Jon Krakauer is perhaps best known for his nonfiction chronicles of vulnerable people in extreme environments. Into Thin Air: Mountain climbers in a brutal storm on Mt. Everest; Into the Wild: Wayward and idealistic wanderer Chris McCandless/Alexander Supertramp in the Alaskan wilderness; Under the Banner of Heaven: Adolescent boys in a fundamentalist cult.
His latest, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, sickeningly, horrifyingly, follows the same paradigm of brave and embattled individuals in hostile circumstances, only this time it’s women in…America.
Missoula painstakingly chronicles four years (2008-2012) of court cases in which college-aged women living in or around Missoula, Montana, who have been sexually assaulted* negotiate academic, legal, and social institutions in order to achieve a measure not only of justice, but also validation of their status as human beings equal under the law.
The results are disheartening at best. The victims are consistently (and publicly) shamed, discredited, and punished for speaking the truth of their experiences of assault. Each institution allegedly (and here I use the adverb intentionally and ironically) entrusted with their protection fails to offer these women adequate emotional or legal support. Despite a few notable allies (University of Montana Dean of Students Charles Couture, Missoula Police Department Detective Guy Baker), the system seems designed, when rape is reported, to protect the feelings and reputation of the accused perpetrator.
Krakauer chose Missoula intentionally because of its powerful and pervasive football culture. Many of the defendants in the cases he follows are University of Montana Grizzlies, and as such, are granted privilege over and above what is typically bestowed upon white men in American culture.
This theoretical benefit becomes distressingly literal when the Missoula football community, Grizzly Nation, rallies behind accused rapists partially in solidarity with the team, but also presumably in hopes of reinstating the players to ensure a winning season.
This narrow focus both enriches and diminishes Missoula. By concentrating on such a specific Western community, Krakauer by necessity excludes some of the most victimized, and socially silenced, victims of sexual violence: women of color and trans women, to say nothing of the male victims of rape.
However, this choice also allows the author to share some startling realities with his large (and largely white and male) readership: rape happens in the “heartland,” and the 80 cases of sexual assault adjudicated in Missoula from 2010-2012 are slightly below the national average, and undoubtedly represent only a fraction of the victims.
Rape is pervasively underreported, for reasons that Missoula makes obvious: it’s difficult and painful for plaintiffs to receive justice, and the process of seeking any form of restitution often feels like a second violation.
Krakauer’s prose in Missoula can at times induce cringes (he unironically employs painfully dated phrases like “sozzled” and “knocking boots”) but he exhibits an unexpected level of authorial restraint in the book.
Krakauer fans, among the number of which I consider myself, are used to his authorial intrusions. He was among the company temporarily stranded on Everest, and his confoundment at the choices McCandless made is practically another character in Into the Wild. In Missoula, however, Krakauer largely muzzles himself, allowing the victims to speak for themselves through numerous and lengthy direct quotations, until the final chapter.
There, he implicates his own ignorance and complacency in the rape culture he has carefully and painfully outlined in the preceding pages. He shares that the book was inspired by a close friend who was raped by an acquaintance, and her story, along with others close to him, led Krakauer to reformulate and complicate his default understanding of rape (basically: a stranger drags a woman into an alley).
Krakauer describes himself as “angry” that he didn’t realize the depth and breadth of this national plague. Readers of Missoula should feel the same.
*I intentionally avoid the exculpatory adverb “allegedly,” as the avalanche of legally-sanctioned evidence Krakauer includes makes such a concession borderline insulting.