Krakauer Defends Latest Book on College Rape in Missoula

The bestselling author fielded questions in front of 600 people last night

Jon Krakauer’s newest book recounts a sexual assault crisis at the University of Montana between 2008 and 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

There were no lines outside Missoula’s Fact and Fiction bookstore on April 21, when Jon Krakauer’s latest book was released. “Nothing like when a new James Lee Burke goes on sale,” says storeowner Barbara Theroux. Still, there was a steady stream of people—several hundred in the first week—trickling in to buy their own copy of the most controversial book in Missoula. 

Krakauer has made a brand out of his I’m-not-here-to-make-friends reporting. His books have excoriated Everest climbers, unmasked the Mormon church, and lambasted Greg Mortenson for fabricating parts of Three Cups of Tea. But it’s usually in service of what he sees as an important cause.

His latest work is no exception. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town ($29, Doubleday) is a page-turning primer on acquaintance rape—the most underreported crime in America—and a revealing account of a sexual assault crisis at the University of Montana from 2008 to 2012. Missoula’s poor response to these rapes led to national scrutiny and a yearlong Department of Justice investigation. 

“It’s not always an easy read,” says Theroux, who is donating proceeds from the book’s sales to two local sexual assault response centers. “There are some tough sections. But I think it has achieved the goal of starting a discussion about rape on college campuses and what communities should do to help.” 

That discussion began in February, when news broke that Krakauer was releasing a book about rape in Missoula, titled Missoula. The town of 70,0000 in western Montana is accustomed to recognition for being an outdoorsman’s paradise; to be branded as a case study in campus rape was something new. Even before it was released, the book was stirring up plenty of local ire.

“I am so disappointed in the title of your book,” said one woman on Krakauer’s Facebook page. “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” 

In his book, Krakauer did point out that Missoula’s rape rate—350 reported rapes in just over four years—is slightly less than average for a town of its size. But many Missoulians felt sucker-punched for a problem that affects communities nationwide. 

Last night, Krakauer faced the town for the first time since the book’s release. The ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel was filled to capacity with more than 600 people—including a few of the prosecutors, detectives, and lawyers Krakauer wrote about—as he answered questions from Larry Abramson, dean of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. Krakauer may have expected a tide of detractors, but the audience gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced.

Abramson asked Krakauer why he chose to write about rape in Missoula when he could have written about his own hometown, Boulder, where the University of Colorado is under federal investigation for the way the University of Colorado handled sexual violence complaints. “I wish someone would write a book about Boulder,” Krakauer said. “I like Missoula. It’s a wonderful town. It didn’t seem like this town would be so defensive.”  

Krakauer said he set out to write about sexual assault after learning that a family friend had been raped by an acquaintance. He was tracking rape cases around the country and came to Missoula to attend the sentencing of Beau Donaldson, a University of Montana football player who pled guilty to raping his childhood friend, Allison Huguet. 

“I was riveted,” Krakauer said. “She was so courageous. I literally wanted to stand up and cheer.” He knew he could write a short book about that case alone. But once he started digging, he found a pattern of rape cases falling through the cracks of the justice system. “There were good people making bad decisions, there were bad people making bad decisions,” he said. “I wanted to tell the victims’ view.”  

Seated in an armchair on a small stage, Krakauer was at turns impassioned, cantankerous, and unapologetic. He didn’t pander. At one point he said that many prosecutors needed to “get [their] fucking act together” and pursue more rape cases. 

Abramson pointed out that Krakauer wrote most of the book based on transcripts and recordings and didn’t even try to interview key players like the county attorney or the university president. “My plan from the get-go was not to rely on interviews,” Krakauer said. “I needed to get documents.” It was partly a legal concern—he was writing about litigious people and didn’t want his book stuck in libel limbo. It was also a matter of perspective. “I have a point of view in this book,” he said, “but it’s balanced. I really despise this ‘he said, she said’ journalism.”  

Some feminists have criticized Krakauer for cashing in on a subject that women have written about for years. Others complain that he fails to explain the greater cultural context—binge drinking on campuses, male entitlement—that enables rape. Krakauer said he made a conscious decision to focus the book on victims. “It is what it is,” he shrugged. “It has its limitations. It’s the best I could do.”

When asked how communities can prevent rapes, Krakauer said the criminal justice system is a good place to start. “Rape is a serious crime that is not being taken seriously,” he said. Krakauer doesn’t deny that people are wrongly convicted of rape. “I’m just saying for every one, there’s at least 100 women raped, and their rapist walked away laughing.” 

Before the forum ended—abruptly, with a heckler being booed off the microphone—Abramson asked Krakauer if he would send his daughter to college in Missoula. “I would,” he said. “I think the university is safer now than most schools. Missoula is a lot better than most places. You have this big problem, but you’ve gone a long way toward fixing it.”

