John Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is hard-hitting journalism, a powerful work that stays with you and makes you think. When problems occur that involve the most visible in college life – varsity athletics – media attention is immediate. When those problems are crimes that involve college football players, media attention is pervasive and sensational. Colleges are rightly in the spotlight about providing a safe environment for students, free from sexual assault, harassment and bias. Put it bluntly, academia has not handled that responsibility consistently well.
I approached Missoula with an eye towards what I might learn about how higher education addresses – or does not address – sexual assault. It turned out to be much more, a book that ambitiously looks beyond the crime and the difficulties of finding justice in a university town obsessed with football. It is also about people struggling to find justice and peace, the failures of our criminal justice system writ large, the ability of sexual predators to live among us, and the difficulty we have as a society acknowledging and addressing a pervasive problem: sexual assault. Higher education plays a very important role in addressing these challenges. College environments set the stage for how we, as a society, expect adults to behave.
Krakauer is a successful journalist and author. His books include Into Thin Air (about a disaster on Mt. Everest), Three Cups of Deceit (a charity based on a sham), and several others, often with an outdoors theme. Missoula is a different sort of book. He started it after he learned that a family friend who suffered from a psychological collapse had been sexually assaulted, traumatized, and unable to regain her sense of self and health for years. The news surprised Krakauer. It did not fit his understanding of the woman or rape. He began to investigate the issue – in-depth – and was stunned to learn that many of his female friends and acquaintances had been the victim of sexual assault, most often from men that they trusted. Krakauer looked to the literature and to experts for more information. He learned that the harm caused by sexual assault often was very similar to the post-traumatic stress he had studied in veterans. He began to suspect that there is an epidemic of rape and that society mostly ignores it. And then he began to look closely at a rape cases alleged committed by football players in Missoula, Montana, home of the University of Montana.
The book chronicles multiple sexual assaults: acquaintance rapes, a gang rapes, and attempted rapes. Krakauer presents the crimes from the victims’ viewpoints, regardless of the outcome of the trial. He works to understand – in nuance and detail – all that transpires after the assault. He makes clear the many pressures on the victim not to complain, not to press charges, and not to pursue justice. He explains how the police, district attorney, and criminal attorneys arrange information and press their arguments. The big picture conclusions Krakauer draws are that the overall system is not designed to protect or help victims.
Krakauer also draws clear distinctions between the processes that take place within an academic environment and that in a court of law. In an academic environment, the bar of evidence is lower and the processes can be more open. The goal is to provide a safe environment for students. This, is and of itself, is a very important aim. Krakauer sees opportunities for colleges to strengthen internal processes.
The concepts of justice and decency are poorly served in the Missoula cases. Local culture and support for the football team colored all aspects of the history, from how some of the assaults themselves were made possible to public calls doubting the victims. Some of the men were prosecuted, some were not. Some were convicted, some were not. The local district attorney’s office shoulders most of the blame, according to Krakauer, for creating a culture and following practices that did not take women’s complaints seriously. However, multiple offices and people proved equally inadequate. Krakauer’s meticulous reporting captures the women’s voices particularly well, but he also reports the perspectives of many other participants. Outrage is inevitable while reading Missoula.
Several troubling facts contextualize the focus of the book. First, the number and severity of rapes taking place in Missoula during the period covered in this book, 2008 – 2012, was not extreme. In fact, it is “normal” according to national statistics. Many rapes go unreported and of the percentage or rapes that work through the justice system, convictions are few and far between.
Further, despite Hollywood and crime reporting, most rapes are not committed by strangers. The perpetrator is often a friend or acquaintance of the victim. Krakauer also references an expert who argues that the majority of these “acquaintance” rapes are committed by a relatively small number of men. These predators are able to rape again and again because culture, law, and the criminal justice system are not sufficiently attuned to the problem and the inadequacies of how we pursue justice. Bill Cosby and the scores of women he has assault and traumatized over the years stands as clear evidence of this.
It would be comforting to report that Krakauer concludes his book with the guilty punished, the callous attorneys realizing the harm caused by indifference or blind pursuit of victory, and the victims moving on without long-term damage. In life, things do not turn out that way. The consequences are at best, mixed. However, there is hope.
Missoula is an important step in bringing the issue of acquaintance rape into the public’s consciousness and to force us to consider the terrible costs of maintaining the things as they are. The book’s underlying message and strength is one of listening closely to women’s claims and treating them with tremendous care and support. Colleges are essential in making this a priority.
Our academic institutions represent somewhat idealized versions of community. It is critical that we inform students, prepare students, and create environments that work to protect students from acquaintance rape and sexual predators. We have to be mindful of the different cultures that enable acquaintance rape, which means grappling with the challenges of student alcohol and drug use, as well as what assent means and how it is communicated. It means helping to make healthy sexuality part of college wellness efforts. The story and the book, I very much believe, show a growing new awareness of the prevalence of acquaintance rape and highlights our collective need to act.