Daily Book Review: ‘Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town’

Saturday, March 26, 2016 - 3:42pm

If you somehow missed “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” when it became a national bestseller around this time last year, the first paperback edition has now been released by Anchor Books. Urgency resonates with every page, making it impossible to put down.

The book represents the culmination of Jon Krakauer’s (“Under the Banner of Heaven”) painstaking research and re-crafting of several cases of sexual assault or rape in Missoula, Montana over four years. He zeroes in on the culture of athlete worship that schools with big sports teams have to deal with. Krakauer throws a harsh spotlight on what news pundits or other skeptics are actually conveying when they dismiss the problem of sexual assault and rape on college campuses as rape hysteria. When they argue that activists — namely, feminists — are manipulating assault cases for the sake of their agenda, they make it more and more difficult for victims of assault to be heard. It’s a dangerously effective form of silencing.

One of the main functions of “Missoula” is to demonstrate that the idea of women frequently “crying rape” — because they regret bad sex, to cover up cheating on a significant other, for revenge — is one of the most dangerous myths about sexual assault circulating throughout the country. The effects of these myths are found not only in the minds of people sitting on the jury, but in the mores of police precincts, in offices of district attorneys and even in the behavior of police or campus security officers who are sometimes the most immediately available people to whom rape survivors can turn.

Krakauer emphasizes that rape is the only crime for which the survivors or victims of the crime are on trial just as much as — if not more than — the defendants. He wryly points out that the oath to tell the truth only applies to witnesses. Others in the courtroom, like defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges, aren’t beholden to it. Even due process for defendants puts survivors in a precarious position from the start. The needs of the courtroom — presenting challenges to credibility, submitting witnesses to yes-or-no questioning rather than giving them opportunities to talk freely, confronting those who may be perpetrators — come before the needs of the victim.

Reading this book is like repeatedly being punched in the stomach. The details Krakauer includes sound like tasteless jokes. A coach equivocates on the definition of rape while testifying on behalf of an accused rapist, then mentions that he is a sexual education teacher. Police officers ask women if they have boyfriends when they report rapes (implying they cheated and now feel guilty). Prosecutors badger survivors on the stand, asking if they are sure they communicated a lack of consent well enough.

Yet despite how difficult it is to be faced with the testimony and primary documents Krakauer includes, nothing in “Missoula” feels overly sentimental, manipulative or exploitative. The pathos is organic; he evokes empathy without sensationalizing any of the stories he is telling. His inclusion of several studies and statistics never pulls focus from the social critiques he’s making; they only serve to accentuate the truth of his arguments, hitting a sobering conclusion towards the end:

“Rape is the most underreported crime in the nation. … When an individual is raped in this country, more than 90 percent of the time the rapist gets away with the crime.”

One of Krakauer’s final points is that university processes for investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults have not been standardized across the nation. The lack of support is another reason that people may feel uncomfortable coming forward about being assaulted; they often literally have no idea what will happen. Krakauer finishes on a strong note: by speaking out and coming forward, survivors become part of a network that makes it easier for others to follow in their footsteps.

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“Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town”

Jon Krakauer

Anchor Books

January 12, 2016