The Journalism of Empathy

by Marc Dadigan

Alex Kotlowitz is an author and narrative journalist who has also contributed to NPR’s This American Life and worked on documentaries. He’s perhaps best known for the bestselling There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, for which he spent two years immersed with a family living in public housing on the West side of Chicago. His second book, The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America’s Dilemma, explored how the issue of race divided two neighboring Michigan communities. His most recent book, Never a City So Real, is a collection of stories from his adopted hometown of Chicago. He has also contributed to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and The New Republic.


Tell me about the path you took to becoming a writer.

When I was in college at Wesleyan in Connecticut, I had plans to be a biologist. And I got hung up on organic chemistry. I realized, man, I can’t cut this. I was a little lost, and I dropped out of school for a while. I worked primarily with kids at a settlement house in the south side of Atlanta, working in what was the second poorest census tract in the country, second only to Watts in LA. I honestly can’t remember how I hooked up with them, but I spent just a few days there and ended up staying eight months. And, you know, it was one of those experiences. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time at all. I was far too young to be that self-aware. But looking back upon it, it was a real transformative experience, to see that deep, embedded poverty up close. That experience stayed with me and certainly informed my path to writing There Are No Children Here.

When I finished school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I ended up working on the cattle ranch in Oregon, which was kind of a boyhood dream.  And then I ended up working for this alternative paper in Michigan. I was there for four years. It was back in the late 70s and early 80s, back in the last, deep recession. It was a recession that really hit the industrial rust belt.

I spent a lot of time with people who worked in the auto plants. Spent a lot of time up in Flint actually when Michael Moore was publishing his alternative paper The Flint Voice. It was a real exposure to the heart of America and what we were losing at the time. And, I think, what we’ve continued to lose: that real industrial base and what that means to people’s lives.

It was a very distressing time in Michigan, but what I saw amongst these people was this ability to carry on through it all, and even to push back on some level.


You’ve used the phrase “the journalism of empathy.” What does that mean and how do you use empathy in your work?

I want to be a little careful about that. I don’t know if I call my own work that. I do teach a course I call The Journalism of Empathy. And for me empathy is the essence of any good storytelling.    

Look at fiction. The best of fiction puts you in the shoes of others. I just finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns and for those two weeks I felt like I was a woman living in Kabul. And that’s what any good narrative nonfiction should do as well. That ability to empathize. What my time in Michigan made me realize more than anything is that what I wanted to do was spend time with so-called ordinary people, what Studs Terkel liked to call “the etceteras of the world.”

When you spend enough time on the ground with them, you can begin to get a really good sense of the use and abuse of power in this country. Those few years in Michigan. That’s what I really took away from that time.


In your writing projects, you often begin as an outsider. Do you prefer coming into a story as an outsider? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

What I love about my work is that it forces me out into the world, and it gives me an excuse to cross these boundaries. It gives me an excuse to ask these questions I have no business asking. So I feel pretty privileged to be in that position.

Certainly when I went to work on There Are No Children Here, I was an outsider.  I was certainly an outsider by class and an outsider by race. That’s the place of the journalist, the role of the outsider. So all you can do is be straight with people about yourself and what you’re doing, and be patient.

When I went out into that community, and this isn’t an uncommon experience, for many weeks and maybe months people mistrusted me because they thought I was a plain-clothes cop. So I had to overcome that.

Even after two years there, I remember toward the end of my stay, I walked into the breezeway of the seven-story high-rise where the family lived, and as I walked in there a 16-year-old boy whom I didn’t know (he might have been visiting from another community) went up against the wall spread-eagle because he assumed I was a cop. So even after all that time…

But there are also advantages to being an outsider. I walked into that community; I was clearly an outsider. So people watched out for me. When I was leaving people would walk me out to my car. If I was going to the other side of the projects which was controlled by a rival gang, somebody would walk along with me.

People knew who I was. I remember there was a moment early on when I was with LaJoe, the mother of the boys, when we were walking along the rear of their building and one of the gang leaders was in front of us. And one of his foot soldiers was talking to him. I could see him kind of whispering and he looked around back at us. I remember he smiled and turned to his foot soldier and said, “Aww, that’s just Alex.”

So they knew who I was and knew what I was up to. And the other advantage about being an outsider is you see things that people take for granted. You come in with a fresh set of eyes, which I think is imperative.


How did you become a regular there? What were your techniques for immersing yourself?

I don’t think there are any techniques. There’s no magic about it. I just think that all you can do is be yourself and be absolutely straight with people. You have to remind yourself when you’re going into a community like that, or whenever you’re talking to people who aren’t in a position of authority or a position of power, that they have no obligation to talk to you.

You come into their lives. You’re there at their invitation. You’re let into their homes. You’re let into their souls. Only because they’ve come to trust you. All you can do is be absolutely straight with them about your intent and be patient.

What I tell my students all the time is just be yourself. Don’t go in speaking the lingo of the community you’re in. Don’t start dressing any differently. Don’t start walking any differently. Just go there and be who you are.


In your books, you’re able to give us insight into what people are thinking. How do you get those inner thoughts from people?

The practical part is you just ask. But I think what you’re really asking is how do you get people to open up in a way that in the end that might make them feel vulnerable. Or open up in a way that feels very honest and true to who they are. And I think it’s just from them spending a lot of time with you.

It’s a luxury I have doing the type of work I do. When I’m working on magazine pieces or books it means spending time with people. They come to trust you. It’s a trust you’ve got to honor in return. For instance, I remember very well when I was working on There Are No Children Here, I was working with kids. They could have cared less about the book. They just cared about my friendship. I just made it a habit to always have my notebook out. Always. Because I never wanted them to tell me something and then it finds its way in the book and have them say to me, ‘But, Alex, I didn’t know you were going to write that.’ So I was always taking notes.

