'Missoula' considers campus rapes at the University of Montana during a two-year period

The author of “Into Thin Air” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” looks at a national problem through one city’s history of sexual violence.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town By Jon Krakauer Knopf Doubleday 384 pp.

Jon Krakauer began his career as an author of taut, finely reported outdoor adventures; seven books later, he emerges as the conscience of a nation.

Morality has long been a driving theme in his work, but his transformation into a crusader for ethics in the circumstances of its most egregious absence – among religious fundamentalists, in cynically waged war, and now facing America’s attitudes toward sexual violence – has crystallized over the past decade.

His indictment of malfeasance of various sorts, from personal to governmental, reaches new plangency in Missoula, which considers campus rapes at the University of Montana during a two-year period. But while this investigation is particular and detailed in typical Krakauer fashion, drawing the reader deep into events surrounding a few individuals, he is newly at pains to make us see these are but a synecdoche for a widespread shame, in which almost a fifth of all American women will experience sexual assault.

Or so it is estimated; the fact that few of these crimes are reported, due perhaps to foreknowledge that even fewer will be successfully prosecuted, is the true subject of the book.

There was no “rash” of rapes in Missoula between 2010 and 2012, since the total incidence in 52 months that include this time period, compared to other college towns of similar size, “was in fact slightly less than the national average. That’s the real scandal.” What Missoula had was a rash of rape reporting. That it took exceptional bravery on the part of the victims to press charges, against formidable pressure, is the most dismaying news in a book of almost crushing amounts of unhappy revelation.

The author does not outright call what he uncovers a national sickness, but the sound of him stifling the desire is almost audible. He diverts himself by attending to the task of systematically building a case. Indeed, investigative reporters – and Krakauer is one of the craft’s finest practitioners, diligent, dogged, and artful – are nothing so much as trial attorneys with pens rather than costly silk ties.

Krakauer’s Exhibit A is football. (He now runs something of a subspecialty in gridiron-frenzy explication, after first elucidating the game’s allures in "Where Men Win Glory.") Five pages in, the author begins his dissection of the place of football in Missoula culture: The University of Montana’s Grizzlies are its “greatest source of civic pride, hands down.”

How and why this is a functional understatement is more than germane to Krakauer’s purpose, since the rapists whose crimes are the illustrative heart of the book were stars on the Grizzly team. What they did, and what they consequently sometimes got away with, had plenty to do with football’s importance to the town.

As a kind of municipal sacrament, the game was responsible for creating an ethos of hero worship, therefore the notion that those who play well possess immutable natures of mythical purity. As such, they can’t be seen by their disciples as mortals barely out of adolescence who embody a dangerous mix of physical power, snowmelt-swelled rivers of testosterone, natural fallibility of judgment (particularly when soused, the college athlete’s all-too-common off-the-field condition), topped with the sense of entitlement that accrues to the over-honored. And certainly not as “thugs” recruited expressly as such by the university – an indictment delivered with shocking bluntness by Montana Board regent Pat Williams. He suffered career-ending backlash for pointing out that unsavory truth.

When a young woman, a veritable nobody in the celestial pageant of college sports, accuses one of these demigods, it is she who is viewed as suspicious. It couldn’t possibly be that one of these paragons of perfection (and, more to the point, potential bringer of glory to partisans in the stands) is also a criminal responsible for inflicting one of the more heinous injuries humans are capable of inflicting. If the game is a proxy tribal conflict in which the status of the onlookers is at stake, little wonder that the winners are rewarded with unconditional trust.

Deeply problematic, then, is the fact that this prejudice extends to the very people charged with upholding the law. It was common, until the recent introduction of new police guidelines, for victims (including one here) to routinely be asked if they had boyfriends. Why? Reflecting a generalized inability to imagine the culpability of these fine young men, cops strove to unearth a plausible reason for what had to be false accusation. If a girl was in a relationship, then it made sense: She cried rape to cover up her cheating.

In Missoula, the members of the same supposedly impartial judicial apparatus are also citizens of the same small community whose main temple is the Grizzly stadium. One of these is Krakauer’s prime villain: Kirsten Pabst, who as county prosecutor declined to pursue at least one allegation of forcible sex because she found the woman’s case unwinnable (not, mind you, untrue). After retiring from office, however, she vigorously defended a quarterback charged with rape – who was then acquitted.

Yet, as Krakauer demonstrates through painstaking study of transcripts, scientific literature, and interviews with victims and witnesses, the difficulties of pressing charges are so overwhelming – redoubling the pain every step of the way, from initial examination (described by one victim as being “raped all over again”) to recurrent self-doubt to becoming a pariah in her community – it is nearly inconceivable that a woman would whimsically or carelessly undertake them. It would require great perversity to fabricate such a crime in order to trade a common dilemma like infidelity for the prolonged punishment these women are all but certain to undergo. (Krakauer does cite one heartbreaking case of false accusation: the putative victim was more frightened of her mother’s wrath when she learned her daughter was sexually active than of the judicial process – or of blaming an innocent man.)

It is all but certain that only the merest sliver of rapes is reported, much less brought to trial. The author suggests one possible cause beyond the gauntlet of public shame: women’s innate, maybe acculturated tendency to care for others’ well-being over their own. Several victims hesitated, expressing a desire to not harm the perpetrator.

Rape is a crime like no other, and Krakauer does a thorough job of explaining its sometimes counterintuitive psychological peculiarities. For one, that a woman is likely to shut down, to the point of appearing acquiescent, during commission of the crime. Among the many gifts of "Missoula" is to dispel myth and cut through otherwise hard-to-fathom paradox to reveal unsettling truths like this one.

The most unsettling of all is how astonishingly common acquaintance rape is among American women of college age – followed closely by ignorance of it. There is no shortage of guilt to spread around. Krakauer’s motivation in writing the book was his own self-recrimination on discovering that a close friend had been raped and he had never guessed at her relentless pain. “My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.”

The book’s pervasive tone of indignation at times seems effortfully suppressed, and this in turn may cause shame in the reader: It’s not possible to be too indignant about rape, so how come I feel that he gets close? Another paradox, then. What is true is also hard to bear: the knowledge that among those you know, among those you love, is probably someone who had her life changed by the most personal and hidden of all crimes. It might be someone even closer than that. It could be you. It could be me.

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