An Interview with Eli Sanders

An Interview with Eli Sanders

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing was awarded to Eli Sanders of The Stranger, a Seattle, Washington Weekly, for his article, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” According to the judges, Sanders creates:

[a] haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner, using the woman’s brave courtroom testimony and the details of the crime to construct a moving narrative.

Four years later, Sanders has published While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and A Young Man’s Descent Into Madness (Viking, 2016). The prologue, “South Rose Street,” opens with a description of the Duwamish River and describes the neighborhood of South Park, the location of South Rose Street, where Teresa Butz and her partner, Jennifer Hopper, lived in a small red house. Sanders writes:

There were two women in that red house who, searching for love, had found each other. There was one man who, needing a halt to his psychological descent, had found nothing but an open window.

The brief prologue centers on that night in 2009 when a neighbor “heard a scream” and “saw a person appearing to be falling out a window.” According to Detective Dana Duffy, who arrived on the bloody scene, “I’ve never had a murder case where there’s two victims and one survives.”

Yet Sanders effectively and engagingly traces the lives of three victims, two to rape and violence, and the other to the mental health crisis in this country. The book is divided into six sections: Teresa and Jennifer, Capture, Isaiah, Danger to Self and Others, Threshold of Competence, The Trial (which incorporates material from Sanders’s Pulitzer-Prize feature) and the epilogue, The River. It is a riveting book, engrossing in its research and compassionate in its telling. The Washington Post hails Sanders for his “even-handed reporting and emotional commitment to the story [that] make for gripping reading.”

Eli Sanders is the associate editor of Seattle’s weekly newspaper The Stranger. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The American Prospect, and Salon, among other publications. Sanders lives in Seattle. He and I exchanged one question and answer at a time via e-mail, or as he put it, “thinking, asking, thinking, answering, thinking, asking.”

One of my favorite things to do is take a book to a corner table of a faraway restaurant and read. On the day I began While the City Slept, two women sat down in the booth in front of me and one of them turned around and said, “Oh, I’ve heard of that book! I’ve heard the best things about it. I want to read it! How is it? Is it good?” I told her I was on page nine but that it was good so far (and never faltered, I might add, throughout). It rarely happens that a book I’m reading gets attention from strangers with such an enthusiastic response, which leads me to ask how the city of Seattle, and the neighborhood of South Park in particular, has responded to the book.

A corner table in a faraway restaurant — what a perfect beginning. Thank you for that image, and for the kind words.

Here in Seattle, a memorable part of the release involved an event at Town Hall with myself and Jennifer Hopper, the woman who survived the crime at the center of While the City Slept. Jennifer is an inspiring presence, and I was pleased that many hundreds of people came out that evening to listen to her speak about her journey. I mention the size of the crowd as a way of also suggesting how firmly this crime stuck in the civic consciousness. We are approaching seven years since the events that nearly took Jennifer’s life and, tragically, did take the life of Jennifer’s fiancĂ©e, Teresa Butz.

There’s audio of the Town Hall event here if anyone would like to listen, but beyond saying that it was a memorable evening, I find it difficult to describe a general, citywide response. I’ve heard from and talked to many people in Seattle about their reactions to the book, of course, but any individual’s experience of any book is a highly personal, idiosyncratic thing. I also wouldn’t want to speak for the neighborhood of South Park. In terms of local reactions, though, I will say that as someone born and raised in Seattle, I’m thrilled by the warm reception the book has received at the Elliott Bay Book Company. For a Seattle native, that’s one very gratifying response.

Oh, I wish I had been at that event — thank you for sharing the link. I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Seattle. I want to stay with Seattle for a moment, because as I read, I noticed you focusing on elements of the city as symbols of the issues you’re highlighting in this book, particularly the Duwamish River that “bends like discarded ribbon,” “the fault that runs directly beneath this city,” the courthouse, which is described as “a hall of justice doubling as a monument to the way insane outcomes can be created slowly, over time,” and the bridge to South Park that “is not invulnerable.”

