fervently pray for her and her son. His name is Michael Reed, and he, too, is someone's son, and maybe even someone's father, like Darren was. He, too, was lost in a dark place, just like my son was before he made the decision to receive eternal life. I ask you all to pray for him, and his mother, as she grieves the life of her son, just as you have prayed for me.

GROSS: That's an amazingly compassionate posting, compassionate for the shooter of her son and for the shooter's mother. And it sounds very forgiving. But then Lisa was asked by Michael - the shooter's mother to take a step further and actually go to court and ask for more leniency.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. So she's actually not asked by the mother, but she does - but Lisa does. I mean, she's an amazing woman. And I think she realized that the lines here were so blurred, you know, between shooter and victim. It could have just as easily been the other way around. And it could have just as easily been her son who had shot Michael. And so in the end, she thinks that, you know, everything's going to proceed, that the case is clear cut, that Michael's going to be charged with murder and sent to prison. And then it becomes clear the case is a little bit more complicated because the lone witness has a criminal record, and so the state's attorney tells Lisa that they think they're going to reach a plea deal and would she be agreeable to that? And Lisa tells the state's attorney that she would on the one condition that she's allowed to read a victim impact statement at the plea. And usually when people read a victim impact statement, it's all about how the death of your loved one has impacted you and your family. And Lisa gives this incredibly moving statement in court asking for leniency for Michael, basically telling him that she forgives him for what he's done.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of Lisa's victim impact statement that she read in court.

KOTLOWITZ: Sure. So in court, she says, (reading) I have and will always continue to speak on Darren's behalf. But today I speak for you, Michael Reed, because the truth is that things could have gone differently that day, and this young man could have just as easily lost his life and Darren would be sitting in this seat needing someone to speak on his behalf. I am a mother, and I know the heart of a mother. So I will speak from a mother's heart for a child who made a horrible, horrible choice. I don't know all the details of the encounter between Darren and Michael on July 22, 2012, but there are two things I know for sure. The first is that no matter what he did or the choices he made, he didn't deserve to die that day as a result of those choices. And the second thing I know for sure is that this young man does not deserve to spend another year, day or minute behind bars as a result of a poor choice he made. Darren is not coming back, and 15 years of his life is not going to change that. And so I ask, Your Honor, to be lenient to this young man.

GROSS: What impact did that statement have?

KOTLOWITZ: You know, I don't know that it had the - much impact on the sentence itself. But Michael Read, on his way out of court, after hearing that, just turns around - he's handcuffed - and turns around and puts his hands together in a kind of prayer, like he's praying, and just mouths the words thank you. And subsequently, he and Lisa have started a correspondence. And Lisa has vowed to do what she can to help him when he gets out of prison. I mean, the kind of fortitude that that takes is just astonishing.

GROSS: I think it's really a remarkable story. And I'm so glad that you wrote about it. And she started a restorative justice group.

KOTLOWITZ: She has. She started a restorative justice group in the name of her son. And moreover, since I've finished writing the book, she was appointed to the state parole board, which is now her full-time job. And so - which, I think, is wonderful because here she is on this board that has to decide, basically, notions of forgiveness for people who are trying to get out of prison. And I'm sure she has so much to teach others.

GROSS: Do you think we're maybe at the beginning of an inflection point where things are starting to change a little in the criminal justice system?

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. Oh, I think there's no doubt about it. I mean, I think for the first time in a long time, there's agreement across the political spectrum that something has got to change. I mean, the kind of incarceration numbers that we've had over the past 25 years is just - it's mortifying. And so, I think, there's finally a recognition that we've got to sort of rethink how - what we mean by punishment or this notion of forgiveness in the criminal justice system. So there's no doubt that we're beginning to reconsider that. I mean, here in Chicago, for example, we've elected this very progressive state's attorney, Kim Foxx, who, in her own way, is beginning to rethink some of that.

