The Songs That Helped Them Get Through
How a Brutal Assault in South Park Led to a Concert, and a Mission
It's been nearly five years since Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper were attacked in their home in South Park. It was summer, and the two women were in the midst of planning a commitment ceremony for the fall. The man who assaulted them crawled in through their bathroom window in the middle of the night and, knife in hand, told each woman he would kill the other if he didn't get what he wanted. He raped them both. He then began stabbing them, and though they fought back, Teresa died from her wounds. Jennifer lived, and two years later testified at the trial of the man who attacked them. He is currently in the third year of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
On Friday, April 25, at the Neptune Theatre, a band made up of Teresa and Jennifer's family and friends will take the stage. Jennifer, a conservatory-trained vocalist, will sing. So will Teresa's brother, Tony Award–winning actor Norbert Leo Butz. The event is timed to coincide with National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, as well as with the End Violence Against Women International conference that's taking place April 22 to 24 in Seattle. Proceeds from concert ticket sales will go to support a nonprofit that was formed in the aftermath of the South Park attacks by two of Teresa's longtime friends from her hometown of St. Louis, Rachel Ebeling and Jean Purcell. The nonprofit, called the Angel Band Project, seeks to provide music therapy to survivors of sexual violence. Here, in their own words, the band members explain how music has helped them get through, and why they think it can help others too.
Jennifer Hopper: One of the first times Teresa and I spent together was at some sort of birthday event at work. We weren't dating yet, but I had met her, and as we were preparing to leave the party, we started talking about music. We both said we loved Patty Griffin, and I think at the same time we both said, "Oh, 'Heavenly Day' is her best song." Kind of immediately after that, I found the chords to it, and I said to myself, "I'm gonna learn it." And I'm a really nervous, hesitant guitar player. But somehow it was relatively easy. Not long after that, when Teresa and I were dating, I had an opportunity to sing with a friend at a little music venue up in Bellingham, and I invited Teresa. I sang "Heavenly Day" for her, and from there it just ended up being part of our journey in our early days together.
I for sure planned on whipping that song out at our wedding reception. It's like it was our song. And then... it became a song that represented my loss of her. I sang it a couple months later at a memorial for Teresa. I've sung it since then, and it's just one of those songs that sticks with me. I love what it says. It's really about the calm before the storm, and it represents so perfectly the days leading up to the attacks, these gorgeous summer days, the two of us just taking it all in, enjoying friends and the outdoors and each other. And you know: Tomorrow may rain with sorrow/Here's a little time we can borrow. It couldn't be more oddly representative of what we went through, what people go through.
Rachel Ebeling: In those days right after the attacks, it was so hard to put any kind of comprehension behind what had happened. There were a lot of tears. There was a lot of silence. Because there were just no words for how horrific the crime was, or for the enormity of the loss of Teresa, or for the suffering of Jen. I remember it as a time of dread. Teresa, Jean Purcell, and I, we all grew up together in St. Louis, and so Jean came back to St. Louis for the funeral, and the funeral turned out to be this profound celebration of Teresa's life through music, because Teresa comes from a very musical family. It was an uplifting service in so many ways, and that kind of led Jean and I to start to breathe this sigh of relief, like "Okay, we are going to get through this."
We were so drained, and there was still all that grief, and so we were driving in silence on the way to the grave site, and my husband was looking for something as a distraction. He put on a CD we had in the car, a Beatles album, and skipped to the track of "Let It Be." Jean was in the backseat, I was in the passenger seat, and just listening to the words of that song was so comforting, a way of coming into the knowledge that we did have to sit with this, we had to be present with our grief, but that we could do that and just be okay with that. There was no way to explain it away, no way to cry it away. We just had to sit and be with what we were experiencing. So we listened. We didn't sing; we didn't say anything. But it was comforting, and for me, it was one of the first songs that really started to make sense of this and give me a sense of peace around it, kind of led me through it. I don’t know if you know the background to that song—I’ve read about it since. Paul McCartney wrote the song after he had a dream about his mother, who died of cancer when he was 14. And in that dream, he remembered her telling him that he would be okay, that it would be all right, and to just let it be. I remember, resounding in my head: In my hour of darkness, there is still a chance that we shall see/There will be an answer, let it be. And thinking: As bad as things will get, and have gotten, there will be a chance for something on the other side of this.
It was that power of music that led us to do something after the funeral—to create an experience for people based on our own experience of music as a healing tool. So over the rest of that year, we gathered the band together and we recorded an album in pieces, in St. Louis and Chicago and New York and Seattle. And then we released it, first in St. Louis, then at a party at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle in the winter of 2010. That was the beginning of our raising funds to help survivors.
Norbert Leo Butz: I've always loved blues music, and people have sometimes told me I have sort of a blues or soul sound to the way I sing, which is just instinctual, me trying to copy the singers I loved growing up. And suddenly those simple country blues songs were making a lot of sense to me. They're expressing a loss that's never going to be understood, or be healed, I suppose. You literally hear it in the tone of the voice.