It’s been fascinating to see which descriptions stick with different readers, and you’ve highlighted several that I’d be happy for any reader to hold onto. I have to say, though, that I’ve also struggled, since the book came out, over how much I should say about symbolic intent, metaphorical intent, and so on when I’m offered the opportunity. I’m very glad you’ve found meaning in the particular descriptions you’ve mentioned, and you’re right that I’ve often attempted to offer descriptions that might point toward more than just the described objects.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that if I find myself expanding on the precise intent behind a particular description, or set of descriptions, then I’m admitting a sort of failure (and, possibly, ruining someone’s opportunity to find unintended meanings — or no worthwhile meanings at all — within particular passages). Maybe this is my own issue, but while I’m grateful that you’ve connected with the descriptions of landscapes and human constructions, I don’t know what more to say than that it’s a deep pleasure to feel we might both be looking at the same words in the same way. More than that, I fear, gets a little too pedantic and intrudes on readers’ freedom.

The opening passages of landscape/landmark descriptions reminded me of Steinbeck (in tone and detail), the way he took his time to establish the reader in the place he was writing.

“The tributaries that feed a moment are vast,” you write of the Duwamish River in the prologue, continuing later to note that the collision of Isaiah’s “disintegrating life” with “the life Teresa and Jennifer had made” and the histories that precede it have “something to offer the present,” noting that all of these lives have something to teach us.

One of the issues in While The City Slept is queer identity — can you talk about that a bit?

Certainly. The paths that led Teresa and Jennifer to each other, it seems to me, were strongly influenced by each woman’s extended search for a place where she could feel at home within herself, and with a partner. As the two women searched there were also powerful external forces that pushed them here and there, and I was interested in those forces, too. But each woman’s self-powered searching, the intense drive to explore that came from within both of them — that involved, for both Teresa and Jennifer, a grappling with sexuality, and that process of grappling became a major propellant, and thus it’s a part of the story.

Teresa was raised in a large Catholic family in St. Louis and, in my view, worked hard at integrating her Catholic faith with her identity as a lesbian all the way up until the moment her life was taken. Jennifer was raised as an only child in a Jewish family centered in Seattle, and although she experienced less of a direct opposition between religion and sexual identity, her path to awareness and acceptance had its own significant challenges.

Both women relocated to other parts of the country as they searched. Teresa worked on steamboats along the Mississippi, then worked cruise lines to Alaska, and then spent time in New York and other cities, including, finally, Seattle. Jennifer moved from Seattle to Boston, later spent many years in New York, and then, eventually, moved from New York back to Seattle. This seeking out of new places to become oneself may be familiar to gay Americans who came of age before these recent, transformative years in which the legal and cultural barriers to gay acceptance have increasingly collapsed. It certainly resonated with me, as a gay man, but I think it will also be familiar to anyone who has searched for self-acceptance, external acceptance, and love.

It connects, as well, to one of the things I think I was exploring as I worked on this book: how we arrive at a given moment, and at given actions within moments. The process is, like many things, a confluence of internal propulsions and external forces. That’s not any sort of profound revelation. But perhaps when we are able to see the confluence more clearly through a narrative that looks for it, then we can also see, to take just one possibility, how much work goes into an inspiring life. Perhaps we can see where some roots of bravery, strength, and resilience may lie. Teresa and Jennifer worked hard to get to where they were in the summer of 2009: caught up in their love, planning their wedding, sharing a small red house that they both felt was home. To me, that work — and the sometimes fumbling, always full-of-life ways they went about it — comprises an instructive, heartening journey.

PS: Having said all that, I think I should probably answer a question that may be triggering for people who haven’t read the book: Was the crime that ended Teresa and Jennifer’s relationship motivated by the women’s sexual orientation? This possibility was explored by authorities but quickly discarded. This case was not prosecuted as a hate crime. It was something else, a terrible, tragic consequence of the internal and external realities experienced by Isaiah.

There’s a moment in the Isaiah section when you report the findings of Dr. Maria Lymberis, a psychoanalyst and forensic psychiatrist, who was hired by the Seattle court. About Isaiah, she noted: “[H]e was […] well able to comprehend the gulf between what was and what could be.” I underlined this passage because I couldn’t help but connect it to Teresa and Jennifer as well. It seems they had finally crested that gulf, had found “what could be.”

Then Isaiah walked into that red house.

