The grief that does not speak
While dining with an old friend, an acclaimed Chicago author witnesses the enduring repercussions of violence
By Alex Kotlowitz Illustrations by Zulema Williams
Not long ago, over lunch at a restaurant, I asked Pharoah Rivers how much he remembered from a murder he witnessed 21 years ago. I’d written about Pharoah in my first book, There Are No Children Here, but the event I wanted to talk about happened after its publication, on a summer evening in Chicago in 1998. It’s at the restaurant that I come to realize how much that incident remains a part of Pharoah. “I can’t get it out of my mind,” he says.
The incident occurred on 19 August of that year. My wife, daughter, and I were visiting my parents in upstate New York when I received a phone call near midnight. The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “It’s Anne Chambers,” she said. Anne was a Chicago violent crimes detective whom I knew. She told me she was calling from the kitchen in my family’s home in Oak Park, a suburb bordering Chicago. She told me that Pharoah was there with her, and that he may have been involved in a murder. My legs buckled. I sat down to catch my breath.
At the time Pharoah, who had grown up in one of Chicago’s housing projects, had been living with me since he was 12 — a two-week stay that turned into six years. He had recently been accepted at Southern Illinois University and had decided not to visit New York with us during this summer trip because he wanted to get ready for classes that began the following week. And then I got this call.
I knew Anne from my time reporting There Are No Children Here. Here’s what she told me in that short midnight phone call: Pharoah had taken a taxi from our house to his mother’s home on the West Side, and when the cab pulled up, two young men pulled Pharoah out of the backseat and then jumped in. One of them held a pistol to the cabbie’s head, demanding his money. The cabbie must have panicked, and when he pressed down on the accelerator, one of the assailants shot him in the back. Anne told me that some detectives suspected Pharoah might have set up the driver. Fortunately, she knew him from her time in the projects and knew that he wasn’t that type of kid. I told her that I, too, couldn’t fathom Pharoah pulling such a stunt.
By the next morning, Anne and her colleagues had determined that in fact Pharoah knew nothing of the robbery. His sister had seen much of what transpired and could identify the assailants. For my part, I tried to reach Pharoah. This was before cell phones. His mother said he was out, but she wasn’t sure where. I tried calling regularly throughout the day. Both my wife and I were concerned. He’d just seen someone murdered. It wasn’t the first time, I knew, but I also imagined how disorienting it must be. Morning came and went. As did the afternoon. Finally that evening I reached him at our house.
Where have you been? I asked.
At Marshall Field’s. For school.
Shopping? I was incredulous.
Pharoah, how are you doing?
Why? You just saw someone murdered.
I’m OK. I got to go. I need to get packed for school.
I hung up, shaking my head. I was dumbfounded — and angry. How could he not be grieving? How could he not be upset? Shopping? I told my wife that if it was me, I’d be curled up on our couch in a fetal position. I thought to myself, something must be terribly wrong with Pharoah. How can you not feel? How can you not cry? How can you not express gratitude for not getting killed yourself? Pharoah gets yanked out of the backseat of a taxi by two men with a pistol and then watches as they shoot and kill someone he’s just shared time with. Something, I thought, was off. Out of kilter. And for the longest time I thought Pharoah was without heart, that he’d become hardened, if not numb, to the violence around him. This of course is the mistake we all make, thinking that somehow one can get accustomed to it.
“The national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine.”
The numbers are staggering. In Chicago, in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, 14,033 people were killed, another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. And the vast majority of these shootings took place in a very concentrated part of the city. Let me put this in some perspective, if perspective is possible; it’s considerably more than the number of U.S. 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.
But the city 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 this country and has certainly clouded any conversation about race. One friend who worked for a local antiviolence organization — the fact that such groups even exist speaks volumes to the profound depth of the problem — calls it “a madness.” What’s going on?
Indeed, my latest book, An American Summer, is about death — but you can’t talk about death without celebrating life. How amid the devastation, many still manage to stay erect in a world that’s slumping around them. How despite the bloodshed, some manage, heroically, not only to push on but also to push back. How in death there is love.
It’s also about who we are as a nation. After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What could bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? But in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood or North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions. I don’t mean to suggest that one is more tragic than the other, but rather to point out that the national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine. It’s in these, the most ravaged of our communities, among the most desperate and forlorn, that we can come to understand the makings of who we are as a nation, a country marked by the paradox of holding such generosity beside such neglect.
Look at a map of the murders and shootings in Chicago and it creates a swath through the city’s South and West Sides, like a thunderstorm barreling through the city. How can there not be a link between a loss of hope and the ease with which spats explode into something more? There was a moment when we were filming the documentary The Interrupters when Ameena Matthews, one of the three violence interrupters whose work we chronicled, reflected on what she called “the 30 seconds of rage.” She described it like this: “I didn’t eat this morning. I’m wearing my niece’s clothes. I was just violated by my mom’s boyfriend. I go to school, and here comes someone that bumps into me and doesn’t say excuse me. You hit zero to rage within 30 seconds, and you act out.”
