The songs of a survivor
After a horrific 2009 South Park attack, which left Jennifer Hopper badly injured and her girlfriend, Teresa Butz, dead, Hopper has found a balance between grieving, forgiving and forging ahead with her life.
Seattle Times columnist
An Evening of Music with The Angel Band featuring Jennifer Hopper
8 p.m. Friday, April 25, Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $51.50 (www.stgpresents.org).
You look at her with a mix of wonder, sadness, disbelief and joy. The beauty of her. The warmth. The brightness as she orders lunch and makes a crack about her weight and looks at you, ready to answer. To tell. To remember.
Jennifer Hopper could do anything but this, and no one would blame her.
She has been known as “the victim of the 2009 South Park attacks”; the woman who, along with her fiancee, Teresa Butz, was repeatedly raped and cut with a knife by a man who slipped into their Seattle house one summer night through an open bathroom window.
Butz, who threw a nightstand through a window so that they could escape, died in the street. She had been stabbed in the heart. She was 39.
For a long time, Hopper, now 41, stayed hidden. Grieving. Healing.
She was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning article in The Stranger, titled “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which chronicled her wrenching testimony against Isaiah Kalebu, who was ultimately sentenced to life in prison for murder and rape. The story never named her.
Hopper followed The Stranger piece with one of her own, titled “I Would Like You to Know My Name,” in which she told of her relationship with, and memories of Butz, as well as that night and the days after. We learned that she was a singer, and that she wanted her identity back.
With that in mind, Jennifer Hopper will perform for the first time publicly April 25 at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre as part of something called The Angel Band Project.
The project was founded in St. Louis by two of Teresa Butz’s lifelong friends, Jean Fox and Rachel Ebeling, and funds music therapy programs for victims of sexual violence.
Billed as “an intimate evening of music and storytelling,” the Neptune event will also feature Butz’s brother, Tony Award-winning actor Norbert Leo Butz.
He was starring in the 2009 tryout of the musical “Catch Me If You Can” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre when his sister was murdered. He later won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway production.
“To win for that was special for him,” Hopper said quietly.
She is in infrequent contact with Butz and his family, she said, “But there is this bond.
“Our relationship is becoming more and more about how we can make a difference in the world because someone we love went through what something like one in three women go through.”
Hopper is a recruiter for a digital experience agency, and lives in a Ballard apartment with her mother, who lost her husband not long after her daughter’s ordeal.
Hopper’s stepfather had attended every day of Kalebu’s trial and was diagnosed with cancer on the very day — Aug. 12, 2011 — that Kalebu was sentenced to life in prison. He died six weeks later.
“We both were going through the same thing in a weird kind of way,” Hopper said of herself and her mother. “The loss. Having the rug pulled out from under you.”
Somewhere in the chaos of the crime, the evidence collected, the mourning and the rebuilding, Hopper lost the engagement ring that Butz had given her. So she started wearing one of the wedding rings they had picked out together on her left hand. Then she moved it to her right hand.
Then she removed it altogether when she started another relationship.
You want that for her — and so does she. But Hopper understands that people expect her to be frozen in time. The constant survivor.
“It is a blessing to have had a great love,” she said of Butz, “and being able to have the possibility of another without the exclusion of Teresa.
“It’s a new chapter. I will continue to speak about what happened, and about Teresa and the love we shared,” Hopper continued. “But it’s no conflict. You really can hold a space for someone. There’s room. There’s room.”
But back to the brightness around her. How does she explain it?
“Some of us are born with a certain blend,” she said. “Traits. Abilities. If I had to boil it down to a word, it’s ‘forgiveness.’ ”
She had to forgive Butz “for dying on me,” she said. She had to forgive herself for not being able to save both of them.
“And I had to forgive Isaiah Kalebu,” she said.
It’s a little jarring to hear her speak his name so easily, and not spit it out or avoid it altogether, lest he be conjured somehow.
“I don’t think about him that often at all,” Hopper explained. “If I held onto that, he would be in my life, and he’s really not.”
Still, she was notified when he lost his appeal just a couple of days before.
“That’s good for me, and that’s probably good for him,” Hopper said. “A sense of structure and routine and people who work in mental health. That would be good for him.”
What’s even better for her is to sing. And The Angel Band Project is pushing her to rehearse, to open up.
“When you’re assaulted, the first thing that goes is your voice,” she remembered of that night. “And I did speak, but so carefully. You swallow it down to survive. The one time I spoke was to scream for help.
Singing, she said, “reminds me of what joy felt like.”
When she first started dating Butz, she sang Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” to her. She sang it again to her while they were together, and at Butz’s funeral.
But she won’t be singing it at The Neptune.
“It may be part of moving on,” she said. “I chose other songs this time. And part of me is keeping it for myself.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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