Review: While the City Slept

While the City Slept

A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness

While the City Slept CoverEli Sanders
316pp. Viking

By Anthonio Pettit for Jetspace Magazine

 

On a hot night in the July of 2009, something horrifying and tragically preventable is about to unfold.  A long slow pan of a murky, somewhat cast-off suburb located on a bend of the polluted Duwamish River reveals a suburb in decline. This is Southpark a bedroom community located just minutes away from downtown Seattle. As we zoom in to the tree-lined South Rose Street, a dead end bearing several modest single family homes come into focus. Neighbors live their lives. At this hour most are asleep, a handful still awake; all is eerily mundane-

A window shatters, desperate screams pierce the darkness- a woman staggers naked and bloody into the street. In an instant we are plunged into a violent disruption in the lives of Jennifer Hopper and her fiancé Teresa Butz.

Jennifer survives; Teresa does not. Their assailant is identified as a deeply troubled young man named Isaiah Kalebu. The grisly result of this collision is established unambiguously by the sixteenth page of the prologue.

After being immersed in such an expeditiously fatal introduction, what is left to tell? We certainly know how the story is going to end, but how did we arrive at this moment? What could have transpired in the months and years leading up to this tragedy and how did these paths ever cross?

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“While the City Slept” is a detailed account of the harrowing, heartbreaking and wholly unnecessary intersection of the lives of these three. This work is the expansion and update of Sander’s original report in The Stranger titled “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize.  It is not hard to see why. Immediately clear is how utterly devoted Sanders has been to this case. This is the culmination of years or careful research, interviews, and embedded reporting. The effortless recreation of the timeline beguiles the incredibly laborious process a work of this caliber would have required.

Eli Sander’s staggeringly meticulous examination of these lives and the circumstances that lead to their encounter leaves absolutely no stone unturned. However, the incredible narrative that Sanders has painstakingly and thoughtfully crafted transcends the boundaries of mere true crime reporting.

The first Chapter, “Teresa and Jennifer” walks back to the very beginning. On the surface these are biographies, but they are more. Butz and Hopper are profiled individually in a factual, not-quite-clinical transcription of every detail from birth. There is a matter-or-fact omnipresence that is somehow able to detect emotion and dialogue between family members.

Teresa is born into a large Catholic family in St. Louis. Her parents are strict but loving, and retell many of the details of her adolescence. Jennifer’s formative years were less stable. Raised by a single mother battling an addiction to pain killers, she discovers a love of entertaining, particularly singing, at an early age, and is frequently recognized as having an uncommonly pure voice.

As the two young woman enter adulthood, the action jumps back and forth between them in rapid succession, updating highlights and failures in tandem until they eventually meet and fall in love in Seattle.

Both narratives are written in the present tense. The effect is somewhat like reading fiction or a screenplay where the characters are outlined in a daily journal and compiled at the end without adjusting for any time difference. Initially this seemed striking and oddly unfamiliar. However, in subsequent interviews, Jennifer Hopper expressed an appreciation for these chapters as an honor and wonderful gift. A beautiful retelling of two lives who were very important to each other. Through Sander’s work, Teresa gets to be alive again. The narrative never feels overly embellished nor sentimental, and yet it is powerfully constructed in a way that establishes a deep connection with these lives.

The chapter which follows is heart breaking, yet profoundly beautiful, chronicling both the capture of Kalebu by police after a several-day manhunt, and the funeral and celebration of life for Teresa Butz. The service is held in the same venue and on the same date that had been planned for months in advance as Teresa and Jennifer’s wedding day.

Isaiah Kalebu’s biography is much less nostalgic.

His father is a war-scarred refugee from Uganda, his mother has a family history of mental illness. Isaiah is highly intelligent, but instability and abuse at home lead to behavioral problems which are identified, but never treated. This becomes a familiar theme throughout Isaiah’s life. He has trouble in school. Teachers are concerned, but his family is unsupportive of counseling. As he matures he begins to experience manic episodes which increasingly worry his family. Petty theft gives Isaiah the first taste of the legal and then mental health system. He is given a psychiatric evaluation diagnosed as bipolar, yet Isaiah does not acknowledge anything wrong. He refuses both court-ordered medication and counselling required as a condition for his release into society. He becomes hostile and violent with his mother and family. He is deemed a “danger to self or others”, yet in spite of this and a plea from his exasperated mother he remains free and largely unobserved. Psychotic episodes increase; he ends up back in the court system. This pattern repeats many times. He is released wanders aimlessly, mental health degrading further and further each step of the way.