Your tracing of Isaiah’s life includes his “paths of distress, and his paths of crime and violence,” his family’s struggles to find someone to represent their concerns regarding his mental health while also investigating the history of mental health in this country, its “antiquated system,” and the obstacles to funding. It’s disheartening, to say the very least, about a young man “who became his illness” and about the system that failed him.

What was the most frustrating discovery you encountered in your research, either about Isaiah or the system?

Thank you for noticing the commonalities. I noticed some myself, and I know other readers have, too. I think a sensation of commonality — a sensation, in other words, of common humanity — may be one of the more effective portals to empathy.

Jennifer asks in the book, “How does somebody become this guy?” That question in itself, as Jennifer notes, was a beginning for an empathetic journey of her own, one that has led Jennifer to a growing feeling of forgiveness toward Isaiah. So, to pick up Jennifer’s question as a way of heading for an answer to your question: How does somebody become this guy?

Along Isaiah’s path toward becoming the version of himself that committed these crimes, he experienced some things that are not common. He also experienced things that are very common — so much so that, as you note, he shared some broad stroke experiences with Jennifer and Teresa. Another aspect of this tragedy is that by the time he ended up in the red house, he couldn’t see this. Or, if he could, he wasn’t able to use that sense of common humanity as a brake against doing harm.

He got to this point, it seems to me, over many years during which he was clearly becoming a danger to himself and those around him, yet didn’t receive help that was sufficient to his need. Instead, he bounced in and out of Washington State’s mental health and criminal justice systems — systems whose alarming shortcomings are a microcosm of a national crisis — while never receiving, for example, a firm diagnosis and sustained follow-up care. (“Crisis,” by the way, is the Obama’s administration’s word for the state of America’s public mental health system, not just mine.)

You asked what was most frustrating to me, and overall it is this: that in Isaiah’s path, especially in the years directly before his crimes against Jennifer and Teresa, one sees over and over again opportunities for intervention that were missed because, in short, our public mental health systems are so fragmented, overwhelmed, and under-resourced. (For anyone who may be interested, I recounted some of these missed opportunities, in brief, in a February op-ed for The Washington Post — a paper that has done great work highlighting the need for mental health care reform.) Ultimately, this all traces to the way we ignore, at great peril to our fellow citizens and to ourselves, how badly broken our country’s mental health system has become. The consequences of this brokenness are not limited to disturbing crimes. In fact, as I note in the book, the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators. Chronic homelessness, to take just one example, is another enduring social tragedy that connects to our broken mental health system.

I don’t have one “silver bullet” to offer as a fix that would prevent further tragedies, but when it comes to our human systems — our social safety nets, our mental health and criminal justice systems — there is an obvious place we could begin: money. These systems are woefully underfunded, and that underfunding not only leads to a heavy human toll but also creates huge financial costs to taxpayers. In the book, I offer a brief tally of these costs when it comes to the case of Isaiah Kalebu, and that tally seems to have resonated with a lot of people. I feel I’ve gone on too long already, but it’s there in the book for the finding.

What it suggests is an inordinately expensive misallocation of tax dollars, in this case and in general. To me, it also suggests that all of us, as citizens, have failed to demand a society that truly cares about individual and community health, including mental health. Through this failure, we not only ignore our common humanity but also imperil community health and safety.

Dr. Lymberis describes the failure of the system to “help [Isaiah] deal with the experiences,” as a “major missed opportunity.” So many of those in all three of these lives, another commonality.

You mention Jennifer’s words, and I want to add more here: “There’s nothing I would have changed about how we lived our lives.” I’m not sure many people, myself included, have that kind of clarity.

After winning the Pulitzer and expanding your reportage into a successful book-length work, what’s next for Eli Sanders?

I agree, Jennifer’s clarity is stunning. I don’t know if I have it, either.

As for what’s next: in the immediate moment, a vacation that’s been a long time coming. My husband, who’s from Montana and is a bit of an adventurous skier, has us headed out on a backcountry ski trip. It’s the kind of thing where one has to climb up any mountainside one wants to ski down. Also, there’s no cell reception or Internet where we’re going, which is almost equally exciting. Beyond that, I’ll keep writing and reporting. I’d also like to find my way to another book. We’ll see.