Daniel Rubin: Researcher follows shooting victims' aftermath

Jooyoung Lee is relentless in getting subjects to open up.
Jooyoung Lee is relentless in getting subjects to open up.
Posted: December 13, 2010

The modern-day ethnographer carries a different tool kit than, say, Bronislaw Malinowski brought to his classic 1922 study, Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Consider Jooyoung Lee and his Xbox 360.

Lee, 30, a postdoc at Penn, has spent the last year studying the lives of Philadelphians who have been shot, and talks of one subject - a man in his early 20s - who was reluctant to give up much about what he'd been through.

The sociologist strives to follow the people he's trying to understand in a variety of settings over many months, starting with a casual encounter in the outpatient trauma clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Of the 40 people he's approached, all but two have been willing to talk, Lee said. Most, in fact, have jumped at the opportunity to vent about their struggles.

"But this one young guy I follow would give me very quick responses. 'Oh, things are good,' he'd say." But little more.

That changed when Lee dropped by the man's house and saw a copy of Gears of War, a gory video game whose participants try to save their allies on the fictional planet Sera from a nasty subterranean enemy.

Lee had been a gamer in college at Berkeley.

"So I started playing video games with him," he said. "And during this time, he just really opened up."

The man told Lee he was lonely. He'd had to move after the shooting - it had happened too close to home. And since the shooting he'd been unable to work.

"He became more honest and forthcoming about his life, more than when we were just sitting across the table from each other," Lee said. "I just go and do whatever the person I'm following is doing, and in that process I discover stuff I didn't know about them."

That method has taken Lee to Philadelphia's open-air drug markets, where victims of gunshot wounds pick up painkillers their doctors will no longer prescribe.

He's seen and heard what it's like to walk around with a bullet lodged in your body - often the medically prudent approach, he said, but nonetheless extremely disruptive and an unwelcome reminder of trauma.

We sat in a Starbucks in West Philadelphia, near Lee's office. He is in his second year as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society scholar. Penn's program offered him his only postdoc interview, and it was the only position he wanted. If you are interested in studying the effects of a gunshot wound, Philadelphia is a good place for it.

Lee came from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he spent nearly five years researching the lives of rappers in South Central Los Angeles. He is under contract with the University of Chicago Press to turn his thesis, "Rap Dreams," into a book.

When a gang banger shot one of his rapper subjects in Los Angeles, Lee spent enough time with the convalescing man to realize what he wanted to study next.

Lee is what could be called a hot ticket. The day before we met, he had just agreed to an assistant professorship at the University of Toronto. Toronto has agreed to let him stay in Philadelphia for another year so he can stick with the gunshot victims he is tracking.

Tall and trim, Lee is a former collegiate freestyle swimmer with spiky black hair and a calm, patient manner. He said his listening skills came in part from living with his mother, a nurse born in Seoul, South Korea. His parents split up when he was 5.

For his research here, Lee has selected seven subjects to follow - six men and one woman. They have been targets of street robberies and errant gunfire. They're the victims of crimes of passion and an attempted murder plot.

He's watching how the shootings have changed their relationships with family and friends, how their work lives have suffered, how their injuries make it harder to sit and stand and, in particular, sleep.

"One of the men told me he could not remember the last time he had a good night's sleep."

Lee has learned how bullets travel differently through a person, depending on caliber and composition, body mass, and what part of the body you are talking about.

He is a long way away from drawing his conclusions, but what he knows with certainty now is that it hurts to get shot and it hurts to have been shot - long afterward. "We're talking about intense experiences with pain that make it very difficult to have a productive life."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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