Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: Missoula - Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

Publication date: April 21, 2015
Author links: Goodreads - Website
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 367
Purchase links: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

From bestselling author Jon Krakauer, a stark, powerful, meticulously reported narrative about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana ­— stories that illuminate the human drama behind the national plague of campus rape

Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, with a highly regarded state university, bucolic surroundings, a lively social scene, and an excellent football team  the Grizzlies  with a rabid fan base. 

The Department of Justice investigated 350 sexual assaults reported to the Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012. Few of these assaults were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical. 

A DOJ report released in December of 2014 estimates 110,000 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are raped each year. Krakauer’s devastating narrative of what happened in Missoula makes clear why rape is so prevalent on American campuses, and why rape victims are so reluctant to report assault. 

Acquaintance rape is a crime like no other. Unlike burglary or embezzlement or any other felony, the victim often comes under more suspicion than the alleged perpetrator. This is especially true if the victim is sexually active; if she had been drinking prior to the assault — and if the man she accuses plays on a popular sports team. For a woman in this situation, the pain of being forced into sex against her will is only the beginning of her ordeal. If she decides to go to the police, undertrained officers sometimes ask if she has a boyfriend, implying that she is covering up infidelity. She is told rape is extremely difficult to prove, and repeatedly asked if she really wants to press charges. If she does want to charge her assailant, district attorneys frequently refuse to prosecute. If the assailant is indicted, even though victim’s name is supposed to be kept confidential, rumors start in the community and on social media, labeling her a slut, unbalanced, an attention-seeker. The vanishingly small but highly publicized incidents of false accusations are used to dismiss her claims in the press. If the case goes to trial, the woman’s entire personal life often becomes fair game for the defense attorneys. 

This brutal reality goes a long way toward explaining why acquaintance rape is the most underreported crime in America. In addition to physical trauma, its victims often suffer devastating psychological damage that leads to feelings of shame, emotional paralysis and stigmatization. PTSD rates for rape victims are estimated to be 50 percent, higher than for soldiers returning from war.

In Missoula, Krakauer chronicles the searing experiences of several women in Missoula — the nights when they were raped; their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the way they were treated by the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys; the public vilification and private anguish; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.

Some of them went to the police. Some declined to go to the police, or to press charges, but sought redress from the university, which has its own, noncriminal judicial process when a student is accused of rape. In two cases the police agreed to press charges and the district attorney agreed to prosecute. One case led to a conviction; one to an acquittal. Those women courageous enough to press charges or to speak publicly about their experiences were attacked in the media, on Grizzly football fan sites, and/or to their faces. The university expelled three of the accused rapists, but one was reinstated by state officials in a secret proceeding. One district attorney testified for an alleged rapist at his university hearing. She later left the prosecutor’s office and successfully defended the Grizzlies’ star quarterback in his rape trial. The horror of being raped, in each woman’s case, was magnified by the mechanics of the justice system and the reaction of the community.

Krakauer’s dispassionate, carefully documented account of what these women endured cuts through the abstract ideological debate about campus rape. College-age women are not raped because they are promiscuous, or drunk, or send mixed signals, or feel guilty about casual sex, or seek attention. They are the victims of a terrible crime and deserving of compassion from society and fairness from a justice system that is clearly broken.

Once in a while, I take the time to share these more serious reviews with you. The last time that probably happened with Dave Cullen's Columbine about the school shootings in Columbine high school, and now I will do it with Jon Krakauer's Missoula about rape in Missoula, Montana. Since the topic this book focuses on is extremely delicate and one that deserves serious attention, this review will lack my regular gif-heavy rants etc. 

Before I get to the things that I "liked" about this book, I want to acknowledge that I am aware that it is not flawless. It lacks the voices of the accused and Krakauer himself has admitted confirmation bias. It relies heavily on court proceedings, which might not be for everyone, and the image it paints of the rapists might seem monotonous. BUT... it also gives a voice for the victims and brings up an extremely important topic of which general public still seems to have a very flawed image of. So yes, there are flaws, but for me, this book was an extremely interesting, scary, harrowing and heartbreaking read about the situations way too many young women, women of my age and situation (students), are put into.

To say that I "liked" this book seems slightly wrong, because though I found it very difficult to put it down, I cannot really say I really "liked" what I read. The way these women account their stories and the ways they are treated by the police and the people around them made me so angry. We live in a culture heavy with victim shaming. If a girl drinks, or if she dresses up in a certain way, "she probably was asking for it". If her friend, a popular football player rapes her, she is probably just "making too much of it", because why would a popular guy who could have any girl he wants need to rape someone? 

I am a massive sports fan, and though my sport of choice is ice hockey, there are a lot of things in this book that made me think about the treatment of athletes and those who might have been mistreated by them. Just earlier this year, a very famous hockey player, a Stanley Cup winner Patrick Kane, was accused of rape. The case seems to be over now, and Kane was declared as not guilty, but the way the case was discussed in the media reminds me a lot of the ways the cases were discussed in this book. I am not a Patrick Kane fan, and I probably never will be, and when someone accuses someone of rape, I take the side of the accuser until the moment enough evidence has been gathered. I think there is nothing worse than victim shaming, but unfortunately that is what happened with Kane's case. Comments all over the Internet were shaming the victim, calling her names and stating that she is "yelling rape" just to get money. Kane was praised and the arguments were much on the line of "why would he rape because everyone would sleep with him anyway?". New York Post actually brilliantly discussed the actions of fans in this situation, stating 

"But the morally agnostic fans don’t care about justice, nor particularly much for a horrified young woman or a permanently impugned young man. Only that Kane is on the ice come Oct. 7, for the season opener against the Rangers."

The question that came into my mind while reading this book, and while reading about Kane's case, was how I would react if someone blamed one of my favorite players of rape. I love hockey to no end, and I am very protective of my favorite players, but at the same time, I WANT TO BELIEVE THAT NO WOMAN WOULD EVER VOLUNTARILY GO THROUGH VICTIM SHAMING AND BLAME AND EVERYTHING ELSE, just to get money. I know situations can be desperate, but I would like to think they are never that desperate. I am aware of the fact that there are cases out there in which the woman has lied and the accused has been convicted wrongfully, the case of Brian Banks. But as Krakauer proves through statistics, the percentage of wrongful accusations is EXTREMELY SMALL.

Krakauer's book focuses on what is called acquaintance rape, meaning a rape committed by a person known to the victim. He argues several times, through academic research, that rape is still very much thought as something done by spooky, scary strangers that attack women in the dark, where in fact it seems most of the rape cases, at least of those done in college towns like Missoula, are acquaintance rapes, committed by classmates, friends and potential romantic interests of the young female victims. With acquaintance rape, the criminal process is described as problematic, because despite rape kit evidence, the question of consent becomes very problematic. I would like to think that "no" means "no", but this book very quickly proved to me that this kind of situations "no" might not mean "no" after all, at least not according to those accused and those defending them. Maybe she was drunk and said "no" even when she really wanted it. Maybe the way she was dressed said "yes". Maybe he previous interest can be read as a sign of consent... There are so many sick, twisted ways the judicial system places blame on these girls, as a result of which more that 90% of rapists get to walk free.

To finish up with this review, I will present here some direct quotations from the book. There are so many ways I could have approached this review, but I think this is the best way to do it, to give Krakauer's voice a chance to present what his book is all about. Missoula: Rape and Justice System in a College Town is an extremely difficult book to read, but it is an extremely important book, one that will definitely make you think, one that will probably make you very angry and upset. It gives the victims of this horrible crime a voice and allows them to present their side to the story. I haven't read anything by Krakauer before, but his style of presenting facts really worked for me, and I will definitely check out his other books as soon as possible.


"Using data gathered in 2011, the CDC study estimated that across all age groups, 19.3 percent of American women "have been raped in their lifetimes" and that 1.6 percent of American women - nearly two and a half million individuals - "reported that they were raped in the 12 months preceding the survey.""

"Women don't get raped because they were drinking of took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren't careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them."
(From The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti)

"They said you were moaning, so you couldn't have been passed out. We needed one more person to take your side and back up your story, and there wasn't one. I'm sorry, but there is nothing we can do."
(Police to a girl gang raped by a group of football players)

"Well, sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends, and regret it, and then claim they were raped."
(Police officer to a victim of alleged rape)

"Why do your detectives seem more concerned about the defendant than the victim?"

"When cops and prosecutors fail to aggressively pursue sexual-assault cases... it sends a message to sexual predators that women are fair game and can be raped with impunity."

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