I HAVE TWO FEARS about books focusing on violent crimes, particularly those involving violence against women: (1) that the book will sensationalize sexual violence, and (2) that the book need never have been published, but could have accomplished its goals through a more modest vehicle—like a newspaper article.
Seattle journalist Eli Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his investigative feature on the rape and murder of Teresa Butz and the rape and attempted murder of Butz's partner, Jennifer Hopper, in Seattle's South Park neighborhood on the night of July 19, 2009—an attack perpetrated by a man named Isaiah Kalebu. The piece originally appeared in Seattle alternative newsweekly The Stranger. (Full disclosure: The Stranger is the Mercury's sister publication.) Reading the book that expands on that coverage, While The City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent into Madness, Sanders' further work seemed absolutely justified: It's a comprehensive look at the far-reaching causes and consequences of this crime, an examination of nearly every aspect that contributed to it, covering the failures of the state's legal, educational, and public health systems to prevent crimes like this from happening in the first place.
The first half of the book focuses on Butz and Hopper, the victims of Kalebu's crime. I wondered at first if they were included only to make the book seem more sympathetic, but ultimately, the choice is related to Sanders' belief, which pervades his book, that everything is connected, that everything that happens is the result of a long trail of cause and effect, spanning the globe and over many years, to arrive at this particular time and place, and these particular disastrous consequences. This belief requires Sanders to examine what might be seen simply as a random attack from every angle, among them: mental health, race, culture, gender, the lives of the victims, the family history of the attacker, and the sociopolitical and economic conditions of Seattle in the early 2000s.
Sanders is meticulous and thorough, creating an in-depth case study with humanity and nuance. Through his lens, we view the risks created by our lack of comprehensive mental health care and our focus on incarceration as treatment after the fact. Sanders isn't afraid to look far into the abyss of human nature, into the depths of cruelty and depravity within some of us, and to say, "This is human, too, and if we don't confront that fact in a way that could prevent it, we will all be forced to confront it in another way." Through his careful examination of the events leading up to Kalebu's crime, trial, and imprisonment, Sanders does not place blame on any single individual or institution—he makes the important point that everyone, and everything, is to blame. Each individual who came in contact with Kalebu—and who may have felt, retrospectively, that they had the opportunity to prevent the crime he later committed—did what seemed best at the time with the limited knowledge and resources that they had. Sanders' is a David Simonesque portrayal of a system in which notions of good and evil and justice are complicated by structural limitations.
As for my fear that rape and murder would be played up to attract readers (America loves to hear about pretty white women who die), Sanders doesn't sensationalize the violence that Butz and Hopper experienced, revealing the details of the crime only during the chapter on the trial and only through Hopper's own words in relating her testimony. "It is not necessary to recount all of Jennifer's testimony. It got very gruesome," writes Sanders. "But in order to understand their bravery, it is necessary to hear, as much as possible, what was endured." For this reason, and in the hope that some crimes can be prevented, Sanders asks us all to bear witness.
While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent into Madness
by Eli Sanders