Summary and book reviews of While the City Slept by Eli Sanders

While the City Slept

A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent into Madness

by Eli Sanders

While the City Slept by Eli Sanders
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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About this Book

Book Summary

A Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter's gripping account of one young man's path to murder - and a wake-up call for mental health care in America

On a summer night in 2009, three lives intersected in one American neighborhood. Two people newly in love - Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper, who spent many years trying to find themselves and who eventually found each other - and a young man on a dangerous psychological descent: Isaiah Kalebu, age twenty-three, the son of a distant, authoritarian father and a mother with a family history of mental illness. All three paths forever altered by a violent crime, all three stories a wake-up call to the system that failed to see the signs.

In this riveting, probing, compassionate account of a murder in Seattle, Eli Sanders, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper coverage of the crime, offers a deeply reported portrait in microcosm of the state of mental health care in this country - as well as an inspiring story of love and forgiveness. Culminating in Kalebu's dangerous slide toward violence - observed by family members, police, mental health workers, lawyers, and judges, but stopped by no one - While the City Slept is the story of a crime of opportunity and of the string of missed opportunities that made it possible. It shows what can happen when a disturbed member of society repeatedly falls through the cracks, and in the tradition of The Other Wes Moore and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, is an indelible, human-level story, brilliantly told, with the potential to inspire social change.

Excerpt
While the City Slept

Up the block, where South Rose Street intersects with Eighth Avenue South, Israel Rodriguez was watching his eighteenth birthday party wind down. His actual birthday had come three days earlier, but the celebration was postponed in order to take advantage of a fast-arriving Saturday night. Now it was 3:00 a.m. on the Sunday after that Saturday night. Israel stood on the sidewalk outside his family's home, lit a cigarette, and smoked it near the spot where roots of a large maple tree had cracked and raised the concrete on a scale not normally seen in a city accustomed to sidewalks rearranged by tree roots. Here, the whorled roots had created a small mountain of vaulting cement whose peak passersby were forced to ascend and then descend. As Israel pulled on the cigarette, he, too, heard glass breaking. The sound seemed to come from the direction of the dead end on South Rose Street, and his mind identified it as a window being smashed. Israel found this odd ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Every public official in a position to effect change in the mental health system ought to read this book and reflect deeply on its lessons. The rest of us can simply be moved to the tears summoned by the enduring love, tentative hope, and inconsolable pain of this searing human tragedy.   (Reviewed by James Broderick).

Full Review (923 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Drawing on interviews with principal figures and their families, Sanders’s meticulous narrative gives full weight to Kalebu’s crime while elucidating the human tragedy that sparked it, forming a disturbing indictment of society’s neglect of the mentally ill.

Booklist

Starred Review. A page-turning indictment of a perfect storm of preventable events. Handled with delicacy and delivered with a powerful sense of both dismay and compassion, Sanders offers an unflinching portrait of the human casualties of one city's and, by extrapolation, our country's overburdened health-care and judicial systems.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Astonishing ... Pair with Jill Leovy's Ghettoside for powerful ... analysis of the failures of our criminal justice system.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An exceptional story of compelling interest in a time of school shootings, ethnic and class strife, and other unbound expressions of madness and illness ... The author's opening pages are among the most immediate and breathtaking in modern true-crime literature, as evocative as any moment of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter.

Author Blurb Sister Helen Prejean, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dead Man Walking
An inspiring account that leaves the reader with a profound appreciation for our responsibility to one another.

Author Blurb Jeff Hobbs, New York Times bestselling author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
A devastatingly preventable crime is at the center of this book, and yet it is the love, courage, and empathy of the people involved - and of the author - that stay with you. Written with great sensitivity and even greater beauty, it is about so many things: a city, childhood, family, failure, loss, horror, forgiveness. It is, very nearly, about everything.

Author Blurb Dan Zak, author of The Prophets of Oak Ridge
The great achievement of this book is that it shows how any crime is ultimately a failure of systems and of citizens, and that to some degree we are all complicit when a person who needs help is cast aside. To show empathy for a criminal, especially a criminal who has committed such a violent act, ennobles the process and purpose of journalism.

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Beyond the Book

Kendra's Law

While the City Slept is a searing indictment of the mental health system in the United States, showing step-by-step how the failure of an overworked, underfunded bureaucracy led to a likely preventable human tragedy.

Mental Health Among the many challenges communities face is in ensuring that those experiencing mental illness get proper treatment. In most states, merely presenting symptoms is not enough. In fact, more often than not, unless the person has demonstrated violent behavior, nothing can be done to compel treatment. However, in 1999, New York State lawmakers approved "Kendra's Law," which has since been hailed by many professionals as a breakthrough in the way states administer mental health services.

Kendra's Law – named after ...

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