Eli Sanders' While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent Into Violence
It tops the list of questions most commonly asked, in our less desensitized moments, after bearing witness to a violent crime. How could this happen? And how could it happen here? How did this person slip through the cracks? Why? Why?
Eli Sanders While the City Slept lends the right kind of plain-speak insight and leads his reader right to the answer. Sanders purports that the warning alarms have been going off some time now, letting us know the mental health system in the United States has not only been breaking down but has been broken some time. Now, in While the City Slept, the author beautifully chronicles the brutal consequences of letting patients and those most in need to slip through the system, a system we often fool ourselves into believing is working.
The book doesn’t wait to pounce. In the first chapter, Sanders takes us to South Rose Street in a Seattle suburb where, in July 2009, a brutal murder is taking place. Here the author wisely draws on the neighborhood’s reaction, one household at a time, as each is shook awake by the disturbing sights and sounds of the brutality occurring just doors away.
How could this happen? the neighbors ask. And this is where Sanders’ story truly takes off.
Rather than revisit the crime scene itself again and again combing for clues, Sanders leads us right to the culprit: the collapse of the familial structure, as well as the mental health and judicial systems that failed his subject, Isaiah Kalebu, again and again.
Step by step, Sanders indicts not only the man who held the weapon but the parents that wrung their hands in frustration, a father who abused and tortured the boy, and a system that shrugged its responsibility to mind a young man who had obviously become a danger to the community at large. There is no doubt who is to blame, and Sanders reminds his readers that – wherever they may be – minds like Isaiah’s are lurking in every community. And what is being done to intervene before such a catastrophe strikes again?
The short answer is: less and less. Sanders elaborates:
“In 1955, more than half a million Americans were housed in mental hospitals. Many were there for no particular reason, other than that someone with a certain amount of power found them strange, inconvenient, or of the wrong skin color. Conditions in these institutions could be hideous, and protesting one’s confinement could be taken as proof of one’s instability. It was an open question as to whether this system was creating more insanity than it was treating, and at the urging of reform-minded psychiatrists President John F. Kennedy closed the question by, effectively, closing down the institutions.”
Sanders additionally cites a Supreme Court ruling in 1975 that declared it unconstitutional to commit “a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself,” and we begin to see where the sink-or-swim mentality takes root. By 1980, the population of mental institutions was down to 155,000 people. By 1994, about 92% of those who once would have been institutionalized were not.
In describing the neighborhood where the murder took place, Sanders reaches all the way back to the Native Americans who once occupied the land right up to the businesses that have long polluted it. Sanders details a neighborhood like any we live in today. The murder of Jennifer Hopper and Theresa Butz wasn’t something this particular area brought on itself, but rather something that is waiting to happen anywhere in America at any given moment so long as the safety net of mental institutions continues to be eroded by annual budget cuts.
Sanders’ indictment concludes on a sound point: if Isaiah Kalebu lives the 73 years he’s projected to live, the cost of his incarceration, trial and legal costs will top $3 million. “If Isaiah’s crimes could have been prevented through early psychiatric intervention, it could well have saved the public money. This is why advocates continue to argue that it’s shortsighted … to continually cut and perpetually underfund mental health programs.”
While the City Slept isn’t the first foray into a broken mental health system, but it borders on required reading for those who work in it – and those who could be affected by a sorely lacking system at any innocent moment in what seems like just another day.
While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent Into Violence, Eli Sanders, © 2016 Viking Press, ISBN 978-0670015719, non-fiction,
316 pp., $28.00