“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Two)

This story, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing this year, has haunted me since I read it. It has lingered in the back of my mind and prompted me to double check the locks on my doors and windows before I go to bed. As a father, a husband, and a man, it has shaken me. It’s rare that a story can stick in your head like this, but this one did.

Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is riveting, horrifying, and (unexpectedly) inspiring. It’s about a terrifying crime of violence, rape, and murder, and the woman who survived (that’s not a spoiler; Sanders reveals the outcome of the crime in the fifth paragraph). The story is really two parallel narratives: the story of the two women before, during, and after the night of the crime; and the subsequent testimony of the survivor in court, where she recounted the gruesome details of that night. Those details are devastating enough. But Sanders gives you a rich sense of the two women though specific details (big and small) and anecdotes. The reader gets a sense their personalities, their relationship, and their plans for the future. But we also learn the little details: their favorite booth at a neighborhood restaurant, what they drank that night, what they ate. And as the narrative leads up to the night of the crime, the “normalness” of it all sets up the reader for the painful blow of what we know is coming:

Dinner. Then a movie that had been lying around the house for a while, a musical that made them both cry. It was around midnight. Butz checked the locks multiple times (like always), she brushed her teeth multiple times while flossing in between (like always), she took the left side of the bed (like always) right next to her water and her lip balm. Her partner took the right side of the bed (like always). They said good night.

The article doesn’t spare the reader the grim details of what the criminal did to the two women, just as the survivor didn’t spare those details to the jury and the courtroom observers. The reader is trapped there with the two victims, trying to will a way out of the nightmarish situation. Sanders takes the reader towards the end of the night, when, despite everything, there seem to still be fleeting moments of hope and humanity, a possibility that the worst is already over:

She said: “Please don’t hurt us. We’re good people.”

He said: “yeah, you seem like you’re good people. I wish we could have been friends.”

Butz replied: “yeah, I wish we could.”

“Which,” her partner said on the stand, “is exactly what she would do… Even in that moment, she wanted to make some sort of connection. She said, ‘Maybe we still can.’”

He asked: “Do I seem like a good person to you?”

“She put the tips of her fingers on his chest — I will never ever forget this — and said, ‘I am sure there is some good in here.’”

He said: “No more questions.”

I won’t go further about what happens next or how the story ends, but it’s powerful and compelling.

The structure of the story makes it devastatingly effective. The reader starts out with the knowledge of what happens by the end of the night, but not the details or the people involved. Then Sanders winds back the narrative and introduces us to the victims, making them very real people, with hopes, passions, and plans for the future. And after that, the crime itself is unveiled in an unblinking fashion, through the testimony of the survivor on the witness stand. We can only imagine the courage and pain it took for the victim to recount her story in front of her family and a room full of witnesses. And it tells us even more about the woman we met earlier in the story, before all this happened.

I’m not surprised that this story won the Pulitzer. It’s a difficult story to read, but a fine example of a nonfiction feature that can tell a story with genuine depth and emotional power, without being sentimental or over-written. The language is very spare and direct; there are few artistic flourishes or showy literary techniques. Sanders smartly avoids all that and delivers a devastating story with raw, simple language and a methodical, unflinching chronological narrative. The story doesn’t need clever wording or phrasing; the truth is enough. More than enough.

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