And this is going to sound strange, but I've also really gotten into some country music since Teresa died. I discovered who George Jones was, and I'd heard of him but had never really listened to him before. When you think about it, he's a straight-up blues singer. So is Hank Williams. Straight-up blues singers. You can hear it in the tone—hear that their life narratives have been filled with tremendous loss, and struggle, and hardship. It’s on the vocal cords. Billie Holiday had it. And now I also hear it in gospel music, because gospel music is the blues, I suppose, with a faith in something unseen. Somebody like Mahalia Jackson—she has that same tone of loss seeking a healing. And Lucinda Williams, who Teresa turned me on to. Teresa and I loved to go see music together, and I have a lot of Lucinda Williams on my iPod now. I think I'll always listen to her, because Teresa and I saw her a couple times in concert. Teresa was a huge fan, and we were both just crazy about that woman's writing. And Lucinda Williams is a straight-up blues singer, too, the real deal. That whole record Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—Teresa and I used to listen to that all the time.
When we were putting together the songs for the fundraising concert in St. Louis last summer, "Try a Little Tenderness" ended up on the list, and I always thought it was, like, a fun song. You know, a great old soul song. But then I realized: "Man, listen to what this guy is saying." Because Otis Redding, you think he’s just shouting out, or that the song is just this great barroom, soul-stomping epic, you know? But it’s pretty amazing, lyrically. I hear it now as a call from a 1960s soul standpoint to end violence against women. That one lyric, Try a little tenderness/It's not just sentimental/She has her grief and cares. I was like, "I'm gonna sing that every time we do an Angel Band concert." Because it's a manual, it's like a lesson for the men in the audience. And, you know, overwhelmingly it is men who commit crimes of sexual violence.
Ebeling: We chose music to address this issue because it came to us in this organic way, because it connected to how we were able to cope, but I've since done a ton of studying on why music can address issues like this, why it's so powerful. It facilitates communication beyond words. It enables a lot of different emotions to be shared, enables the development of cultural identities, individual identities. It just has such a profound effect on a wide range of human function, crosses a lot of boundaries at once, has the power to not only address a movement—in this case, the movement to end sexual violence—but also to change culture. And then, particularly for victims of sexual assault, music therapy is one more tool they can put in their pocket in an effort to heal. So this is more than just that we all heard some great music after Teresa died, and we’ve decided that now it’s going to heal the world. There is a little more structure to what we’ve found. We are looking at music and how music can be used to change culture and make lasting personal change. That’s why we’re using it.
Butz: I think there has to be something deep in our psyches that needs to express emotion, that needs to express all of the joy, pain, anger, love—all of it—and the sound of the human voice, making sound, is our most primal way to do it. I have always sung, even as a little kid, to calm myself down. That’s why I started singing. I was a real weird kid, I was really nervous, super outsider and a loser, and I would go into the bathroom and I could calm myself down—I could exorcise anxiety—by belting my head off. Or in the car, on trips. I was too shy to do it in public for a long time. But I always did it to try to find some peace. I still do.
Hopper: The greatest gift that was given to me after Teresa died was an opportunity to continue to use my voice. The first thing I lost when this happened was my ability to communicate, my ability to speak. Partially just out of fear. That fear of not wanting to say the wrong thing. And when I did speak, it was really careful, calculated, like "What can I say such that I can make sure that nothing worse happens to us?" And then the first words I actually uttered inside of any kind of freedom was just a scream. I screamed so much, I actually couldn't sing for weeks, if not months. And there was a part of me, right after this happened, that wasn't even sure if I would be able to sing again. Not just because I'd hurt my voice a little bit from screaming, but because when you're dealing with that kind of loss, and that kind of grief, and that kind of fear, it's like you almost don't have time. You're so busy getting through that you can't even imagine the joy you had once experienced. I chose to sing at her memorial because I knew she'd want that, and then I took a break, and I was really fortunate because then here's Rachel and Jean saying, "Hey, we're gonna make this album, and you're gonna be in it." And I'm like, "Okay." I probably wasn't ready, but when are you ever ready? And here I was looking at music, and thinking of songs that would be great for the album, and then recording in New York with Norbert, and then recording in Seattle. It was almost like I got this kind of open form of meditation in the realm of my loss, and in the realm of what had happened that night, and I guess that's what I'm hoping for the people who participate.
That whichever way they connect to music, whether it's because they sing, or because they play an instrument, or because there's something about a melody or a lyric or a harmony that brings forth something in them, that it helps. I think music provided a pathway for me to the other side. Along with traditional support. I don’t see any replacement for traditional support for, you know, PTSD or any other kind of trauma, but for me, music was a pathway to really be self-expressed, and not just to my counselor, but to the world, or to the people around me, or to my friends. It was a way to be able to tell a story, without having to tell that story again. It was a kind of creation, and there's magic in creation. What I love about this type of therapy, and this type of opportunity for survivors, is that in a space of destruction—and violence is destruction, there’s no other word for it—it’s creation. Whether you're creating music, listening to music, whatever, it's creative, and I believe that's the pathway to being whole again, to start creating things again in your life versus just being stuck in what happened.
The Angel Band Project is already funding a pilot music-therapy program for sexual assault survivors in St. Louis, and wants to bring one to Seattle as well. Visit angelbandproject.org for more information.