GROSS: If Kim Foxx's name sounds very familiar to people, it might be because she was presiding over the R. Kelly case in Chicago.

KOTLOWITZ: Right.

GROSS: So Alex, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Kotlowitz, who has been chronicling stories of how violence affects children in Chicago. He's been doing this for 30 years. And his new book is called "An American Summer: Love And Death In Chicago." And he writes about one summer in Chicago - 2013 - and people whose lives were changed forever because of violence that summer. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And my guest is journalist Alex Kotlowitz. And for 30 years, he's been writing about how violence affects young people and their parents and their families in Chicago. And his new book is called "An American Summer: Love And Death In Chicago." And it's stories from one summer - 2013 - in Chicago. He's also the author of "There Are No Children Here," a book you may know.

Your book "There Are No Children Here" was published in 1991. And that followed two children living in one of Chicago's housing project, Pharoah and his brother Lafeyette. And I think it was after the book was published, Pharoah asked to live with you for a couple of weeks because his home was so noisy and chaotic. And he wanted to focus on his schoolwork. And you write about this in your new book, that a couple of weeks turned into six years...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Of him living with you.

KOTLOWITZ: It did.

GROSS: And, you know, as a human being and also as a journalist, why did you say yes when the subject of your journalism asked you to become a part of his life in a brand new way?

KOTLOWITZ: Right. So I want to be clear that this happened, first of all, after the book came out. But one of the things I love about my work is that many - not all - but many of the people I write about become a part of my life in one manner or another. And I got to say my life and my family's life, I think, is so much richer for that. And so Pharoah - it's not - I didn't really say yes because he moved in for what I thought was going to be a couple of weeks so he could get sort of his feet on the ground. He loved school. And it was really important for him. And it was hard in his family's apartment because there were so many people coming and going. And, you know, it was just two weeks turned into three weeks turned into four weeks. And then, you know, I was single at the time (laughter). When we got married, my - bless my wife's heart - I mean, he moved in with us when we got married and stayed with us through high school.

GROSS: Were you concerned that other people you wrote about would be asking you to move in or to help you in some way, knowing what you did for Pharoah?

KOTLOWITZ: No, I guess I wasn't concerned about that. I mean, I think one of the things that became clear to me, though, when Pharoah moved in with us - I thought that, you know, this is pretty clear cut, that we're providing him this place where he can have some solace and peace and do what he needs to do for school. But it was actually really complicated. I mean, here we were, you know, two white adults who - unrelated to Pharoah by blood, took him - takes him in. And, you know, Pharoah's in adolescence and trying to sort of figure out who he is. He's feeling some pressure from some family members - not all - but some family members. And there's this tension that exists. And I think, you know, it really - he had a tough time sort of figuring out where he belonged. I don't mean that physically but sort of where he belonged in the world.

GROSS: What was his family's reaction to him going to live with you? It's not like he was an orphan.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. You know, his mother actually was really supportive. I mean, she knew that - she wanted the absolute best for him. And we didn't live very far from her, so he was able to go home and visit quite often. But - so for her, I think she realized this was the best thing for him, that he needed this quiet place where he could really focus on school. He did have an older brother, who I call Terence in the book, who, I think, was kind of in this tug of war with me over Pharoah. And he was involved in the drug trade and because Pharoah was - didn't have a record and wasn't involved in that, he sometimes would use Pharoah to help him, you know, make deliveries and do stuff. And so we had a - it was tough. And it had to be really - have had been really tough on Pharoah.

GROSS: So compare your neighborhood to the neighborhood that Pharoah had been living in with his family.

KOTLOWITZ: Sure. So I lived in - I live in Oak Park, which - we just live four blocks over the Chicago border. So it's a place that's, you know, of, as Hemingway said, narrow minds and wide lawns. I don't know if I agree about the narrow minds part, but it's a beautiful place with these beautiful, old Victorian homes - these Frank Lloyd Wright homes. And it's a place that's reasonably safe for him. I should say, too, that his family after the book came out were fortunate - were able to move out of the projects into a townhome in a safer but still troubled neighborhood.

