Clifford Thompson’s book “What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues” will be published in the fall.
The worst tragedy of urban violence lies in the lives cut short or ruined and in the psychic wounds carried by survivors. The persistence of the problem makes for another sort of tragedy: that the rest of us become accustomed to it. We may say what a shame it all is, while thinking that the loss of son after son, sister after sister, is just what you have to expect, given present-day realities seemingly beyond anyone’s control — and therefore it is not something to worry oneself about. Worse, we may begin to feel, deep down where we don’t like to look, that the unending misery in poor black and brown neighborhoods represents the natural order of things.
“In Chicago, the wealthy and the well-heeled die headline deaths and the poor and the rambling die in silence,” Alex Kotlowitz, author of the 1991 bestseller “There Are No Children Here,” writes in his powerful new book, “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago.” “This is a book, I suppose, about that silence — and the screams and howling and prayers and longing that it hides.” As that suggests, the book’s 20 chapters, which follow a wide cast of real-life characters — some of them recurring — during the summer of 2013, hammer home the truth that people do not suffer any less just because society expects them to suffer.
Kotlowitz’s subjects open up to him, their stories revealing them not as exemplars of pathology but as ordinary people dealing with more trauma than anyone should have to face in a lifetime. These are people who have lost children, siblings, close friends or — often — some combination of the above to violence; or people who have committed acts for which they will repent the rest of their lives; or people whose better selves struggle to resist the pull of the gang activity all around them. Kotlowitz quotes one police officer as saying of children in poor Chicago neighborhoods: “If you live here, you’re part of [a gang]. You live on that block or you live in that area, you’re one of them. . . . They don’t have a choice.”
Among the book’s characters is Thomas, a young man who struggles with “wanting to hurt someone” after the shooting death of his closest friend. Another is Anita, the school counselor who becomes perhaps Thomas’s main source of support — and is then laid off because of budget cuts. Then there is Lisa, who forgives the young man who murdered her son because, since the two were trying to kill each other, she “knows how easily it could’ve come out the other way.”
Some of Kotlowitz’s incidental observations, about realities so extreme they border on the absurd, are the most telling of all. “Many parents take out life insurance policies on their children,” he writes, “not because they’re looking to profit off a child’s death but rather so they are assured of having the funds to pay for their funeral.” A woman whose “job is to offer reassurance and encouragement to victims as they wait to testify,” Kotlowitz notes, “couldn’t or wouldn’t insist that her son testify. In fact, she told him not to. ‘What guarantee would there be to protect him?’ she asked rhetorically.” “In 1998,” he reminds us, “two boys, aged seven and eight, were arrested and charged with the sexual assault and murder of [an] eleven-year-old. . . . It turns out the real assailant was a man in his twenties, not these two boys — but virtually everyone in the city had become so accustomed to children killing children that they assumed their guilt.” “Chicago public school officials,” he notes, “adopted [strategies] from the military after a visit to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, when they were researching training tools which they might use in the city’s roughest schools.” One of those schools awarded honorary diplomas to two slain students, “a not uncommon occurrence at Chicago public school graduations.” And in another school, a pair of counselors were so affected by their work with the students that they “began seeing counselors themselves.”
Even amid the grimness, there are sweet moments. One of Kotlowitz’s stories is about a white man who sticks by his decision to adopt a black orphan — even when it means alienating a beloved uncle and other members of his family — and who reveals to his adopted son the secret he has long carried. Another is about a man who, as an 18-year-old, killed a teenage member of a rival gang as an act of revenge; after serving a prison sentence, he works to prevent gang violence, and he later marries a therapist, once he finally understands that she is attracted to him and that his past has not made him unworthy of her.
Still, the book’s dominant mood is bleakness. Kotlowitz, whose other books are “The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma” (1998) and “Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago” (2004), wisely does not propose solutions to Chicago’s ills. His book is “not about what works and doesn’t work,” he writes. “Anyone who tells you they know is lying.” One thing he does achieve is to make clear that these horrors are not happening on TV or to creatures who somehow don’t feel pain. They are happening here, in the most prosperous nation in the world, to people like me and you.
By Alex Kotlowitz
Nan A. Talese. 287 pp. $27.95