The story makes clear the difficulties of involuntarily committing an individual. Despite what seemed like sufficient evidence for keeping Isaiah at Western State Mental Hospital for treatment, his visits are brief and largely ineffective. Changes in the laws regarding institutionalization are partially responsible, but the largest problem is the extremely overburdened and underfunded mental health system. There simply aren’t resources to hold someone indefinitely in an institution, and so the courts instead must rely on the prison system to keep dangerous offenders with mental illness off the streets.

Throughout this troubling time, no single person in the courts, nor psychiatric facilities ever fully connects the dots regarding his criminal or mental history. Teresa Butz is then violently terminated at hands of Isaiah Kalebu, and this final incident is what it took to get him permanently removed from society.

Much of the chapters about Isaiah’s life are constructed through interviews with family members, school administrators, members of the court and county jail. Particularly insightful is a detailed report by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Maria Lymberis. Throughout Kalebu’s story, Dr. Lymberis annotates Isaiah’s descent into madness and the many opportunities for therapeutic intervention which never occurred.

“The Trial” covers Kalebu’s high-profile appearance before the court for the murder of Teresa Butz. The jury selection process alone took an entire month, whittling down from a pool of hundreds an eventual jury of twelve. The selection process is one of the few parts of the book which loses momentum. Sander’s desire to convey the challenge of assembling an unbiased panel goes on a just bit too long and a few too many of the 110 potential jurors are profiled.

However, things pick up immediately when the trial begins. Kalebu is defiant and uncooperative, and denies any wrong doing or issues with his mental health.

Jennifer Hopper’s testimony is unequivocally gut wrenching, recounting in vivid detail the rape and torture she and Teresa endured that night.

This testimonial is tough to get through and may be too much for some to handle. However, through the tears also emerges insight into the enormous strength, humanity and spirit of present in Hopper’s being.

Isaiah is unrepentant and receives multiple life sentences. He is no longer a threat to society, but there is no way to know if he will ever receive adequate mental health treatment. Another young man behind bars for the rest of his life for a crime which should have been prevented by a social safety net.

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My assumption before reading this story was that Kalebu had simply been a disturbed man with an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness who one day snapped. “While the City Slept” reminds us that while the circumstances are nuanced, Isaiah had indeed been on the authorities’ radar throughout his life. He had been in custody and even in the mental health system, and yet still managed to slip through the cracks.

While I was preparing for this review, the single largest mass-shooting in modern history took place in Orlando at a gay night club. This attack was carried out by an individual who exhibited behavioral problems while growing up, and raised by authoritative father, and managed to attract negative attention by authorities in the form of FBI terror watch lists. Nothing was in place to prevent the shooter from inflicting the largest single attack on the LGBT community in U.S. history. While it remains unclear whether Kalebu’s attack on Butz and Hopper was a hate crime, there are parallels between the two.

Both of these tragedies are a serious indictment of a system which is decidedly defective and must be addressed if we ever want to have any hope of preventing future disasters. Funding for mental health services must become a priority, if for no other reason than the enormous burden tax-payers are saddled with incarcerating the mentally ill for the remainder of their lives. Sanders estimates the cost that citizens will pay for Kalebu’s life behind bars will exceed $3 million. Multiply this by the countless thousands who are destined to befall similar fates without access to effective, lifesaving treatment The wasted potential and resources are staggering.

“While the City Slept” is an important work, poignantly illustrating the fragility and vulnerability of human life, while acknowledging that beauty and love can shine in the face of tragedy. It is a reminder of the randomness of existence and how quickly lives can be changed forever. It is call to action to fix a system in desperate disrepair, and It is a beautifully moving tribute to the love between Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper.

Sander’s all-encompassing dedication to telling this story is deeply apparent, and is what makes the book so utterly fascinating. His depth of compassion and understanding of this case, the people involved and the city in which it takes place is profound, and will no doubt remain the definitive history of the disturbing collision of three lives that hot summer night back in 2009.

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