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Jennifer Hopper Reclaims Her Identity With Love And Honesty

Jennifer Hopper in KUOW's green room in 2014.
KUOW Photo/Akiko Oda
Jennifer Hopper in KUOW's green room in 2014.

A life can change in a moment.

For Jennifer Hopper, that moment was July 19, 2009, the night Isaiah Kalebu broke into the South Park home that Hopper shared with her fiancée Teresa Butz. The man repeatedly stabbed and raped the two women. Butz died on the street in front of her home.

For two years, the media didn't name Hopper in reports about the crime and its aftermath.

Now, Hopper has refashioned her life and reclaimed her career as a musician. She'll perform publicly for the first time this Friday with the Angel Band Project.

Marcie Sillman: Jennifer, for two years you were only identified as Teresa Butz's surviving partner. When did you decide it was time to reclaim yourself?

Jennifer Hopper: Well, I really paid attention throughout those two years to everything that was written and everything that was occurring. What I noticed was the outpouring of generosity and kindness and love from my community.

And, of course, there were people who knew it was me and were able to express that directly to me with that knowing. And there were people, every once in a while, I’d hear something like, "How is she even surviving? She must just be broken." And it occurred to me that was not the case, and that it actually didn’t do a service to those people to actually think that's the case.

But I did know that I was not going to, I guess, reveal myself until the trial of Isaiah Kalebu was complete. It was really important to me that that be given as much reverence as was needed. That was important, and it made a difference to Teresa’s family and my family and myself. So I knew when that was completed, I'd consider it.

After Eli Sanders wrote the article that he wrote in The Stranger, I knew that I wanted to reveal myself. I wanted it to be my own words with help. The Stranger had given such an honor and honesty to such a hard conversation for so many years, over and over and over again, that that would be the venue if they’d have me.

I had a conversation with Eli and he embraced the idea and offered to ... [help] craft something that would tell people what I intended to tell them — have them get that I was OK and making it through and the realities of what happened. And then, also answer some of the questions that [Eli] was privy to.

MS: How did you start the process of reclaiming yourself and putting your life back together?

JH: First of all, there wasn’t a moment in which I was not surrounded by love. So I would say the first step is to allow those who love you to actually support you. Don’t push them away.

Secondly, I was provided a counselor who is the best of the best at Harborview. I think a week later, I saw her for the first time — not even a week. We started the process together, so I really trusted her from the moment I met her. I’ll say her name because she’s extraordinary; her name is Lucy Berliner.

The thing that she did in the first step to start the climb to the other side was just her acknowledging, "Yeah, this was big, and you’ll never be the same."

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "I even felt a whole new level of peace and serenity in my life, and I'm so grateful.", "style": "inset"}]]MS: In your first-person article in The Stranger, I read that you took the witness stand and you helped convict Kalebu. A lot of people are afraid to even acknowledge that a rape has happened. So is it just the love that gave you the strength?

JH: I don’t know. I wish I could give you a tangible answer to that. What I would say is that in this occurrence, more than a rape happened. There was a murder, and there was an attempted murder. I never had a moment in which I thought I wouldn’t testify. That just never occurred to me as an option. And even if it had occurred to me as an option, I can’t imagine having wanted to take that option.

To me, something occurred in that room, and I was the witness to it. I actually gave up going to Teresa’s body in her last moments because I didn’t know how long I had so that someone could know what would happen there. So maybe it was in that moment, it became an intention, and nothing would have stopped that intention.

From that moment, there would be whatever kind of justice there could be for what had happened. 

MS: You recently talked Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur about the forgiveness you had for Teresa for dying on you and also for Kalebu. I wonder, where that well of forgiveness originates?

JH: It’s very distinct for me. I think Lucy created that space to occur, but I don’t remember having any real conversations about it.

A few months after the initial hearings, there was a picture — either on the paper or the TV — of Kalebu’s mother leaning against the partition in the courtroom. I was struck for the first time by his humanity.

Now, I’ll say in the moment, I looked for it in the moment of the attack. I for sure looked for it and saw glimpses of it. But once it got violent, the person turns into something "other," because you can’t imagine another human behaving that way. But in that moment, I was struck by his humanity again in that suddenly he was someone’s child.

I had this image, I don’t know where it came from and why, of his mother holding him as a little baby. Looking at him like any mother would look at her child, with all the hope in the world: "Who are you going to be?" All the wonder.

In that moment, it's like I could see something happened along the way, and especially with someone like him who suffers from a form of mental illness. He lacks the ability to have that — he knows he’s doing wrong and he doesn’t care. And there’s just something not right.

While he deserves to be in prison for his actions, that was the moment in which the question "why" and the rage started to drip away. I started having more conversations like, "Well, I wonder what happened to him," and "Why do people do this?" I became way more interested in the question of the humanity of violence and less rageful toward him. And in that space, it just built and built and built.

I knew for sure that I really was in the place of forgiveness when I heard that he had lost his appeal. And my first thought was complete relief for me and my family and Teresa’s family, but my second thought was in some way a relief for him — that maybe the knowing of "this is where I’m going to be" and "this is my life." For someone with mental illness, it could be comforting and provide him with some solace and peace.

When I had that thought, I was like "Oh, this is very real. It’s not something I’m making up to make myself feel better. It’s very real." And I even felt a whole new level of peace and serenity in my life and I’m so grateful. I don’t know where it came from, but it just exists.

Hopper will perform with the Angel Band Friday night at Seattle's Neptune Theater. Proceeds from this show go to fund music therapy for survivors of sexual violence.

Produced for the Web by Akiko Oda.

This segment originally aired April 23, 2014.