Today, I need to try to interview homicide victims’ families for a gang-retaliation story. I have two calls to make. But even if I get in touch with both contacts, I will probably not do two such interviews in one day, or even back-to-back over two days. I used to do that. Not any more.
Before I became a reporter on this beat, I had covered homicide from time to time, as nearly every reporter does. I usually spoke to grieving families in the first hours or days after their loved one was murdered—never an easy assignment. But in the past year I’ve learned that interviewing surviving loved ones right after a murder is easier than interviewing them months or years later. The first weeks are steeped in disbelief. There are certain phrases you hear over and over: “It doesn’t seem real.” “I wish I could sleep all the time.” People are often surprisingly pulled together early on. Or, they alternate, coming apart only briefly, then regaining their composure. I’ve found that in this period, I can actually schedule an interview for an allotted amount of time and leave when I planned to. Later, forget it.
It takes the ensuing months for the abyss to open. Then, people still say, “It doesn’t seem real.” But in those interviews, they rock back and forth in agony, talk and cry for hours, stare at a fixed spot in space, and compulsively rehash the same excruciating details: “The bleeding wouldn’t stop.” “His glasses were shattered.” “He was so cold.” And worst and most common of these: “He died alone.”
Some people simply don’t make it. I sometimes stay in touch with victims’ family members, and there are a few I know who are slipping: They are drinking all the time, talking about suicide. I think the most painful interview I ever did was with a mother who had lost her 16-year-old son a full six years before. She couldn’t get any words out, sat choked and rigid, staring at the floor, fidgeting, unable even to cry. One call I made to the relative of a recent Southeast murder victim this week went awry yesterday: The family tells me this relative died, suddenly, of an asthma attack, about two weeks after the homicide. This happens, too: I have dealt with at least three cases in which mothers died unexpectedly of health problems within a few months of their children’s murders.
The pain of sudden death often comes with an incalculable burden of anger and helplessness. This is especially true when—as with many gang shootings in South Los Angeles—the murder is never solved. And victims’ families often endure astounding indignities. I know of a mother who learned of her son’s murder from a pair of tennis shoes. She had been given a claim check at the hospital and told to take it to the property room, where she was wordlessly handed his shoes.
I brace myself most for these interviews with people two to five years after the homicide. I get a headache in the interview, a headache when I go over my notes, and a headache when I try to write about it. I am secretly afraid of my notes on these stories. I hate my notes. I sometimes avoid them for days before I have the courage to go back into them.
The woman I arrange to interview today lost her 16-year-old about three months ago. Her son’s killer’s had said, “What’s up nigga?” and then started shooting. The boy ran. He was hit in the back but kept running. The shooter hit him again and again. He stumbled, then fell, and then the gunman walked up to where he lay on the pavement and tried to empty the clip in his head. The gun jammed; the boy later died at a hospital.
“How are you holding up?” I ask over the phone. She says what they all say: “Day by day.”