My name is Jennifer Hopper, and I am the survivor of the South Park attacks of July 19, 2009.
My family calls me Jenny. My friends call me Jen. And my late partner, Teresa Butz, often called me J-Hop.
For the past two years, I have been known as "the surviving victim of the South Park rapes and murder," or simply as "Butz's partner." And for the most part, I have been grateful for the protective bubble given to me by the media. But I am now ready to be known in a new way.
At first, I was afraid to be known more fully. Over time, it became more about protecting my professional life. Most recently, I felt that revealing my identity might somehow cloud the focus of the trial of Isaiah Kalebu, the man who on July 1 was found guilty of entering uninvited, as we slept, into the home that Teresa and I shared in South Park, where he raped us, murdered Teresa, and attempted to murder me.
It didn't matter who I was, I thought as I went through this process. I was known by name to my family and my friends, but anonymous to the general public, and that was fine. The only thing that mattered was what had happened. Who was lost.
Today, at 38, I find myself craving to have my identity back.
I am prepared to have my name enter the public realm. I know this may be naive, but I believe I should be able to be fine in my professional life—my whole life, really—and have it be known that this happened to me. In fact, having learned how to survive this may even have made me stronger and more able to manage the normal, workaday ups and downs.
Mostly, I no longer want to give off the impression that I'm afraid to be known, or that I might be ashamed of anything that happened that night.
I am not afraid. I am not ashamed.
I am still here. And I will still be here long after Kalebu is sentenced on August 12 (assuming the sentencing happens as planned). I realize that interest in this crime and its consequences will probably fade after he's sent to prison, and before that occurs I want to use what interest remains to say a few things.
While I'm saying all of this under my own name, which is new, I'm saying it without my image attached, which is as it's been since the attacks. It will be a little while longer before I feel comfortable with my image being out there. It's still jarring for me to see Teresa's pictures on television, feel the private being made public, watch this great love of my life being reduced to an evening news story.
I also worry that an image can be easily skewed.
Also, and on a more personal level, I haven't wanted to see the pain in my own face since this happened to us, and I still don't. It's enough to feel it. To have it captured forever—I'm not ready for that.
* * *
I chose The Stranger as my medium to speak because I believe the work done in these pages by Eli Sanders over the past two years has 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. I am also grateful that people I have never met before were brave enough to read what was often uncomfortably truthful.
To everyone who witnessed our journey through Eli's words: Thank you for listening. I am less alone because of your bravery.
It's impossible to describe in words how it has all been, but the closest I've come is this: It's as if on July 19, 2009, someone grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, lifted me up, and dropped me headfirst into another life. Suddenly, you can't go home. Your home is a crime scene.
Today, there is very little I say or do that isn't tainted by residual fear, grief, longing, or the process of healing. I'm still sad, I still miss Teresa, my life is still turned upside down. I'm less trusting than I once was, I'm wary of strangers, I'm hypervigilant about my surroundings.
For about 18 months after the attack, I couldn't sleep at night. My mind was afraid that if I closed my eyes, I would open them to something terrifying. My body was exhausted, but my mind couldn't stop being on guard. Eventually, I was able to sleep with the light on. I still never sleep alone, and I still sometimes wake up, in the dark, absolutely sure that I've heard someone walking around in the house. I have to dig deep into my reserves, reassure myself that I'm safe, and trust that it will fade in time.
And while it does, I long for the innocence I experienced before Kalebu entered our lives.
People consistently ask me how I feel about the guilty verdict and whether I'm glad that the whole trial circus—the outbursts, the swallowed pencil, the negotiations over restraints, the talk of supposed orders from God—is finally over. Of course I'm glad it's over. Of course I'm grateful that he has a mandatory life sentence coming, that he'll never be out there in the world, free to hurt others, ever again.
But it doesn't change anything. Teresa is still gone. I was still raped and almost killed. The pain doesn't go away with a guilty verdict. Wouldn't it be amazing if it did? Wouldn't it be incredible if a guilty verdict meant that Teresa could come back and live out her life? Wouldn't it be wonderful if the woman we, her family and friends, now remember on the anniversary of her death by enjoying some of the simple pleasures that used to make her smile—Imo's pizza, Bud Light, music—could once again enjoy them herself?
