Krakauer’s New Book Tells “Depressingly Typical” Tale of Sexual Assault

Posted by On Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, is an unsparing account of the criminal justice system’s handling of survivors of sexual violence. It reports on several sexual assault cases involving students at the University of Montana (UM) in Missoula, beginning with the assaults themselves and then following the victims through the legal system as they seek justice.

Krakauer sticks closely to the victims’ perspectives as they navigate an often hostile legal system and the social repercussions of coming forward with rape allegations, especially severe in several cases in which the accused are star players for UM’s football team, the Grizzlies. In doing so, Krakauer shows us, as Margaret Talbot wrote in her review for The New Yorker, “what a brave and risky thing it still is for a woman to report a rape.”

UM’s Office of Public Safety was the subject of a yearlong federal investigation conducted by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice (DOJ) into its handling of sexual assault complaints, and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office was investigated by the DOJ following allegations that the county mishandled the prosecution of sexual assaults. In addition, the Office for Civil Rights’ Title IX compliance review of UM produced “a blueprint ” for protecting students from sexual assault. As a result UM and the Missoula, perhaps unfairly, have become a poster child for what is wrong with the way our legal system, colleges, and universities are handling sexual assault cases.

Krakauer, the author of bestselling non-fiction like Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, takes an approach similar to his earlier work with Missoula, relying heavily on interviews with survivors and transcripts from the investigations and trials to flesh out the narrative. He tells many of the stories in vivid first-person detail, which allows him to explore the complex and often confusing feelings survivors face in the aftermath of an assault.

Again and again, Krakauer reveals in moving detail the emotional and psychological consequences of the assaults, from the trauma of the attack to more subtle long-term effects that still haunt these women years later. One survivor grapples with feelings of betrayal and loyalty after she is raped by a man she had been friends with since the first grade. “Even though he raped me,” she explains to Krakauer, “I couldn’t help still caring about him on some level” (46).

Indeed, betrayal is one of the book’s themes: betrayal by the perpetrators who take advantage of the trust and friendship of these women, and betrayal by the systems that fail to deliver justice.

In one depressing (though by now familiar) anecdote, a young woman tells Krakauer that the detective investigating her report of rape asked her if she had a boyfriend, explaining that “sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends, and regret it, and then claim they were raped” (53-54). Later, when the police interview the accused, they reassure him: “We have a lot of cases where girls come in and report stuff they are not sure about, and then it becomes rape. And it’s not fair…I don’t think you did anything wrong. I think that it’s torturing you that you are accused of this. And that bothers me…This case, in my opinion, is closed” (59).

The power of Missoula lies in Krakauer’s ability to place the reader in these distressing situations. Experiencing first-hand the doubt, dismissive questioning, and social retaliation survivors of sexual violence experience helps the reader understand how certain attitudes and actions not only discourage survivors from reporting these crimes but also allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their actions.

Krakauer is particularly critical of subjecting sexual assault victims to the adversarial nature of the legal system. He quotes extensively from the well-known psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman’s article, “The Mental Health of Crime Victims”: “if one set out intentionally to design a system for provoking symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder,” Herman writes, “it might look very much like a court of law” (qtd. 243). Krakauer is no less pointed in his own comments:

In the adversarial system, it’s more important to follow legal procedure than to speak the truth. Due process trumps honest and ordinary justice. Trials degenerate into clashes that bring to mind cage fights, characterized by wildly exaggerated claims, highly selective presentation of the facts, and brutal interrogation of witnesses.

The excessive partisanship of the adversarial system becomes especially problematic when the offense being adjudicated is rape, which all but guarantees that lawyers for the accused party will attempt to turn the tables and put the victim on trial. (243)

Though Krakauer tries to make his target the criminal justice system writ large, some members of the Missoula community have felt singled out — in particular, prosecutor Kirsten Pabst. During the events chronicled in Missoula, Pabst was a prosecutor for the County Attorney and later served as a defense attorney for one of the accused men. Pabst is now the County Attorney for Missoula. In the book, she emerges as something of a villain: a cold, uncaring lawyer.

In a public statement released in response to Krakauer’s book, Pabst took issue with her portrayal, calling the book, “inaccurate, exaggerated and unnecessarily personal.” And though Pabst does not accuse Krakauer directly, she implies he does not fully grasp the complexities of the legal system, writing that “[m]any people commonly misunderstand the role of the prosecutor in the criminal justice system.” Indeed some reviewers have also taken issue with Krakauer’s analysis.

The book’s critique of the justice system provides valuable insight by allowing readers to see investigations and trials through the eyes of the victims, avoiding abstract legal discussions that often weigh down conversations around sexual assault. Unfortunately, Krakauer does not always achieve the right balance between the individual experiences of these young women and the larger social and cultural issues that enable rapists.

Some reviewers have already lamented Krakauer’s failure to address the larger culture of sexual assault. Emily Bazelon, for instance, in her review for The New York Times, described Missoula as “one-sided” and complained that it “lacks texture.” Indeed, Krakauer does not explore the psychology of the perpetrators, nor does he spend much time on the student culture at UM.

And it’s not just the causes and motives of assault where Bazelon feels Krakauer comes up short; she also worries that Krakauer’s focus on the women’s experience with the justice system risks “reducing them, however inadvertently, to victimhood,” concluding “‘Missoula’ ends up sounding only one cautionary note in a debate that’s becoming ever more layered and cacophonous.”

But it’s more than just missing nuance. Sometimes the bigger picture gets lost in the details. It often feels like we’re reading about the problems of one city, one police department, or one attorney, instead of a pervasive, deep-seated national issue. In a recent interview with NPR, Krakauer admits as much, “I don’t mean to single out Missoula: Its rape rate is a little less than the national average; I think its problems with dealing with rape are pretty depressingly typical.”

“Depressingly typical.” That’s something readers of Missoula should keep in mind.

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