In other words, these are young men and women who are burdened by fractured families, by lack of money, by a closing window of opportunity, by a sense that they don’t belong, by a feeling of low self-worth. And so when they feel disrespected or violated, they explode, often out of proportion to the moment, because so much other hurt has built up and then the dam bursts. They become flooded with anger.
Then there’s the rest of us, who, reading the morning newspaper or watching the evening news, hear of youngsters gunned down while riding their bikes or walking down an alley or coming from a party, and think to themselves, They must have done something to deserve it, they must have been up to no good. Virtually every teen and young man shot, the police tell us, belonged to a gang, as if that somehow suggests that what goes around comes around. But life in these communities is more tangled than that. It’s knottier and more lasting than readings of a daily newspaper or viewings of the evening news would suggest.
“You have to fight — and fight hard — not to let the ugliness and inexplicability of the violence come to define you.”
The numbers don’t begin to capture the havoc wreaked on the souls of individuals and on neighborhoods, nor do they grapple with the discomforting fact that the vast majority of the shootings are of African Americans and Hispanics by African Americans and Hispanics. What to make of all this? I don’t know that I fully know myself, but what I’ve come to realize is that if you’re black or Hispanic in our cities, it’s virtually impossible not to have been touched by the smell and sight of sudden, violent death. And again — and this seems rather obvious — the violence occurs in communities for which a sense of future feels as distant and arbitrary as a meteor shower, communities that in fact have been shunted aside precisely because they are black and Hispanic.
It’s my hope that by telling the stories in An American Summer, I will help upend what we think we know. Trauma splinters memory. Soldiers who have fought in war speak of holding on to fragments of remembrance, like a disjointed slide show that periodically gets stuck on a single image, on a single moment. The novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien has talked about how the atrocities and nastiness of battle get in your bones. The same can be said for young and old living in certain neighborhoods in our cities. You have to fight — and fight hard — not to let the ugliness and inexplicability of the violence come to define you. With just one act of violence the ground shifts beneath you, your knees buckle, and sometimes all you can do is try as best you can to maintain your balance. There are those who right themselves and move on, but for most, their very essence has been rattled.
Over lunch at the restaurant, Pharoah recalls that violent evening in 1998. He says that the cabdriver, a middle-aged white man whose name I later learned was Michael Flosi, engaged him in conversation, that he wanted to know all about Pharoah. When Pharoah told Flosi he was headed to Southern Illinois University, Flosi told him, “God must have really blessed you.” Flosi shared with Pharoah that he’d been saving for years to move his family to Texas and that the move was imminent. “He seemed so happy,” Pharoah tells me. When they pulled up to Pharoah’s mom’s house, the young men leaped into the cab as Pharoah was getting out.
As he recounts this story, Pharoah seems in a different place. One minute he is sitting across from me in the booth, and then he scoots out as if he’s getting out of a cab. He recoils as if someone’s just jumped in front of him. He’s not present. Instead he’s there, in that moment. Pharoah tells me he ran to the porch, and then after he heard the gunshot he returned to the cab, which had rammed a parked car. Flosi, he says, was slumped over the steering wheel, and the windshield was splattered with blood. (What Pharoah doesn’t remember is that, according to court records, he later called the cab company to find out whether Flosi had lived.) Pharoah at this point looks around. His eyes are wide with fright. He’s hyperventilating. In the middle of the restaurant he’s crouching, as if trying to disappear. I tell him to sit down. I have to tell him again. “It’s like I’m there,” he says. “I’m out of breath.” The violence is in his bones.
There are so many like Pharoah who carry the violence, who keep moving forward enshrouded in its aftermath. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency, especially among the rest of us. “We’re in the midst of an epidemic,” Don Sharp, a Baptist pastor and longtime friend, told me. “If people were dying of some kind of disease, there’d be all kinds of alerts, but it’s become a way of life for us that’s dangerous.”
I often think of a Chicago Sun-Times front page from a number of years ago. The banner headline read “Murder at a Good Address.” The story reported on a dermatologist who was discovered bound and brutally stabbed at his office on luxurious Michigan Avenue. I admired the headline for its brazenness and honesty. Its subject was one of 467 murders that year in the city, though the others didn’t warrant such attention, mostly because who would want to read a feature with the headline “Murder at a Bad Address”? In Chicago, the wealthy and the well-heeled die headline deaths and the poor and the rambling die in silence — a silence that hides the screams and howling and prayers and longing that follow.
Over lunch that day, Pharoah told me, “There’s a lot of stuff I want to forget.” I’m telling his story with the hope that we won’t.
This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.
Adapted from An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Alex Kotlowitz.