GROSS: So you were able to send Pharoah to a different school. You sent him to summer camp. And when he asked to go to Military Academy, you sent him there. Did you think that giving him a quiet, stable home, good schools, attention would turn his life around, that it would be a kind of - that it would be transformational for the better?

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. I mean, I think there was this notion and, you know, this kind of naive notion that you can come into somebody's life and sort of rescue them. And, again, it was very complicated. And, in fact, when he went off to boarding school, that was really his decision because he realized he needed to get out of the city. And so we sent him off to this Military Academy where he'd gone to summer camp. I kind of grimaced a little bit at the notion of Military Academy. But it was actually a great place for him. But he hadn't been gone but maybe two weeks. And I went into his bedroom to kind of clean it up. And I go into his closet, and I reach up into the top part of the closet. And there's this big leather bag, and I pull it down. And in it is stuffed all this cash. I mean, I'm talking about tens, twenties, hundreds. It turns out there was $18,000. And I knew right away who it belonged to - that it belonged to this - his older brother Terence and that it was money he had gotten from selling drugs. And so I immediately called Terence - well, first thing I did is I called a friend of mine who was an attorney. And I said, what do I do with it? And he said get rid of it. And then he called me back a few minutes later and said, and I don't mean throw it away. So I called Terence. And I said, I have something of yours that, I think, you need to get. And he wouldn't come into Oak Park 'cause he was worried I was going to set him up with the police there. And so we met in the middle of the afternoon on a street on the West Side. And I exchanged this satchel with - I gave the satchel to him, you know, $18,000 worth of cash, in the middle of the afternoon one day. But that's what Pharoah was up against - that his brother had asked Pharoah, again, to sort of store this money 'cause he figured it would be safe with him. He figured it would be safe in our house.

GROSS: And you think that's why Pharoah wanted to get away out of town.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. I think he saw that he was getting pulled. And he wanted to - he realized he needed that physical distance.

GROSS: My guest is Alex Kotlowitz. His new book is called "An American Summer." We'll talk more after a break, and Ken Tucker will review the new country album by Maren Morris. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Alex Kotlowitz, author of the new book "An American Summer: Love And Death In Chicago." It focuses on people whose lives were changed or ended by gun violence in Chicago during the summer of 2013. In 1991, he wrote the book "There Are No Children Here," which followed the lives of two young brothers growing up in one of Chicago's housing projects. One of those boys, Pharoah, ended up living with Kotlowitz for six years. When we left off, we were talking about how Pharoah asked Kotlowitz to send him to a Military Academy. Otherwise, he'd be pulled into the street life like his brother.

So once he got out of town, did he stay out of trouble?

KOTLOWITZ: You know, he got into some trouble at the school. And he ended up getting kicked out. And he came back and went to the local high school and graduated and actually got into Southern Illinois University. And I - this is the moment that I write about in the book, but he was - the week before he was about to leave, my wife and I - we had a young daughter at the time - went out to visit my parents in New York. And we invited Pharoah, but he wanted to stay and get ready for school. And while I'm in New York at my parents' house one night shortly past midnight, I - the phone rings. And I picked it up. And it was really unusual for the phone to ring that late at night. And it was this detective, Anne Chambers, who I knew from my time working on the book. She had been a tech officer when I was working on "There Are No Children Here." And she was standing in my kitchen in Oak Park and told me that Pharoah had just been involved in a murder. And I - my knees buckled. I just couldn't - I mean, Pharoah is the most gentlest, kindest person you can imagine. And I just had to - I mean, I couldn't imagine it, nor could Ann Chambers, for that matter.

