Jon Krakauer has made a career of crafting narratives from investigations into destructive impulses. Well known in the United States and abroad as the author of the 1996 bestseller “Into the Wild” — which explored the disturbing circumstances surrounding the death of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old from a wealthy East Coast family whose remains were found by a moose hunter in the Alaskan wilderness — Krakauer established himself early on as a master of blending meticulous observation with careful research and stark, compelling storytelling.
One gets the distinct impression, reading any of his bestselling books — including his 1997 hit “Into Thin Air,” which scrutinizes the role he and others in his expedition may have played in drawing one another into tragedy on Mt. Everest in 1996 — that Krakauer is a writer committed above all else to asking difficult questions, even if he discovers himself to be implicated by the answer.
His latest book is no exception. In “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” Krakauer recounts the horrifying circumstances of a series of sexual assaults against college-age women in Missoula, Mont., focusing specifically on cases that challenge our culture’s most deeply held beliefs about what constitutes rape.
If the controversy surrounding the recent Rolling Stone article has shown us anything, it is that we as a culture would prefer to quarrel passionately about almost anything (not least of all, journalistic ethics) before having an honest conversation about rape. So it seems almost radical that in “Missoula” Krakauer describes sexual violence — including at least four acquaintance rapes, a gang rape and two attempted rapes — from the victim’s perspective without judgment or doubt. Though Krakauer’s introductory author’s note alludes to him having done due diligence by corroborating each woman’s story with evidence from case files and court transcripts (which he describes simply as “research”), on the page her story is treated as fact. A point that is notable only because it is rare.
Reading Krakauer’s third-person account of women being raped can at times feel harrowing, but more harrowing still are the long sections of the book that follow these cases through the adjudication process at the University of Montana and into the criminal justice system, where the overt hostility of police officers, detectives and prosecutors toward women who report their assaults constitutes a near conspiracy to preserve rape culture in all its forms. When the crimes in this book, perpetrated often by student athletes, are reported to the police, they are mostly investigated poorly by unsympathetic detectives or not at all. In the one and only case that goes to trial, it is the victim who is prosecuted in the theater of public opinion, not the man who raped her.
Underneath the surface of Krakauer’s incisive critique of these profoundly flawed systems lies a single necessary question: Why is it so hard for us as a culture to believe the word of a woman asking for help?
“Rape,” argues one of the prosecuting attorneys in that single trial case, “is the only crime in which the victim is presumed to be lying.” In this timely and important book, Krakauer shows us the many motives people are willing to invent for a woman to lie about being raped: she wants attention or revenge; she is hysterical or bitter or insane; she feels jealous or spurned or shameful about having cheated on her boyfriend; she was sexually unsatisfied by a one-night stand and wants to make a clear point. These attitudes, which Krakauer reveals to be misogynist at their core, effectively discourage women from coming forward to report their assaults, resulting in a culture in which men can rape women with near impunity.
Silence, Krakauer rightly suggests, fosters these injustices. In recognition of this truth, Krakauer offers his own confession in the book’s final pages, admitting that he thought little about rape until a woman close to him revealed that she had been assaulted once as a teenager and then again years later by a trusted family friend.
“I was angry with myself for being so uninformed,” Krakauer writes, “not only about her ordeal but about non-stranger rape in general.” That anger led him to begin this research, to read about sexual assault, and to seek out rape survivors who were willing to share their stories with him. In his willingness to implicate himself, he acknowledges that rape is never an isolated incident but rather a full-blown epidemic: “I’d had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain. My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.”
As a survivor of sexual assault, I can say with confidence that although this book seeks to shed light on a violence committed against an estimated 110,000 college-aged U.S. women each year, acknowledging the problem is not the same as solving it. Nevertheless, by grappling so rigorously with this issue and with the myriad ways women are traumatized and retraumatized by seeking justice through the institutions that claim to serve us, Krakauer’s investigation will succeed in altering the conversation around sexual violence in ways women’s experience alone has not.
This is, perhaps, my only frustration with “Missoula,” and it has little to do with the writing, which is compelling, or with the research, which is meticulous, or for that matter with the author himself. I wish women didn’t need a voice such as his to corroborate our experience of violence, but I am glad we have him as an ally in this work. “Missoula” will undoubtedly fortify those of us who have already broken our silence and may rally those who have not dared to. There is some justice in that, no matter how complicated and faint.
Johnson is the author of “The Other Side” and “Trespasses.”
Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Doubleday: 367 pp., $28.95