Book review: a harrowing true story of love, crime and mental illness
Jennifer Hopper waived her right to anonymity to speak out about the terrible experience she and her fiancée suffered at the hands of a mentally ill man who slipped through the cracks in the system
While the City Slept
by Eli Sanders
In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle”, the newspaper story that won alt-weekly reporter Eli Sanders a Pulitzer Prize, the brave woman at the centre of a devastating crime went without a name, at her request.
Now, as Sanders expands the woman’s story into a moving and unsettling book about the horrifying attack that left her fiancée dead, he provides her name and her story in sensitive detail.
In While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent Into Madness, Sanders echoes his original story about Jennifer Hopper facing the aftermath of a nightmare. But now it’s also the story of the woman she loved and lost, and of the mental health system that let a troubled boy slip unnoticed onto the path of becoming a killer.
The book relies on Sanders’ coverage of the crime and the trial of the man who broke into the home Hopper shared with Teresa Butz and brutalised both women.
But it also grows out of a wealth of reporting Sanders continued after his original article was published in 2011. In addition to working with Hopper to share her story, he interviewed both women’s family members, the neighbours who awoke to glass breaking and screaming on a quiet summer night, the police officers who investigated the crime and even the judge who had the killer in his courtroom just a day earlier on other charges – and let him go.
Sanders shares the happiness that Hopper and Butz, both in their 30s, had found in each other after years of moving around the country and finding highs and lows in other jobs, friends and partners. Butz, one of 11 children, was a tiny powerhouse who worked on cruise ships and paddle boats before she ended up working as a property manager in Seattle. Hopper was a gifted singer who tried to make it in New York but eventually settled into an office job in Seattle, met Butz and began a life with her in a small red house on the southern end of the city.
Sanders also sketches out the misshapen life of Isaiah Kalebu, the son of a refugee father who had little time for him and a mentally ill mother who couldn’t help him in his own struggles with anger.
Kalebu’s young life was dotted with an endless series of interactions with doctors, mental health workers and, eventually, police, lawyers and judges. He was taken away to school and to treatment programmes and sent home. There were fights at school and instances of domestic abuse and mental health diagnoses and arrests and psychiatric institutions and a series of people who tried to help but rarely had the time or the tools to form a complete picture of how Kalebu got to where he was.
Sanders quotes one of Kalebu’s lawyers, who later wrote of his client’s last days before the crime: “Isaiah wandered homeless for days, accompanied only by his dog and his delusions, until he encountered Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper.”
Sanders spares readers the horrors Hopper and Butz endured until the final third of the book. Although the story is told with incredible sensitivity, Sanders doesn’t spare readers the truth that made journalists and court reporters cry in the courtroom.
Many readers will want to read through it, all of it, to see the best of Sanders’ elegant writing and learn of Butz and Hopper’s profound courage.
Tribune News Service