And it turns out that Pharoah had - he had been staying at our house, and he had taken a cab to visit his mom. And when the cab pulled up at his mom's, two men opened the door, one of them had a gun. And they pulled Pharoah out of the cab, and they got into the cab. And the cab driver must have panicked and put his foot on the accelerator. And at that point, one of them shot and killed the cab driver in the back of the head. And I think the police initially thought that Pharoah might have been involved in setting up this robbery.

It turns out Pharoah had nothing to do with the robbery. And fortunately, Ann Chambers knew Pharoah well enough that that wasn't the case. So the next day, I'm trying to reach Pharoah - this is before cellphones - and I can't reach him. I can't - his mother doesn't know where he is, and he's gone all day. And finally, in the evening, he calls me back. And it turns out he'd been shopping for clothes for school.

And I just thought to myself, you've just watched somebody killed. If it was me, I would be curled up on my couch in a fetal position. And I just thought to myself, what's going on? Is it that you don't care anymore? Is it that you've just gotten too hardened by everything you've seen? - because it wasn't the first murder he'd seen. But I came to realize over the years that that moment has really stayed with him.

GROSS: Well, yeah. You switch to years later when you're with him having lunch. And you ask him something about the murder. And he tells you - just describe what happened. He tells you the story.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. So we go out to lunch, and I begin to ask him about the murder. This is actually probably - well, this is almost probably 15 years later. And we're out to lunch. And I'm asking him about the murder, what he remembers about it. And he starts to recount it. Well, he's recounting his memory of it. He gets up and starts to - it's like he's there in the moment. I mean, he starts to crouch. He's kind of reliving it, and I can see it in his eyes. He's just - he's not quite there. He's back in that moment.

And I had to sort of yank him to get him back into the booth where we were eating lunch to get him to calm down. And I realized at that moment how much that moment with that - watching that cab driver get shot and killed was so much in his bones, was so much a part of him.

GROSS: It sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder.

KOTLOWITZ: It is. There's no question about it. And the worst of it is - and this is not unusual - is he had not talked with anybody about that moment in those 15 years.

GROSS: Wow. So what's Pharoah doing now?

KOTLOWITZ: Pharoah's, you know, he's - Pharoah's - I think he's 40, 41. I'm going to get his age wrong. But he's working at a factory. And he's doing OK. I mean, I still - you know, I talk to him quite regularly. He's, you know, very much a part of my life. And, you know, I'm hoping he's - you know, I'm rooting for him.

GROSS: So getting back to the post-traumatic stress disorder that you think Pharoah experienced after having witnessed the murder and that 15 years later, it was still with him, still traumatizing him - there's a group that was created by somebody else who you write about in the book, somebody who had shot and killed a man, spent years in prison, got out and, you know, was an adult, was a different person, was no longer into the street life.

But anyways, he founded a group that brings together people who have PTSD as a result of growing up with so much violence in Chicago and combat vets who have PTSD from war zones. What's the reason for bringing them together?

KOTLOWITZ: Right. So yeah. That's Eddie Bocanegra, who is just this amazing individual. He - as you mentioned, when he was 18, in an act of retaliation, he - a friend of his had been shot and paralyzed. And Eddie went and shot and killed someone and served 12 years in prison. And Eddie's story is really a story about trying to find a way to forgive yourself. But when Eddie's in prison, his brother, who had served in Iraq, comes to visit him and starts talking with Eddie about all that he's going through.

His brother suffered from PTSD given his experiences in the war. And Eddie's thinking to himself, that's me. That's me. That's all that's going on inside of me. And so Eddie gets out of prison. And he has dedicated his life to working in violence prevention. And he's just done some remarkable work.

And he created this program Urban Warriors, where they would bring together veterans to meet with youth and communities on the West and South Side of Chicago and not to talk about their combat experience but to talk about the trauma, to talk about all that they've grappled with because they wanted these kids to know, first of all, that they weren't alone, that they shouldn't be afraid of what they're experiencing.

But also that - to make these kids much more self-aware about why it is sometimes they're so easy to anger, why it is they're hypervigilant, why it is they have trouble sleeping, why it is they, you know, a smoke a lot of marijuana to self-medicate. And I sat in a number of those sessions. And they were just - they - it was amazing to watch on both ends.

In fact, the irony is that one of the veterans in there who had a traumatic brain injury and suffered from PTSD, he, after listening to the stories of the kids in that session, he went to get help for himself. I mean, the difference between them and war veterans is war veterans come back to this country and they're in a place where they feel physically safe. And for these young people, that's never the - they never have that moment. They lose a friend to the streets. And they still have got to - they're looking over their shoulder the next day.

GROSS: So the source of the stress doesn't end.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Right. And there's a name for it. I mean, they call it complex trauma, where the trauma - there's no end to the trauma.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Kotlowitz. And he's the author of a new book "An American Summer: Life And Death In Chicago." And it's the stories of people whose lives were permanently changed or ended by violence in Chicago during that one summer. He's been reporting on violence in Chicago for about 30 years. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "TELEGRAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Kotlowitz, and he's been writing about violence in Chicago and the people most affected by it - victims, shooters, their parents, their communities - for about 30 years. His first book was called "There Are No Children Here." He co-produced the documentary, "The Interrupters," about a group of people whose job it is in Chicago, who gave themselves this job of trying to intervene to prevent violence, to prevent gang violence before it started. His new book, Alex Kotlowitz's new book, is called "An American Summer: Life And Death In Chicago," and it's the stories of several people during one summer in Chicago, 2013, who were affected by gun violence or who lost their lives in gun violence.

One of the things I think your book shows is how people can change, if given the chance and if allowed to live. If they make it to adulthood without being killed, that they might kind of grow up and grow out of the life of street violence. I mean, not necessarily, but there's that possibility there. And I think there's something so valuable to hold onto about that.

KOTLOWITZ: No. Absolutely. I mean, I think there's this kind of notion that we're somehow, as human beings, we're these static things that don't change. But we all change over time. And so you see that in some of the people in the book, that there's something transformative that takes place. Sometimes it's age. Sometimes it's experience. Sometimes it's because somebody else centers your life. And there are a number of people, figures, in the book who, for me, are kind of a testament that there are second acts.

GROSS: But, you know, we're not going to kind of change the scope of violence in American cities on a one-to-one basis. There's systemic problems that really have to be addressed. And sometimes we take, like, the wrong approach to doing it. I mean, I'm curious your reaction when President Trump tweeted in February of 2017 - if Chicago doesn't fix the horrible carnage going on, I will send in the feds.

I know you must think that's the wrong approach. Explain why.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Well, I think there's this notion that somehow there's an enemy out there. And there's not. And for me, the thing that feels so distressing is what feels so self-evident, is that most of these shootings - in Chicago and in other cities - are happening in these profoundly distressed communities. Communities that have for years, if not decades, suffered from profound poverty and segregation. And so if we do nothing else, we've got to find a way to fortify these communities, to reinvest in them. And I know it seems - I know this we hear this over and over and over again, but there's just simply not the political will.

I had this experience a number of years ago when, after "The Interrupters" came out and I went to screen it at Danville prison, a medium-security prison in central Illinois, it's the only screening I've ever been to where they had to keep the lights on during the movie 'cause that's what the warden insisted on. And there were a hundred men there. And, you know, I had a little time for Q-and-A afterwards, and these two men got up. And one of them had been in prison for 23 years, and the other one for 19.

And the reason I know that is because they got up and explained that they were from one of the neighborhoods that's featured in the film, Englewood. And they were near tears because it looks so much worse now than when they had gone in a couple of decades earlier. And that's where we're at, is that not only have things maybe not gotten better, but in some ways they may have even gotten worse.

