Jon Krakauer’s latest book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, is a cry of outrage over the mistreatment of rape victims by universities and authorities.
Known for his best-selling books about trekking the Himalayas (Into Thin Air) and surviving in the wilderness (Into the Wild), Krakauer has entered a national debate with Missoula—and is now being threatened with lawsuits and libel by two defense attorneys mentioned in the book.
The book comes weeks after a damning report from the Columbia University Journalism School on Rolling Stone’s now-retracted article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. Krakauer brings literary clout to an important subject that has been dominated by feminist and victims’ voices in mainstream media. But does Missoula tell us anything we didn’t already know about rape on American campuses?
Below, the most damning indictments from Krakauer’s new book.
University of Montana is a “rape-tolerant” campus.
In 2011, a local newspaper reported several rape cases at the University of Montana that implicated the school’s beloved Grizzly football players as sexual predators. In 2010, four were accused of gang-raping a female student while she was incapacitated by alcohol. A year later, three others were accused of sexually assaulting two female students.
None of the seven players were charged, but the media attention prompted an investigation into the school. Conducted by former Montana Supreme Court justice Diane Barz, the investigation confirmed much of what was suggested in the original news story: the campus, she wrote, was “rape-tolerant.” She highlighted nine “identified incidents” of sexual assault at the university, many of which were committed by Grizzlies.
“At the top of the list,” Krakauer writes, was the rape of Allison Huguet by Beau Donaldson.
“I remember waking up to Beau moaning, and a lot of pressure and pain.”
One night in September 2010, Allison Huguet woke up with her jeans and underwear pulled down to her knees. Her friend, Beau Donaldson, was penetrating her from behind.
“I remember waking up to Beau moaning,” she later testified, “and a lot of pressure and pain.”
She had been drinking that night and was only partially conscious, she said. She assumed that if he would rape her while she was sleeping, there was a good chance he’d physically harm her if she resisted him. After all, he was a linebacker and weighed 100 pounds more than she did. “He could have just snapped my neck like a twig,” Huguet told Krakauer, “so I just lay there and pretended to be asleep.”
When he finished and left the room, she pulled up her pants (Donaldson had “torn off the button and mangled the zipper,” Krakauer writes) and ran from his house. She called her mom and told her she’d been raped.
Kelsey Belnap recalled being heavily intoxicated when her assailant, a 240-pound defensive lineman for the Grizzlies, “grabbed her jaw, pulled it open, and thrust his erect penis into her mouth. She tried pushing him away, but to no effect. She remembered drifting “in and out of awareness” for the next two hours as different men came into the room and took turns raping her.
The same nurse who had examined Huguet examined Belnap the evening of the alleged assault, writing in her notes that Belnap had “multiple genital lacerations” suggesting penetrative trauma. (The nurse later told detectives that it was “possible” the lacerations could have resulted from consensual sex). Police determined there was not enough evidence to prosecute Belnat's case.
Kaitlyn Kelley woke up to Calvin Smith “repeatedly violently penetrating my vagina with three of his fingers,” she told Krakauer, adding that she pulled his hand away and told him multiple times to “stop, no,” though she said it quietly because she didn’t want to wake her roommate. He then tried to “penetrate my anus with the same force… and then stated, ‘it’s okay, I just want to make you squirt.’” In interviews with detectives, Smith claimed the incident was consensual. Police decided not to arrest him because of a lack of “probable cause,” or a lack of evidence to persuade someone that the charges were true. Smith was expelled, but Kelley—and Krakauer—argue that police should have pressed charges.
Police and prosecutors are disproportionately preoccupied with “weeding out false rape accusations.”
Missoula is unyielding in its indictment of rape culture perpetuated by college athletes who are glorified in their communities. In many cases, when their lawyers aren’t telling them what to say, those accused make shockingly fatuous excuses for their behavior. Donaldson, for example, told friends and family that he “couldn’t have raped Huguet” because they had slept together on many previous occasions.
