Review: Jon Krakauer captures campus rape culture in action

Jon Krakauer's latest book, "Missoula:Rape and the Justice System in a College Town," offers a unique perspective to an ongoing problem. (Photo courtesy of Jon Krakauer's website)

Jon Krakauer’s latest book about the epidemic of rape on college campuses is hard to get through.

While “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” is, at it’s heart, a journalistic investigation into what went wrong at the University of Montana and the surrounding town of Missoula, Montana, it reads like a novel. This was the best and the worst thing about it.

On the one hand, “Missoula’s” engaging narrative style brought the legal process surrounding the all too typical cases of sexual assault on UM’s campus to life in a way on par with the work of bestselling authors like Jodi Picoult. By allowing the victims, assailants and members of law enforcement to speak for themselves through direct quotes mined from taped confessions, court transcripts and interviews, Krakauer leaves nothing to interpretation.

This also left few questions as to what happened to University of Montana students Kerry Barrett, Kelsey Belnap, Allison Huget, Hillary McLaughlin, Cecilia Washburn* and Keely Williams at the hands of Missoula’s star football players. Their intensely personal accounts of sexual assault, and the heartbreaking cruelty inflicted upon them by the “Griz Nation” and the Missoula community for having the audacity to demand their assailants be held accountable, were too real to turn away from.

The novelistic retelling of how each woman went from a casual evening with a group of friends to being permanently violated by a man they thought they knew brought home the sickening reality of acquaintance rape. The myth that many of us grew up with of the deranged man waiting in the bushes to pounce on unsuspecting young women is wrong; 85 percent of victims knew their rapist personally before they were attacked. It’s a reality Krakauer emphasized repeatedly throughout “Missoula,” and yet many of the investigators, attorneys and school officials in the greatest positions of authority to prevent further harm to the UM community seemed almost willfully ignorant of the social and psychological issues surrounding rape.

Even as a distant observer, it hurt that one of the greatest villains of UM’s rape scandal, second only to convicted and accused rapists Adams Zeke*, Beau Donaldson and Jordan Johnson, was a woman. It seemed like prosecutor Kirsten Pabst should have had the presence of mind, like any woman anywhere, to realize that it could have been her, and yet she persisted in dismissing sexual assault cases brought to her by the Missoula County Police Department despite probable cause, enabling countless sexual offenders in the UM community before ultimately defecting to become a defense attorney for Jordan Johnson. (Actually it’s not countless. According to a Department of Justice Investigation, of the 114 reports of sexual assault referred to prosecutors under Pabst’s authority between January 2008 and May 2012, only 14 were resulted in charges. Even if you feel compelled to take the 2 to 8 percent of accusations that may have been false into account, that still means up to 92 to 98 victims went without justice, giving their assailants the opportunity to reoffend due to Pabst’s inaction.)

Somehow, the prosecutor who should have been these women’s greatest champion became one of the greatest roadblocks to justice in Missoula. She didn’t do this alone, though. Even the most well meaning members of Missoula County’s Police Department, prosecutor’s office and UM’s administration were part of a bureaucratic machine that systematically denied victims of sexual assault the same legal protections as the victims of any other crime.

While UM and campus law enforcement have undergone a period of restructuring and retraining prompted by negative media coverage and a Department of Justice investigation, it’s important to remember that this scandal is not unique. The 350 cases of sexual assault reported to Missoula’s police department between January 2008 and May 2012 is actually 40 fewer than the national average for a town of its size according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

When the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights decided to release its list of 55 universities that were under investigation for violating federal laws on the handling of sexual violence cases in 2014, the University of Montana wasn’t even on their radar. The University of Connecticut, on the other hand, was right where you would expect it to be prior to the settlement of the Title IX lawsuit brought against the university by five women who alleged administrators mishandled their reports of sexual assault.

Despite the horror stories that have come out of UM, Missoula, Montana is not, in fact, the “rape capital of the world.” Relatively speaking, it’s a “safe” place for a woman to go to college and that, in Krakauer’s words, is “the real scandal.”

“Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” is an incredibly well written book that I would recommend to anyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. As others, including Ellen Bravo of Ms. Magazine and Jessica Valenti of the Guardian, have said, Krakauer’s book is, in many ways, “a mansplainer’s guide to rape-is-bad.” Much like Bill Cosby’s history of serial rape failed to break into mainstream consciousness before comedian Hannibal Buress took a jab at him, Krakauer’s not saying anything that women haven’t been trying to tell the world for decades before him.

For all Krakauer’s skill, I found myself wondering at times why this book hadn’t been written by a woman, someone like me who could put herself in the shoes of Kerry, Kelsey, Allison, Hillary, Cecelia and Keely through no stretch of the imagination. By the end of “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” I realized that it almost definitely has been. It’s just that, when Krakauer says American universities have a rape problem, he’s not dismissed as a hysterical, man-hating feminazi trying to destroy the careers of innocent football players like the Missoulian’s Gwen Florio was when she reported on the Missoula rape scandal first hand. Instead, he’s hailed as a breath of fresh air, nothing more than an objective journalist trying to get the facts.

While sexual assault isn’t just a “woman’s issue,” our tendency to ignore the voices of those most directly affected by an issue in favor of “objective outsiders,” should be considered a scandal too.

*not subject’s real name