Still, the trial was necessary, important, another event with an impact that's hard to describe in words. I have a dear friend who was there every single day, along with my stepfather, listening to every argument and looking at every single piece of evidence. Other friends, many bequeathed to me by Teresa, came as often as they could. I love them all like family, because that's what we've all become since Teresa left us. My amazing mother, and Teresa's parents and relatives, who mean more to me than I can say—they were all there, too. They have their own grief, but they also have taken on a part of mine—for me, by hearing me—and there's a sort of relief in that.
While I followed the trial closely, I only attended a small portion: my testimony of course, Kalebu's short and strange testimony, the closing arguments, and the delivery of the verdict. The rest was filled in for me by others and by the various news channels—an odd experience, sitting there on my couch, watching reports of what had occurred in court on some particular day, as if this was something that happened to someone else.
The thing that comes back to me most vividly from news reports is the 911 call from the young woman who happened to be up late with some friends that night and ran to help us—hearing my screams in the background of her call, being taken back to that moment, experiencing it all from an outsider's view. It's beyond surreal, to recognize yourself living the worst moments of your life and being somehow distant from the proceedings. It has been this way from the start.
You have to compartmentalize to go on after something like this. You put it all away and go about your day. Eventually, you start to wonder if it really happened. And then you hear the screams and you see the dash-cam video, hear the 911 call, and you remember. Yes. This happened. This happened and Teresa is gone. This happened and I somehow made it to the other side. It's a very strange place to be, but there's this nice bridging that occurs by sharing the then and the now, and sharing it right now, here in public. It's almost as if the Jen of today gets to say to the Jen of July 19, 2009, "I'm so sorry this happened."
But, also, it's the worst thing in the world to have to say some of the words I said on the witness stand, the words of violence and sexual violence. Especially in front of people who know you, and who don't necessarily know that part of you. I have empathy for everyone who has to decide whether to do such a thing—and I know many choose not to testify against their attackers. I know they have reasons, and that often those reasons are connected to the way our culture can sometimes make the attacked feel more guilty than the attacker. But at the same time, I never once questioned whether I could testify. I know the truth. There's nothing anyone can say that could ever take that away from me. I also knew I would testify because if I didn't, nothing would change.
A part of me was hoping that when I heard the word "guilty," I would feel this incredible relief—you know, movie-script ending, everyone sails away into the sunset and is happy again. Yes, there was a relief that Kalebu wasn't found "not guilty," that everyone did the right thing and the system worked.
But there's also this lack of satisfaction.
In a way, I felt like I lost Teresa all over again; this was the very last thing I could do for her. You feel a little helpless when you realize there's nothing out there in the future that might make you feel better. Except time. You know that time heals. And hope.
What I really want, I now realize, is peace.
And I know now, after this trial, that justice does not bring peace. It only brings justice.
* * *
So here I am, days away from the sentencing of the man who killed my beloved Teresa and almost succeeding in killing me. I have the option to speak at his August 12 sentencing hearing, the opportunity to deliver a "Victim Impact Statement" about how this crime has affected my life.
It's strange. I have this opportunity to say pretty much whatever I want to him, yet there are no words. There's no language for that. As a result, part of me doesn't want to say anything.
But how do I not speak to him during my one chance?
So I'm left with this riddle: How do I find the words, Isaiah Kalebu, to tell you what you took from me?
If I were to address you right now, I would say: I'll never understand what made you capable of such cruelty, and I absolutely believe that you deserve to go to prison. But I don't hate you. I never wanted you put to death. I don't want revenge. In fact, with each day that goes by, I think of you less and less.
I want, though, to say something to your mother, Denise Kalebu: I am so sorry your family was destroyed by this. Thank you for your honesty and bravery in the courtroom. I wish you peace.
Still, I don't know what I'll actually say on August 12. It's still forming. Maybe writing this will help me figure it out.
I know he doesn't deserve my heart. But I feel that I should say something heartfelt—just in case, through some fluke of fate or justice, some parole board decades in the future needs to know.
I will say the legal and social health system never let me down through this trial. I'm so grateful I want to name names: Lucy, my counselor; Diane Priest, my advocate; Seattle police detectives Dana Duffy and Dave Duty, my truth seekers; King County prosecutors James Konat and Brian McDonald, paralegal Cheryl Woods, and the entire prosecution team, my truth tellers; King County Superior Court judge Michael Hayden; the citizens who made up the jury. Thank you all for listening. Thank you for hearing. Thank you for believing me. Thank you for doing the right thing.