But Krakauer aims his criticism at authorities, who, he argues, are responsible for the fact that an “overwhelming majority of rapists get away scot-free.” They put more effort into “weeding out false rape accusations” than they do into “pursuing charges against those who are guilty,” he writes. Too often, the authorities prevent victims from providing crucial information by interviewing them from “a position of suspicion.” He cites Ronald Reagan’s approach to international diplomacy as a good model for prosecutors: to “trust, but verify” victims’ stories.
Of the three University of Montana rape cases written about by Krakauer, two went to court. Plodding through these courtroom scenes—which include detailed testimonies from victims, assailants, witnesses, parents—Krakauer highlights what he believes to be egregious misconduct by key players in the justice system. He portrays Kirsten Pabst, a Missoula County prosecutor, as a rape denialist who is invariably sympathetic to the assailants. Later, in a move that appears to bolster Krakauer’s view, Pabst quits her job and becomes a defense lawyer for accused rapist Jordan Johnson, the Grizzlies’ star quarterback. (Johnson was acquitted).
Despite a system that is partial to assailants, rapists are punished in two of the three cases on which Krakauer focuses.
This is the biggest flaw of Krakauer’s book. There is no doubt that rape victims are often treated poorly by authorities in the process of reporting their rape. But of the three cases that Krakauer focuses on, including the rape of Allison Huguet, two of the three assailants were punished. Football player Beau Donaldson, who pleaded guilty to raping his former friend Allison Huguet, is now serving a 10-year prison sentence in Montana state prison.
Focusing on a case where justice was served to illustrate a justice system in desperate need of reform is rather bizarre. It also makes Krakauer’s case less compelling.
Missoula also focuses too much on the nine reported assaults identified in Diane Barz’s investigation. At a university of 10,000 undergraduates, nine “identified incidents” over 13 months aren’t indicative of an epidemic of rape on campus. Of course, nine reported assaults is still too many, but they were all investigated by the university and led to the expulsion of at least one assailant, Calvin Smith. As the book makes clear, others would likely have been expelled, too, if the alleged victims didn’t decide to stop pursuing disciplinary action with the school.
But Barz’s report made national news that resulted in greater scrutiny of Missoula. Three months later, the Department of Justice launched a separate investigation into both the University of Montana and the college town of Missoula. Rape in Missoula, it seemed, was so prevalent—and poorly adjudicated—that the feds were intervening. They cited 80 reported rapes, an apparent scourge, over the course of three years among reasons for the investigation. But according to the latest FBI statistics, that number mirrored the average of reported rapes in American cities the same size as Missoula.
“Ashamed” of his ignorance, Krakauer was inspired to write Missoula by friend’s horrific story.
Krakauer waits until the end of the book to tell readers how he came to write Missoula. In 2012, Krakauer’s friend Laura—now in her twenties—confided to him that she had been raped twice: once in her late teens by a peer, the second time by a “trusted family friend.”
“The men who assaulted her didn’t just steal her innocence; they poisoned her understanding of who she was,” Krakauer writes indignantly and inelegantly. “They transformed her into a kind of ghost, trapped forever in the act of being violated.”
After hearing Laura’s story, Krakauer was “angry at myself for being so uninformed—not only about her ordeal but about non-stranger rape in general… My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.” From that shame came a resolve to educate himself about rape, about how it is adjudicated in criminal courts and on campuses, and to speak to survivors. His reporting on rape in Missoula was “an outgrowth of that quest.”
Missoula successfully informs readers about non-stranger rape, the indelible damage it does to victims, and a justice system that is too often stacked against them. But by focusing primarily on the reported campus rapes at the University of Montana, which cooperated with investigations and was frequently more sympathetic towards victims than authorities, Krakauer ended up with a less compelling book.
But the biggest problem for Krakauer is that he fails to further illuminate this national crisis or deepen our understanding of it.