Eli Sanders

While the City Slept

While the City Slept

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

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A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter’s gripping account of one young man’s path to murder—and a wake-up call for mental health care in America

On a summer night in 2009, three lives intersected in one American neighborhood. Two people newly in love—Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper, who spent many years trying to find themselves and who eventually found each other—and a young man on a dangerous psychological descent: Isaiah Kalebu, age twenty-three, the son of a distant, authoritarian father and a mother with a family history of mental illness. All three paths forever altered by a violent crime, all three stories a wake-up call to the system that failed to see the signs.

In this riveting, probing, compassionate account of a murder in Seattle, Eli Sanders, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper coverage of the crime, offers a deeply reported portrait in microcosm of the state of mental health care in this country—as well as an inspiring story of love and forgiveness. Culminating in Kalebu’s dangerous slide toward violence—observed by family members, police, mental health workers, lawyers, and judges, but stopped by no one—While the City Slept is the story of a crime of opportunity and of the string of missed opportunities that made it possible. It shows what can happen when a disturbed member of society repeatedly falls through the cracks, and in the tradition of The Other Wes Moore and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, is an indelible, human-level story, brilliantly told, with the potential to inspire social change.


“An inspiring account that leaves the reader with a profound appreciation for our responsibility to one another. From a harrowing crime, it draws powerful lessons for our mental health and criminal justice systems that can’t be ignored. And the compassion with which it treats the victims, the survivor, and the perpetrator makes it indelible—a book I’ll be recommending for years for the way it appeals to both the conscience and the heart.” —Sister Helen Prejean, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dead Man Walking
“A devastatingly preventable crime is at the center of this book, and yet it is the love, courage, and empathy of the people involved—and of the author—that stay with you. Written with great sensitivity and even greater beauty, it is about so many things: a city, childhood, family, failure, loss, horror, forgiveness. It is, very nearly, about everything.” —Jeff Hobbs, New York Times bestselling author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
“The great achievement of this book is that it shows how any crime is ultimately a failure of systems and of citizens, and that to some degree we are all complicit when a person who needs help is cast aside. To show empathy for a criminal, especially a criminal who has committed such a violent act, ennobles the process and purpose of journalism.” —Dan Zak, author of The Prophets of Oak Ridge
“A page-turning indictment of a perfect storm of preventable events. Handled with delicacy and delivered with a powerful sense of both dismay and compassion, Sanders offers an unflinching portrait of the human casualties of one city’s and, by extrapolation, our country’s overburdened health-care and judicial systems.” —Booklist, starred review
“An exceptional story of compelling interest in a time of school shootings, ethnic and class strife, and other unbound expressions of madness and illness . . . Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting on which this book is based—and deservedly. He made a complex story comprehensible. . . . The author’s opening pages are among the most immediate and breathtaking in modern true-crime literature, as evocative as any moment of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Astonishing . . . Pair with Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside for powerful . . . analysis of the failures of our criminal justice system.” —Library Journal, starred review
“Gripping . . . Moving . . . Sanders’s meticulous narrative [is] a disturbing indictment of society’s neglect of the mentally ill.” —Publishers Weekly
“Compassionate . . . A tribute to those whose lives were upended and a meticulous indictment of the way America reckons with mental illness.” —Mother Jones