When Story Impacts Journalist: The Makings of a Pulitzer Prize Winning Feature Story
By Sylvia Mendoza
Jennifer Hopper sat in a courtroom recounting the horrific details—so very many of them—that shattered her life as much as the quiet stillness of that warm summer night in 2009 in her South Park neighborhood in Seattle. Hopper’s sole purpose: to see justice served—to prosecute and put Isaiah Kalebu away for what he did to her and her partner, Teresa Butz. Deep in slumber that night, Butz and Hopper were startled awake by the intruder—standing naked over them brandishing a knife. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, Kalebu would brutally, violently and sadistically torture and rape both women, stab and cut them repeatedly, and eventually kill Butz.
As Hopper took the witness stand—pushing aside her fear, honoring the woman she loved, and recreating incomprehensible actions—Eli Sanders, a reporter for The Stranger, a Seattle-based alternative weekly, became profoundly moved by her testimony and honesty. Sanders was caught up in it. Every word. And he began to write her story.
“The experience compelled the piece, really,” Sanders says. “She was brave beyond anything I could imagine. The force of what I experienced in that courtroom pushed this out of me.”
“This” is “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” a 5,200 word emotionally charged, fact-filled article that earned Sanders the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.
The Unfolding of a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Story
There are stories that need to be told. Need to. And when this need is coupled with a feature writer who has the skill to recreate a “scene” with precision and perseverance, description and details, compassion and sensitivity, the resulting story can change lives. It can give a voice to the underdog. It can elevate the human consciousness. It can be the vehicle to present truth and justice. It can, very simply, be a story written so compellingly that thousands of readers can relate to it, whether or not they can stomach the unfolding story itself.
Sanders brought all those elements to light in “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.”
The Pulitzer Prize winning story was not Sanders first about the brutal crime. When Sanders first heard of the rapes and murder in 2009, he wanted to get to the reason it happened in the first place. “My first thought was that perhaps this was a hate crime, an anti-gay bashing with severe outcomes,” he says. The details were sketchy, so there was an extra level of inquiry. I had to know what started that story. What were Isaiah’s motivations?”
That need to get to the root of the crime, the motivation, started Sanders on a journey that he never expected. “It became clear that these two women had a unique and strong relationship with each other and with their neighborhood. They had loved and been a part of that community.”
What he uncovered as he went along was the importance of giving a glimpse of life in that community. “While South Park Slept” was the result. Another story was “The Mind of Kalebu,” a profile on Isaiah Kalebu, which showed in disturbing detail how he slipped through the mental health and criminal justice systems after being diagnosed as bi-polar and harming others in criminal acts. He seemed to become more unstable with each incident, and became unleashed with Butz and Hopper. Yet another story, “What the Trial of Isaiah Kalebu Looked Like From the Jury Box” offered more in-depth insight of the crime.
So for two years before Hopper even got on the witness stand, Sanders had collected information, interviewed others, did research, and wrote related stories that eventually would lead him to Hopper. During this time, Kalebu was bound and arrested, says Sanders. Kalebu had fled when Butz tried to escape. She didn’t make it far before falling, and lay unmoving in the street. Hopper, naked and bloody, ran for help, screaming until neighbors came racing to their aid. It was too late to save Butz. But Hopper, with a rising hysteria, did not know that until much later.
Because of DNA samples secured by officials at the victims’ home, Kalebu was tracked down and arrested within days. “The events and the consequences were familiar to the readers of The Stranger. They knew the history before The Bravest Woman was published. The long arc of the story didn’t come just at the trial.”
He was able to meet Hopper only once in the two years—and it was at her request. According to her own story (that appeared much later in The Stranger), “I am Still Here: The Survivor of the South Park Attacks, in Her Own Words”, she had been impressed with Sanders’s coverage of the crime, as well as his style and honesty in the related stories. She felt she could trust him. “I met with Jennifer Hopper and had an off-the-record conversation,” Sanders explained. “She couldn’t risk being interviewed before being cross examined. She didn’t want to talk really. It wasn’t what I call a normal interviewer/interviewee relationship, but it was one I had to respect.”
They didn’t see each other again until the trial. Still, somehow, that seemed to be enough. She requested he not use her name in the trial story, which was understandable to Sanders.
It worked. He sat through hours upon endless hours in the courtroom listening and recording her story in detail. He listened to other people’s accounts. He relentlessly researched background information. And yet, he decided not to use every gruesome detail in his story, even though he did use some profanity and did get descriptive. Some would say he “crossed the line.”
“I knew about the crime, the law and the two women, but there was lots I didn’t know,” he admits. “Everything that happened in the courtroom was new to me. During the court proceedings, the power of her testimony compelled me to write the story the way I did. I was incredibly awed at her testimony, at her clarity and poise, at her composure and her honesty. I can’t imagine what she was going through. I can’t imagine myself being as composed if it were me. I really don’t think I’d be able to do that. To do what she does takes incredible courage.”
She testified on a Wednesday and Thursday. Sanders wrote the story over the weekend and it was published the following week. “It was her story. In a vivid and honest way, I wanted to write her story in the way she told it. I alluded quickly to what had been written previously. My responsibility was my word to Jennifer, especially because she wanted to remain anonymous.”
