Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

Image of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Release Date: 
April 21, 2015
Reviewed by: 

“urgent and unforgettable . . .”

The first thing to be said about this book is that the subject is deeply disturbing and vitally important to expose; the second is that Jon Krakauer is an extraordinary investigative journalist whose writing is clear, compelling, and in this case, critical.

In Missoula he writes about, and understands, the psychological and legal nuances of a crisis of huge proportions in this country, one that extends far beyond the single campus about which he writes. His book offers an important contribution to the slim body of literature dealing with rape and other sexual assault, revealing a justice system that too often fails its victims.

As Krakauer writes, rape is the most underreported serious crime in the nation. Studies show that at least 80 percent of rapes are never reported. Even worse, only 0.4 to 5.4 percent of rapes are ever prosecuted and fewer than three percent of rapes end with a conviction that includes any jail time. That means that 90 percent of the time rapists get away with the crime. And many of those rapists are repeat offenders.

Acquaintance rape is particularly heinous because the victim trusts the perpetrator. It is also unique because unlike other felonies, the victim often comes under more suspicion than the alleged perpetrator, especially if she is sexually active, had been drinking, and the man she accuses plays on a popular sports team—like the University of Montana’s Missoula football team known as The Grizzlies. The horror of what happens when a woman reports acquaintance rape is thus a strong incentive to avoid reporting the crime, a crime that leads to major psychological trauma that can last a lifetime.

Krakauer shares in detail the dramatic stories of several young women in Missoula who were raped by revered football players. We follow what happened during the attack and what happened afterward. Neither is easy to witness.

In some respects, the most compelling accounts have to do with the post-rape travesties the women endured from university officials, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the media, and the public. Their courage in pressing charges—largely incentivized by not wanting other women to suffer as they have—must be appreciated.

An investigation of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the Missoula Police Department, and the University of Montana by the U.S. Department of Justice revealed in one report that women consistently reported being treated with indifference or disrespect by Deputy County attorneys “who often made statements that diminished the seriousness of sexual violence and minimized the culpability of those who commit it.”

That attitude was painfully exhibited during one trial that Krakauer shares via verbatim transcripts as well as his own narrative. Quoting legal scholar Franklin Stier, he writes, “Although we expect attorneys to adhere to the rules of evidence and confine their strategies to the ethical boundaries of the rules, they often bend the rules and stretch the strategies. . . . As a result, trial lawyers ostensibly enjoy a unique privilege in plying their trade: They are largely unanswerable to society for behavior that would be morally questionable elsewhere.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the courtroom drama Krakauer shares with readers.

A large part of the defense’s script at that trial depended on rape myths and how juries are influenced by them. (e.g., “She must have consented because she didn’t scream.”) Without adequate training, comprehensive investigations, complete documentation, and a full understanding of the serious nature and consequent trauma of rape, the epidemic of rape on college campuses (and elsewhere) is likely to continue, not only in the so-called “rape capital” of Missoula, but in the nation.

In an attempt to encourage universities to address the problem of campus rape, in 2014 President Obama released a report called “Not Alone.” It announced a detailed plan to provide schools with protocols for improving their response to sexual assaults.

A few days later the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights put out a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for violating federal laws concerning how sexual violence complaints were handled. Among them were Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Amherst, Vanderbilt, the University of California/Berkeley, Florida State and Emory. So much for “higher education”—and justice.

Jon Krakauer’s carefully documented, dispassionate account of what several women at the University of Montana in Missoula endured shines a light on campus rape as no one else has. He reveals the agony of rape, of not being believed in its aftermath, of having one’s young life challenged in unimaginable ways. He shines a light on the sickening fact that football is more important to some people than women’s lives, and on the truth about the copious legal travesties that innocent people must endure. 

But along with that, he offers necessary ammunition to fight for justice in rape cases, no matter where they occur. For that we must be grateful indeed for this urgent and unforgettable book.