The friend who first sent me “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” told me it was stunning but also so unsettling that I should not read it before going to bed.
She was right on both counts.
The story, by Eli Sanders of the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, is one of the most harrowing I have ever read, and also one of the bravest, for its unflinching honesty in addressing a subject we usually touch on gingerly at best. (The piece won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing this year and it’s easy to understand why.)
Courage is a surprising theme for a particularly gruesome story about rape and murder. Yet it seems to me an inspired choice that starts to give some meaning (if that word can even be used) to what would otherwise be unbearably bleak. The story shows the courage of a woman who must testify against the accused rapist and killer of her partner, Teresa Butz. But it also asks – actually, demands – courage from the reader.
The writer grabs you by the shoulders, addresses you directly and insists that you listen. The first time, he assumes the voice of the survivor as she addresses the courtroom audience, with short, declarative, urgent sentences:
You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.
Later, Sanders states flat out:
In order to understand her courage it’s necessary to hear, as much as possible, what she lived through.
And then he tells us again, in a different way, this time through the mother and with the rhythm of a long sentence that builds in controlled ferocity:
One thought: If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime-scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.
And implicitly, nor can the reader.
The structure of the story conveys its theme masterfully. We have two running chronologies: What happened that night, and what happened in the courtroom. The double narrative adds an emotional layer that allows us to see not just what happened but also the reaction and reflection of the survivor, and others. At one point, Sanders uses this refraction to convey what is unthinkable, untellable:
The horror of what happened next made the court reporter’s eyes well up, made the bailiff cry, had the whole room in tears. The jury handed around a box of tissues. The prosecutor took long pauses to collect himself. The family and friends in the courtroom cried (though, truth be told, they had been crying throughout.) The Seattle Times reporter seated next to me cried. I cried. The camerawoman who was shooting video for all the television stations in town cried – and later on hugged Butz’s partner as she left the courtroom for the midmorning break.
The double narrative also allows the writer to focus on character – not just what happened, but whom it happened to. If this story was just about what happened that night, the survivor’s direct quotes might interfere with the flow. Instead, the quotes are part of the courtroom chronology, so that the survivor speaks directly and powerfully, in her own words.
This emphasis on character, and on courage, is clear even in the way Sanders introduces the rape and murder. There is no surprise ending here, maybe because everybody in Seattle already knew how it had ended. Instead, he hints at the rape and murder in the lede, and then slips it into a secondary phrase in a scene with the survivor:
Everyone in the courtroom laughed a small laugh – a laugh of nervous relief, because here was a woman testifying about her own rape, and the rape and murder of her partner, and yet she was smiling at the current line of questioning, at the weird perceptual cul-de-sac to which it led.
The pacing is beautiful throughout. In one scene, the last word is a hit to the stomach:
“Then he said, and I remember: “Don’t get too excited. That was just round one.”…
The prosecuting attorney asked, How many rounds were there altogether?
At the end, the two narratives merge. Sanders builds up to the climax of Butz dying, and then neatly telescopes the future, covering a lot of ground quickly with a series of “would” sentences that bring us right up to the courtroom trial, such as:
Other firemen and medics would go to Butz, but it would be too late. The canine unit would come to track the man’s scent. An emergency room physician would swab Butz’s partner for evidence. … The coroner would autopsy. … The crime lab would process … Detectives would run down leads … State psychiatrists would evaluate … A judge would be assigned, a jury selected … The component pieces of this effort to be civilized even toward those accused of defying the demands of civilization, this attempt at a fair trial, would fall into place.
And then she – the bravest woman in Seattle – would testify at this trial, relive and recount it all, bear witness and bare her pain for the hope of justice.
Taking care of the future clears the way for an unforgettable ending, which brings home the theme of courage. Don’t read this story before bed. But do read it.
Mary Rajkumar is the international enterprise editor for The Associated Press. She has been a reporter or editor at newspapers including the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune. Stories she edited have been named as Pulitzer finalists and won awards including the Loeb, the Pulliam, the Medill, the National Headliner and APME. Rajkumar grew up in Singapore and graduated with honors from Cambridge University and Stanford University.
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