GROSS: So, you know, you tell a story of a U.S. senator from Illinois who is determined to break up a gang so he goes to the community where this gang is in, talks with some of the people from the community. And they insist, you're talking about this gang like they're these, like, enemy outsiders. These are our uncles, our nephews, our brother.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Yeah. Senator Mark Kirk, at one point - this is in the wake of, you may remember, when Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed here. She had performed at Obama's inauguration. And it happened early in 2013, and then in the wake of that, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois announced that he thought we should arrest all 18,000 Gangster Disciples. And Bobby Rush, a Congressman from that district, was really upset about it. And Bobby and Mark Kirk knew each other because they sometimes traveled back and forth from D.C.

And so Bobby insisted that Mark Kirk come out to his neighborhood, and they go out and take a tour and then meet with all these residents. And these residents are really upset. For me, it was a moment that kind of got to the core of this debate that, is this a police problem, is there really an enemy out there? And, as you say, what everybody told Mark Kirk is, these are our brothers and sisters, our fathers. This is part of our community. And the truth of the matter is, given the gang structure is completely broken apart, and it's really difficult if not impossible to grow up in some of these neighborhoods and not, just by the nature of where you live, be affiliated with one of these cliques or crews.

GROSS: Yeah. You say the gangs of the past, the big, organized gangs, don't exist so much anymore in Chicago, but there are all of these, like, small cliques. Like, little gangs from a small block or a small neighborhood. So there's still so many rival groups. And you still really have to belong to one of them to get by.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. I mean, just for your own personal safety, you don't have a choice.

GROSS: What is the impact of writing about all this violence and becoming close to a lot of people who've experienced it? What impact has that had on you, personally?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I mean, I'll tell you, when I was in the midst of writing this book - this book took considerably longer than I anticipated. But when I was in the middle of writing it, I went into, I think now what I realize was kind of this deep depression. I remember visiting some friends in Seattle and just having this - I've never experienced this before, where you - I was unable to smile, even when I tried. And I couldn't feel any sense of joy, and I just - I was in a really dark place. And I think that what I was experiencing is what they call, you know, secondary trauma, where you've touched all - where you're dealing with all these people who have emerged from these really traumatic moments. And so I can only imagine, given that - what the people that I spent time with have grappled with.

GROSS: Have you been in the situation where you've witnessed shootings?

KOTLOWITZ: I've been in situations where I've been caught in crossfire and, you know, had to take cover. But I've never seen somebody shot.

GROSS: You've been doing this work reporting on shootings and violence in Chicago neighborhoods. You've been reporting on that for 30 years. And you told us about this period where you just felt numb, unable to experience joy, unable to even smile. How did you get out of that?

KOTLOWITZ: I think - and this is going to sound maybe facile, but the - is I started to write. And it's part of the power of telling stories. I think it's why, in the end, people wanted or were willing to talk with me. I always remember there's this line at the end - towards the end of Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" in which he writes, you know, this, too, is true; stories can save us. And I think one of the powers of telling your story is you began to make sense of what, for all that time, made no sense at all. And it also makes you feel less alone. So I think that's ultimately what pulled me out. I mean, I also - to be perfectly honest, I went in to therapy at the time as well. And that helped, too.

GROSS: So are you going to keep doing this work, Alex?

KOTLOWITZ: You know, I think this is my last word on this subject. I've got - you know, as a writer, this is a really - I don't need to tell you this, but, I mean, these are really distressing times in this country and also really baffling times. And I think in some ways, I want to try to make sense of that for myself. And so what I think what I do next will move beyond Chicago.

GROSS: But still focus on violence, or change subjects?

KOTLOWITZ: No. I want to understand - I think what I want to do is I want to try to remind myself what I love about this country because, at the moment, I feel really disconnected from much of it.

GROSS: Well, whatever you write, I look forward to reading it. Thank you so much for talking with us. It's been great to talk with you again.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, thanks, Terry, so much. I really enjoyed this.

GROSS: Alex Kotlowitz is the author of the new book "An American Summer: Love And Death In Chicago." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by country singer Maren Morris. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "SHENANDOAH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.