Book Club: Missoula – Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

MissoulaGuided by his own experience as a mountaineer, Jon Krakauer first made a name for himself with a handful of books about risk-taking athletes and adventurers: Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air. A blurb inside the last edition of Where Men Win Glory, his book about Arizona’s own Pat Tillman, aptly described him as “at home when it comes to writing about elusive alpha males.”

Krakauer’s latest book is a dramatic departure from that vein of writing, a study not of a lone wolf facing the elements but of a whole community facing its own controversies. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (Doubleday, 2015) is Krakauer’s investigation of a spate of rape allegations that shook the University of Montana and the town of Missoula from 2010 to 2012.

Missoula resulted from the author’s quest to become more informed about a crime that is both common and swept under the carpet.

Many of the assaults during that time involved members of UM’s Grizzly football team. As a consequence, the victims who came forward faced not only the normal challenges of pressing charges, such as revisiting their traumas in front of police and courts, but also the anger of local football fans who were convinced of their star players’ innocence. The fierce loyalty of the Grizzlies’ supporters, it seemed, fueled a greater sense of entitlement than accountability among team members.

As the story developed, Krakauer explains, Missoula entered the national spotlight in the pages of major newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but it was a viral article on the website Jezebel, “My Weekend in America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital,'” that captured the town’s newfound notoriety in an epithet that Missoula couldn’t shake.

But Missoula isn’t about an epidemic of rape. Although it goes without saying that one rape is too many, Missoula was no outlier when its numbers were compared to national statistics. As the book’s final chapter puts it, a Department of Justice investigation, spurred by the national attention Missoula was receiving, “identified 350 sexual assaults of women that were reported to the Missoula police … from January 2008 to May 2012.” Had it been in line with national statistics, the figure would have been 390 sexual assaults for the amount of time in question and a community of Missoula’s size.

The fact that Missoula’s crisis was so commonplace in scale is symptomatic of a greater, national epidemic — the pervasive ignorance about rape among police, prosecutors, and the general public that stacks the odds against justice. Only 32 percent of rapes are ever reported, in large part because of what victims face if they come forward. Although reliable statistics put the rate of false rape claims as low as 2 percent, suspicion, denial, and victim-blaming are common reactions when victims report their rapes. As Krakauer details, the Missoula police chief was certain that the rate of false rape claims was much higher, and he relied on two discredited articles to bolster his notions. Many Missoulians shared his view and assumed that the victims who came forward were merely upset over consensual sex that had disappointed them, or, for other reasons, had grudges against their accused.

Victims often face a gauntlet of questions from the community, law enforcement, and criminal justice system, about their sexual behavior, use of alcohol, or other choices — questions that cast them as suspected culprits in their own traumas. The ignorance they encounter takes many other shapes, but a common one is the image of rapists as unknown assailants who lie in wait behind parked cars or bushes. That image belies the reality that most rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victims.

Rape victims also face people in the justice system and their communities who question the idea that consent can be withdrawn — or who believe that passivity should be interpreted as consent. Through the stories of the women he interviewed, Krakauer explains why many women don’t scream or try to fight off their rapists. Their behavior raises doubt in the minds of those disinclined to believe them, even when they can explain their plausible fears of greater physical harm from trying to fight their rapists.

Missoula is filled with examples of those and other misconceptions that drive our shocking amount of amnesty and leniency for rapists. Of the rapes that occur, only 32 percent are reported, 7 percent lead to arrest, and 2 percent lead to imprisonment. These statistics are possible because too many rape victims know they will confront doubting police and prosecutors — and in many cases friends and family of the accused who will treat them with hostility.

In the final chapter of Missoula, Krakauer explains what motivated his research and writing about Missoula’s rape crisis — and the nation’s. When a friend told him that she had been raped, and furthermore told him what she had endured afterward, he was angry at himself “for being so uninformed — not only about her ordeal but about non-stranger rape in general.” In conversations he had later with other women he knew, he was “stunned” to learn that many of them had been raped as well. He resolved to learn as much as he could about the crime, and Missoula “was an outgrowth of that quest.”

For the odds to start changing in favor of justice, the same realization of ignorance that Krakauer experienced — and likely, too, the same sense of anger and shame — will need to be shared by many more of us. Missoula is Krakauer’s contribution to an overdue conversation that will be necessary to change both the silence of victims and the deficiencies of the justice system.