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

“It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who is disbelieved can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is unjustly accused of rape. And without question, the former happens much more frequently than the latter.”

MissoulaKrakauer’s book Missoula, published this year, describes the course of several rape cases that occurred in the college town of Missoula, Montana. The book details the circumstances of the assaults as well as the response by police, university administration, the Missoula County Attorney’s office, the media, and the citizens of Missoula.

Missoula is a compelling but deeply upsetting book to read, not only because of the assaults on these women, but also the traumatic injustice of how their cases were indifferently and even hostilely handled by authorities. After one woman reported her rape to the police, an officer asked her if she had a boyfriend. She answered “No, I don’t. Why?” “And he said something to the effect of “Well, sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends, and regret it, and then claim they were raped.”

This conversation is just one example of a seemingly omnipresent and reflexive response to rape: an immediate suspicion and in many cases, a persistent belief, that the rape accusation is false. Even in the case of Beau Donaldson, who confessed on tape to raping his longtime friend Allison Huguet, his family and friends still spread rumors that it was a false accusation.

Then there were those people who didn’t participate in that level of denial, but still resisted the idea of Donaldson serving real time for his crime. Witnesses testified at Donaldson’s sentencing hearing that what he did was “out of character” and a “mistake”, despite a second woman coming forward to testify that Donaldson had also sexually assaulted her (her friends had to break down the door to stop it.) In this case and in others in the book, there is a disgusting amount of community hand-wringing over the possible ruination of these men’s reputations and futures – disgusting because of the substantially lower amount of concern given to the traumatized victims.

Krakauer’s book focuses on both the university adjudication process and the criminal justice system’s handling of these rape cases. Although criticism is aimed at both the police and the university officials, I think the Missoula County Attorney’s Office possibly edged out the others for receiving the harshest criticism in the book.

According to the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, from January 2008 through April 2012 the Missoula Police Department referred 114 reports of sexual assault of adult women to the MCAO for prosecution. A “referral” indicated that the police department had completed its investigation of the case in question, determined that there was probable cause to charge the individual accused of sexual assault, and recommended that the case be prosecuted. Of the 114 sexual assaults referred for prosecution, however, the MCAO filed charges in only 14 of those cases.

Among the people working for the MCAO, Kirsten Pabst is particularly singled out for criticism. She was the supervisor of MCAO’s sexual assault division during all but two months of the above time range. Her first appearance in the book is a description of her agreement to testify in support of an accused rapist, Calvin Harris, during a University Court proceeding in November 2011. Pabst had declined to prosecute him in criminal court. In her testimony to the University, Pabst characterized the case as “clear-cut”, though she had never talked to the victim, and Pabst’s description of the case got many pertinent details wrong.

Pabst resigned from MCAO in March 2012 to start her own law firm, and about a month later, became co-counsel in defending Univ. of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson in a very contentious and public rape trial. Her and her fellow defense counsel’s court behavior is weaselly and low; Krakauer points out that the current justice system fosters such behavior. In the end, Johnson was found not guilty, and Pabst was later elected to be the Missoula County Attorney, boosted by citizens pleased by her defense of the quarterback of their beloved football team. She still holds that office. (And is none too pleased about Krakauer’s book.)

Krakauer makes it clear from the beginning that Missoula is not unusual in the amount of rape cases it has, or in its many failures in handling those cases. This book is not about an anomaly, but about a national problem. Because the public and the justice system still do not grasp the realities of non-stranger rape, serial sexual predators are able to assault a number of victims without fear of being caught, because they don’t fit the stereotype of the “man jumping out from the bushes.”

I still remember the shock and anger I felt when I first encountered the reflexive belief that false rape accusations are prevalent. I was a college sophomore and had just learned about the molestation of a teenager I knew. I told some friends about it, and my friend’s boyfriend’s immediate response was to pontificate about false rape accusations and how they can destroy men’s reputations. Neither the victim or the perpetrator was anyone he knew – it happened in a different part of the country entirely. I was furious. He treated a story of someone I cared about as an opportunity to highlight what he apparently saw as the more pressing concern.

I’m glad I read Missoula, despite the drain on my emotions and the rise in my blood pressure. I’m glad Krakauer used his authorial stature and his research acumen to address this area of injustice.

I do recommend this book, though I should add that I read it as someone who has never been sexually assaulted or witnessed a sexual assault. Anyone who has qualms about reading it due to personal experience should feel okay with skipping it. Maybe read some reviews of it, short interviews of the author, etc if you want to be informed without going through the intense retelling of the rape cases.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Amy’s Book Obsession – “What an important exploration of rape and the justice system, using Missoula as a case study! After working with sexual assault victims for many years, this book really resonated with the experiences that I saw with my own clients (and a few friends who experienced rape & didn’t have great experiences with the justice system).”

Kalireads.com – “Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.”

The Well-Read Redhead – “While I expected Krakauer to take particular issue with Jordan Johnson’s case (as he was acquitted of rape), I was compelled by the fact that his book does not attack the verdict itself, but rather the way in which it was reached.  Krakauer does not attempt to play judge-and-jury . . . what he does do is dismantle the appalling tactics used by the defense throughout the trial, as well as the many problems with how the prosecution moved forward with the victim’s case.”

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6 responses to “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

  1. Kay

    I have a copy of this on audio and am just waiting for the right time to listen. I know it will be upsetting, but I’ve enjoyed other books by Jon Krakauer. Terrible topic but important to discuss. You wrote a very nice review.

    • Thanks! Definitely the importance of what I was reading spurred me on through the emotions. I’ve read only one other book by Krakauer, Into Thin Air, and would like to check out Under the Banner of Heaven someday.

  2. Emily @ Books, the Universe & Everything

    Great review! I really need to get to this one soon – I have the audiobook of it, and I think it’s next on my queue after I finish my current audiobook. I know it will be upsetting, but it’s an important book.

  3. I’m glad this book exists, because I think it’s important to have this conversation. And at the same time, it really, really frustrates me that this is getting so, so much attention, while writing by women that highlights the same problems in the culture is so often ignored. Grrrrr.

    • Yeah, in another review of this book, someone called it “man-streaming” (like a combo of mansplaining and mainstreaming). After finishing Missoula, I added Jody Raphael’s Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion and Victim Blaming are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis to my to-read list.

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