* * *
At the end of the day, there is nothing that can make this wrong right again. No final words or punishment can undo what's been done.
So as I prepare to close this chapter—somehow, a few days from now, with words yet to be determined—and begin my walk into the next chapter, I want to look, as much as I can, toward the positive, toward the future.
There is a lot of good that has come out of this horror, and a lot that can still come.
Already, I have been given the gift of focus by some special angels in my life. Brandi Carlile and Kim Bogucki, who formed Fight the Fear Campaign (www.fightthefearcampaign.com), and in Teresa's name have created a program that has taught hundreds of women the art of self-defense. Jean Fox and Rachel Ebeling, Teresa's lifelong friends, who founded the Angel Band Project (www.angelbandproject.org), which created an album honoring Teresa's life. Its proceeds aid the Voices and Faces Project (www.voicesandfaces.org), an effort that itself was created "to give voice and face to survivors of sexual violence" and to offer "a sense of solidarity to those who have lived through rape and abuse while raising awareness of how this human rights and public health issue impacts victims, families, and communities."
I call Brandi, Kim, Jean, and Rachel angels not only because they are four of the most incredible people I have ever known, but because they gave me purpose—gave me something to do at a time when I so desperately needed to connect to something bigger than the loss. Something more powerful than the fear. They helped heal my heart and my mind with their passion and generosity, and I lack the words to express my gratitude.
Perhaps I can demonstrate my purpose and gratitude, though, by writing this. Perhaps I can encourage others to share their stories of violence and sexual violence in whatever way they can.
While it was a great honor to be called the bravest woman in Seattle in this newspaper, I'm pretty much just like you. I wake up in the morning and I do my best to get through the day. I laugh and I cry. I have big dreams and make mistakes (sometimes huge ones). I draw strength from others, especially my friends, who always seem to know what to say, when to laugh, when to do nothing at all. They show up—even when I can't say the same for myself.
One of the biggest parts of that strength comes from being loved and believed in by my 95-year-old grandma. She tells me that she loves me at least once a day, and when I sat down and told her what happened that night, she never questioned my ability to handle it all. She is the strongest woman I know, and I am glad to have discovered that I am more like her than I thought. When everyone else was so worried that I was going to crack into a million pieces, she just said: "You're going to be okay. You're going to be fine." I thought: "Okay. She believes in my ability to be strong. And so I'm just going to be that."
Many women don't report rapes, and among those who do, many don't testify. I understand why. There can be such a level of shame, and the conversation out there, a lot of the time, is: What did the women do to bring this on? In our case: Why was your window open that night?
Well, that's not why we were raped.
Or, in other cases, that the woman wore a short skirt or opened the door to a stranger. And trials can end up being about whether the woman is lying or what else she did to supposedly try to make this occur. I know they were just doing their jobs, but I felt the defense attorneys tried to do this to me at some points.
All I can say is that I think there is tremendous power in testifying, in saying, "This happened to me." And if you can, showing that you have a name, a voice, and—hey, I know, this is one of the hardest parts because it's more than I'm ready to do right now—a face.
So when people say, "Oh, you're so brave," I say, "I don't know."
I don't think I'm special. I don't think I'm this awesome, amazing individual. I don't. I struggle every day. It's taken bravery to make the choice to get up every day and not stay in my room and pretend it didn't happen. And I'm proud of that.
But sometimes crazy stuff happens and we're called on to be brave, and I don't think I've done anything different than anyone else would do. Anyway, bravery isn't always a solitary thing. All these people in my life have helped. You, by listening to my story, have helped.
Finally—but, really, firstly—Teresa's bravery has helped. When someone saves your life, and her life is taken in the process, how can you let it go to waste?
I feel that all the time.
So I try to be the best person I can be and try to make the most of the life Teresa saved. It's not easy. (Did I mention that?) There have been dark, painful moments. But there have been incredible, delicious, blissful, and hopeful moments as well. I have a beautiful and brave new girlfriend. She has had to witness much of the fear and grief right along with me, all while keeping an open and hopeful heart. She is strong and loving, and makes me laugh like no other. I couldn't have gotten through the best or the worst without her.
I know that I want to be truly happy again, like I was on those last few days I shared with Teresa, and I firmly believe that second chances are possible. So I will keep working toward mine.
I'll never be the same person I was on July 18, 2009. Yet I am proud of the woman I've become.
I'm in a good place. As good as can be.