MAKINGS OF A JOURNALIST
Honored that he was selected the Pulitzer winner, Sanders is overwhelmed by the response and accolades. “I’m amazed the story has resonated with so many people at this level,” he says.
That comes from a journalist who attended Columbia University in 1999, but did not major in journalism. After college, Sanders moved home to Seattle, wanting to write. Armed with a degree in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, he started working at the Seattle Times. “You don’t need to go to college to be a journalist,” Sanders says.
He knew that the fundamentals of journalism—telling stories, getting those interviews, relaying the truth—were basics he could pick up. In an interview with the American Journalism Review he says, however, that “A wider understanding of the world is not something you can pick up.”
He has that understanding. As time went on, he honed journalistic skills as a stringer for The Boston Globe, a freelancer for The Stranger, and writing for the New York Times’ Seattle bureau. He’s also written for the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. His writing has appeared in three books: The Contenders (Seven Stories Press), The Best Sex Writing 2006 (Cleis Press), and What to Read in the Rain (826 Seattle). He might have developed writing techniques along the way but the unique writing style and natural storytelling ability were apparent.
These skills were apparent in “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” It had flow, depth and delivered a storyline that was mesmerizing, allowing a reader to “read between the lines” and/or imagine himself “there;” there, in this case, was at the scene of the crime.
The way Sanders chose to open his story was an intriguing choice. It was with the element of normalcy that he set up the atrocity that was about to come. He focused on the prosecuting attorney’s questions about window coverings and windows, what could be seen from them, what could be seen through them. What the reader was about to learn was that one of these windows almost offered Butz an escape from unspeakable violence and unnecessary death.
Sanders may not think of writing techniques as his stories unfold, but in this story, his use of repetition provoked reaction, adding an almost-poetic flow to the piece. The word “maybe,” for example, gave possible scenarios of how the rapist chose to attack these two particular women: “Maybe he stalked them. Maybe he’d noticed the women around the neighborhood. Maybe he also saw their love for each other. Maybe he saw that…they were one. Maybe …the numbers were on his side.”
Repetition also worked to show how those in the courtroom reacted to the horrors inflicted on Butz and Hopper. Sanders wrote… “what happened next made the court reporter’s eyes well up, made the bailiff cry, had the whole room in tears…The family and friends in the courtroom cried. The Seattle Times reporter seated next to me cried. I cried. The camerawoman…cried.”
Lastly, the use of repetition provided a kind of platform, which was important to see things through Hopper’s eyes: “This happened to me. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did…You must listen.”
Another technique Sanders used is transition. Effective ones seamlessly link paragraphs, main points and incidents. The best transition Sanders used was connecting the victim’s home (scene of the crime) with the courtroom. He wrote: “And I watched him walk by the dresser near the window, and he just, one by one, shut all three windows…In the courtroom, it felt like windows were closing…”
With an incredible job of balancing narrative with dialogue, paraphrasing with direct quotes, facts with emotion, humor with horror—through it all—Hopper’s voice was heard loud and clear. Her conviction and bravery took root in the courtroom and were relayed in Sanders’s writing.
No one could doubt that her testimony affected Sanders as a person. He just happened to be a good enough journalist to distance himself to write her account, get to the heart of the story, baring her pain so she could see justice served at the end.
The Pulitzer honor has overwhelmed Sanders, even as he becomes more comfortable with his role as journalist. He speaks of his writing, and what he knows of himself by now as a journalist, and simply presents information the best way he can. “You have to write every story with passion, but I’m not there to influence a reader to think one way or another. I can’t tell them what to take away.”
Yet Jennifer Hopper saw the power of Sanders’s writing. The way the story was told brought her out of her safe cocoon of anonymity. Her acknowledgement of Sanders’s writing—as honest, compassionate and accurate—speaks of Sanders’s professionalism and innate journalistic integrity. Hopper chose to write an article in The Stranger to reveal her identity and tell her version of what happened because of Sanders’s work. In “I am Still Here: The Survivor of the South Park Attacks, in Her Own Words” she says his work had “created a three-dimensional picture not only of the recent trial, but of the psychology of the crime itself. His writing brought humanity to my personal horror, and I will always be grateful to have been interpreted by his honest voice.”
Sanders said he would love to write more of these types of stories. Although he can’t think of his future beyond current deadlines and commitments, he sees the beauty of working for a publication like The Stranger. “I love working here. It is a rare and exceptional place that allows you to do work of this length and this depth,” he says. “The world can be very complicated and you can’t write certain stories in short format. You need longer pieces.”
The experience of writing “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” was both humbling and exhilarating for Sanders. Kalebu was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole and given two 47-year sentences for the rapes. Hopper is still healing and trying to deal with daily life. Sanders has been forever impacted by her bravery on the stand. He does not apologize and makes no excuses for his own emotional reaction to the story and his immersion in it. In fact, he believes writing this way makes him a better, more insightful journalist.
“I wrote that in June 2011, and feel I’m still too close to it even now,” Sanders says. “There’s no way not to be emotionally impacted or involved in a story like that. No person could get through this unaffected. I was deeply impacted. How could you not be? To be the best writer you can be, every story you get involved with—every story—should have an impact on you. ”
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