Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer. Doubleday. 367 pages, hardbound. $28.95.
The most notorious thing about Jon Krakauer’s latest book of investigative reporting is the title. Even Krakauer acknowledges that despite a recent spate of publicized cases, Missoula is no hotbed of rape.
Missoula’s rate of sexual assault is unexceptional, and the cases Krakauer writes about are, as he readily asserts, typical of sexual assault cases in America: They often involve people who know each other, they are difficult to prosecute, and they leave lasting scars on both the perpetrator and the victim.
This is not a fun read. Unless you are into torture porn, you are likely to find Krakauer’s repeated and detailed accounts of rape cases disturbing and depressing.
Moreover, little is resolved. Krakauer writes in an author’s note that “This book is an effort to understand what deters so many rape victims from going to the police, and to comprehend the repercussions of sexual assault from the perspective of those who have been victimized.”
He struggles mightily to deliver on that mission statement, but this reader was left as mystified as ever about these critical points. The book leaves one saddened and disturbed but unenlightened.
None of that is meant as a criticism of Krakauer. This is complicated stuff, and if attention to detail were all it took to unravel it, then “Missoula” would be a priceless contribution to understanding sexual assault in 21st century America.
He interviewed, or attempted to, all of the key characters; he pored over court documents and police reports; he sat through court proceedings; he delved into research about rape, much of which is disputed; his list of “dramatis personae” runs nearly eight pages; his selected bibliography runs seven pages. The reporting is thorough and authoritative.
Somehow, it still isn’t quite enough. In the central case, that of Grizzly quarterback Jordan Johnson, the alleged rape took place in the home of the victim, who presumably could have called out for help at any time from a male roommate. She didn’t, and she even drove Johnson home afterward.
Moreover, there was evidence that the victim had some amorous interest in Johnson, and at one drunken party supposedly gave him a hug and said, “Jordy, I would do you anytime,” a signal that might well have sounded to a young football star like a get-out-of-jail free card.
The evidence against the quarterback was strong enough that the university moved to expel him. But a jury found him not guilty, and the university eventually allowed him to play football again.
In other cases, the evidence against the rapist was more compelling, and some cases resulted in convictions. But the overall sense is of a college where students are too young, too alone and too drunk to safely navigate the choppy waters of sexual relationships, and where the university is ill equipped to deal with that problem.
As John Oliver put it recently on his HBO show, “Sex is like boxing. If both people didn’t fully agree to participate, one of them is committing a crime.”
Krakauer reserves his harshest criticism for the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg comes across as combative and uncooperative.
Prosecutor Kirsten Pabst, who eventually resigned from the office to become the defense attorney for Johnson, shows a singular lack of concern for victims.
Still, the whole uproar might all be dismissed as a series of youthful missteps if the results were not so horrifying. If Krakauer makes a compelling case for anything, it is for the terrible, if difficult to comprehend, damage that rape inflicts on those involved.
Victims he describes go into long periods of depression and isolation. Their morals and honesty are questioned; after Johnson’s acquittal, social media erupted with support for him and attacks on his victim. Some struggle for years to put their lives back together.
Perhaps worst of all, Krakauer may be describing only the tip of the iceberg. He writes that rape is the most underreported of serious crimes. The trauma endured by those hordes of silent victims can only be imagined.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.