You don’t want to feel you’ve betrayed people. It’s not that everyone has liked what I’ve written. But I think you just want to be sure in the end there are no surprises.


I think that brings up an interesting point. What do you think journalists in general owe their subjects when they’re immersing in their lives?

Well, that’s a tough question. And I will tell you I’ve come full circle on this. I used to have a very strong belief, especially coming from a newspaper background, that you simply don’t compensate people for their time and cooperation. But I actually feel somewhat differently about it now. And I recognize when I’m writing for The New York Times Magazine, it’s clear cut. I just simply can’t cross that line. But when I’m working on a book or a film or some commercial venture, well, it seems to me you owe people something in return for what they give you, which is of their time, of their life.

Other journalists are wrestling with it now. I’ll always remember there was this interview with Jon Krakauer when he was working on Under the Banner of Heaven, and there was an instance in which he paid a woman $20,000 for access to her journals. And it was really a way to compensate this person for her time. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

For There Are No Children Here, I ended up splitting the royalties with the kids, but that was done after the fact. There was no agreement. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as I used to think it was.


Any person is going to want to put their best foot forward with a journalist. What do you do to try and paint a fuller picture of people you’re focusing on?

I think readers are pretty savvy, and I think they can tell when you’re pulling your punches. There’s really very little good and evil in the world. People usually fall somewhere in between. And people are complicated. People are full of their own internal contradictions and paradoxes. It’s hard. I remember, for example with Lajoe, the mother of the boys. Sometimes when I was hanging out with the kids, we’d get phone calls from them in the morning. Their mom wasn’t there. Could I come down? They didn’t have any breakfast, and they didn’t have any school supplies. Then I would get dressed really quickly and get down there and help get them off to school.

This happened enough times that I got pretty angry at their mom. And I discovered that she would two to three times a week go down to the other side of the projects and participate in a card game and be there all night. And she wouldn’t be there for her kids in the morning.

When I sat down and began to write, I kind of got angrier and angrier at her as I tried to make sense of this life. And at first I thought, Did I choose the wrong family? Did I misjudge them?

I remember I was at this writers’ colony, Ragdale, and there was a poet from Harvard (I wish I could remember her name). I was single at time. She was a mother, married with four kids. And she began to lecture me about the pressures of being a mom, being a single mom, being a single mom in a place like Henry Horner. And it was really helpful to me — talk about empathy — to begin to understand why LaJoe would need that break, need that respite, and then it also forced me to go down and confront LaJoe. I said, ‘Look, LaJoe, I’ve got to write about this. I know you might not want me to.  But I can’t pretend it’s not going on.’ And in the end she was fine with it. Because I think it painted a much fuller and more honest picture of her.


With many writers, it’s clear that their relationships with the people they write about goes beyond the professional. But as young journalists we get this idea of objectivity pounded into our heads, and usually that gets defined as form of detachment almost—

Right. I don’t want to interrupt. I just want to be clear about a couple things. This notion of objectivity is something we have to be careful about. I know we talk about it a lot. But the truth is we can’t be objective. We come to the world with our own set of experiences, which informs how we see things. And that was in some ways what my book The Other Side of the River was about. As a journalist all you can ask yourself is that you’re willing and able to question yourself at every bend and at every corner. Are you willing to question all the assumptions you had going in?

I think the best journalists are the journalists who are the most self-aware, who are very clear about what they think and what they believe in. So that when they go out into the world, they can very clearly know those assumptions that they have and be ready to question them.

But you’re right. The other part of it is as journalists we’re supposed to be detached. I think whether that’s the coda or not, you’re in and out of people’s lives so quickly, it’s hard to build relationships. Except maybe with sources you build up over time…

But given the kind of work that I and others do, you spend months upon months with people, how can you not develop relationships with people? It’d be inhuman. And I would venture to guess if you didn’t come out of there with some kind of relationship with your subjects, you didn’t do a particular good job getting to know them.


What are the developing issues that narrative journalists need to write about?

One of the things that has particularly interested me in the past few years, and I’ve written about a lot, is migration and immigration of people. The migration of people around the world is mind-boggling. And also the migration of individuals within countries, especially places like China. One way to write about it from this country’s perspective is to write about immigration. I feel like it’s a very ripe subject. And one I hope to continue writing about.

I think we’re heading into some really deeply, troubling times in this country and there’s a lot to be written about what this means to communities and people. There’s all this talk about what’s going on in Main Street, and I think we really need to spend more time in our cities and small communities really understanding what’s going on there as result of decisions made by people on Wall Street and the government.

On the international front, it’s not an area I’ll do much reporting, but where I’ll try to read as much as I can get my hands on. What’s going on in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq and places like Zimbabwe. I think that’s essential. And the only way I think you can get the American public to pay attention to that is by finding stories.


Are you concerned about the future of narrative journalism?

I’m concerned about the future of journalism period. For me, I think it’s the biggest threat internally to our democracy: the dismantling of these papers. I think national papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal will make it in some form or another. But I fear in a few years places like Chicago. In a few years, we could be without a daily newspaper. I can’t fathom what that means for a city or for a community. How can you have a vigorous democracy without a vigorous, independent press? So I’m deeply, deeply concerned about the future of my profession.

When it comes to narrative writing, I’m worried about the future of the book industry. I’m worried about the future of magazines. I’m not sure if narrative writing has found a place on the web.

© 2018, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved