Thursday, April 30, 2015

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

I usually pride myself in not following the crowd, but I will admit that this week, I did just that.  I grabbed a copy of Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula:  Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.  It is flying off the shelves in our area, making Krakauer the most popular (or unpopular) man in the county.

Mr. Krakauer must have a thing for Montana.  He has questioned the integrity of Montana icon Greg Mortenson in his book, Three Cups of Deceit.  Now, with this new release, he uses Missoula as his tableau in his exploration of non-stranger rape, college towns and a faulty justice system.

A few years back, Missoula made the headlines for being the “Rape Capital” of America.  As Krakauer’s book notes, it is an unfair description – Missoula is merely average when it comes to incidents of sexual assault.  But since Missoula is average, it becomes a great case study for Krakauer on how such sexual assault is handled in a small city.

Missoula is also a college town and the football team rules the town.  It is Griz nation, and the community reacts violently when one of its favored sons is accused of a crime, especially rape.  And so when two high profile Griz players – quarterback Jordan Johnson and running back Beau Donaldson – were accused of rape, much of the community rose up to their defense.  Tracing the trials of Johnson and Donaldson, along with the troubles of other Griz players and U of M students, Krakauer paints a rather disturbing picture.  A word of warning – in painting this disturbing picture, Krakauer is graphic.  This book is not for the faint of heart.  The description is not at all titillating – I found it rather nauseating – but it is graphic.

As Krakauer discovers in his investigations, rape is not all that rare among the U of M crowd.  And the vast majority of the rape cases, as they are nationally, were non-stranger rapes.  These were rapes perpetrated by friends and acquaintances of the victim.  Contrary to the vision we have of rape being about a man in a mask jumping out from behind a bush, about 80 percent of rapes in America are non-stranger rapes.

The book tells the story of four victims, only one of whom received any form of justice from the legal system.  Your heart goes out to them as he tells their story.  It is meant to do that – Krakauer is clearly on the side of the victims here.  Is it a hit piece?  Some will say so.  The current county attorney is suing over allegations made in the book.  Krakauer is not neutral, but he does appear to be thorough.
These are stories of pain, fear, misplaced trust, betrayal and extreme disappointment.  In Krakauer’s mind, the system in Missoula failed in a variety of ways.  The University and the local police for both failed to protect victims.  But Krakauer reserves his harshest judgment for the local county attorney’s office, especially both the former and current county attorneys for failing to pursue justice for women who have been raped.
Four things stood out to me as a read this book.  Two of the things Krakauer discusses, the other two are not discussed at all.  First, Krakauer paints a pretty sordid picture of trial lawyers, especially in the context of rape cases.  Both the county attorneys and the private defense lawyers come off pretty badly, especially with regard to the lengths they will go, or not go, to win cases.  I recognize that they are there to win, it is the lack of ethics displayed in the attempt that disturbed me.  The second thing Krakauer brings up is the vehement reaction of Griz nation to the tarnishing of their heroes.  A football player in Missoula is always innocent, no matter what.  A woman accusing a football player in Missoula is always guilty, no matter what.  And the comments that are made, especially on the “anonymous Internet”, curdled my stomach in their hateful surety and lack of compassion.

There are two things Krakauer definitely does not discuss which seem to me to be central to the issue.  Those things are the presence of alcohol and the campus hook-up culture.  I realize he is a liberal, so he cannot go there, but I wish he would have.  The book’s dustjacket states, “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.”  That statement is correct – these women are raped because of the horrific actions of a predator.  They are victims deserving of compassion.  But know this: every assault portrayed in Krakauer’s book involved alcohol, often to excess, and often involving underage drinkers.  Every assault!  I wonder what removing the alcohol-fueled party scene would do to the incidents of rape in our area?  Krakauer has nothing to say on this topic.  A second topic is related – the casual sex, hook-up culture found on campus.  As a Christian, I believe the Bible lays out the only proper context of sexual activity, and that is marriage.  You can agree with me, or disagree with me, go right ahead.   But the fact is, trouble always follows when sexual activity is let out of the box that God intended it to be practiced in.  Again, what would happen to the rape culture on campus if the casual sex culture, and our wider sex-worshipping culture, was not there?  Mr. Krakauer does not deal with these topics, and I honestly don’t expect him to as they are taboo in liberal circles, but they are part of the problem.

Missoula is a good read.  It is disturbing and powerful.  And as a man with two daughters, including one in college, the topic of campus rape is one that concerns me personally.  I am glad that the Missoula police, the University of Montana, and even the Missoula Country attorney’s offices are making changes.  Let’s hope they are enough to bring justice to victims of these horrible crimes.

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