Krakauer spends most of his book diving into the problem side of that equation. He highlights the yearlong Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that exposed shortcomings in the way the University of Montana, Missoula Police Department, and Missoula County Attorney’s Office handled sexual assaults. But he spends little time discussing the specific changes initiated by the DOJ and what they mean for sexual assault victims in Missoula. 

“The DOJ investigation, the immediate coverage after it, and the Krakauer book have fundamentally changed the dialogue in Missoula,” says victims advocate Shantelle Gaynor, the program supervisor for Missoula’s Relationship Violence Services, a public victim’s advocacy office. “It’s created movement.”

In the three years Krakauer spent writing Missoula, the University of Montana (UM), the police department, and the prosecutor’s office have all established agreements with the DOJ to reform their handling of sexual assault. (The prosecutor’s office agreed to oversight by Montana’s attorney general only last June, after first filing a lawsuit against the DOJ.)

The university’s response to sexual assault began at the end of 2011, when it hired former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to investigate an eruption of rapes on campus. That report, and specific demands in the subsequent DOJ agreement, led to UM implementing training for everyone on campus. Students, faculty, and staff all conduct mandatory online tutorials on sexual assault. The university has ordered any faculty or staff member who learns of a rape to report it to the Title IX office within 24 hours. It also collects data from students in an annual “climate survey.” The DOJ has called its agreement with UM “a blueprint that can serve as a model for campuses across the nation.” Currently, 55 colleges and universities are facing federal investigations over how they investigate campus rape.

“What’s happening at the university is important, but it needs to be part of a much larger conversation,” Gaynor says. “There’s no magic presentation that’s going to change the world. There’s a whole lot of culture this message is up against.” 

But every additional layer of education helps, she says, from Amy Schumer sketches to dorm presentations. “The criminal justice system alone is not going to end these forms of violence,” Gaynor says. “We need to do much more work on the prevention side.”

The changes are also important for the university’s bottom line. Concern lingers over how the book—the cover of which features the campus’ Main Hall—will affect already shrinking enrollment. “I hope that it doesn’t,” says university legal counsel Lucy France. “Personally, I grew up here. I raised my kids here. I think it’s the best place in the world to live.”

For its part, Gaynor says the Missoula Police Department has become more victim-focused in its investigations. Krakauer cites cases in which officers doubted or even blamed women who reported being raped. (Statistically, fewer than 10 percent of rape allegations are false.) Now, police are trained to work with traumatized victims. More officers are assigned to sexual assault cases, and a victim’s advocate assists in investigations. The changes may be working. Reports of rape nearly doubled between 2012 and 2014—ironically, a good sign.  

“When you see increased reporting,” Gaynor says, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an increase of crime. It often means there’s an increase of trust.”

Getting more sexual assault victims to step forward is important because only about 20 percent of rapes are reported. “The police have made some fundamental changes,” Gaynor says. Fewer victims are backing out of investigations, and surveys indicate victims feel they are being treated well by officers. 

That doesn’t mean Krakauer’s book is going over well among the rank and file. “Very few have read it,” says Public Information Officer Sergeant Travis Welsh. “I don’t have any plan to read the book.” 

Krakauer reserves most of his criticism for Kirsten Pabst, who left her position as chief deputy county attorney to successfully defend star UM quarterback Jordan Johnson in a highly publicized rape trial. After his acquittal, she was elected to county attorney, having campaigned on a promise of reforming the office to show more compassion toward victims. Given her history, Krakauer and many Missoulians question her commitment to prosecuting sexual assault cases. 

Pabst refused to answer emailed questions for this story; instead, she sent a list of the changes the Missoula County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) has made at the behest of the DOJ and Montana’s attorney general. The MCAO created a Special Victims Unit, in which four full-time prosecutors focus on sexual assault and family violence. These prosecutors have special training and a smaller caseload. They meet weekly with police to discuss cases. The office has also created a “softer” conference room to interview victims in a less intimidating atmosphere. An independent technical adviser has been hired to monitor their effectiveness for two years. 

“Has their prosecution of sexual assaults increased?” Gaynor wonders. “Statistically speaking, it’s too soon to tell. The one thing that hasn’t changed for them is that they still have a huge caseload. Even in the Special Victims Unit.”

And that gets to the heart of the matter, Gaynor says. “Law enforcement and prosecutors are a reflection of what the community thinks of these issues,” she says. “At first there was no attention, then there was shock and outrage, now comes the commitment.” 

When the limelight fades, will taxpayers be willing to fund the additional personnel and ongoing training needed to create sustainable change in holding rapists accountable? “Time will tell,” Gaynor says. “If it was cheap and easy, it would be done already. Just like smoking. Just like drinking and driving. Just like getting people out of their chairs and into the woods. It takes so much to change behavior.”  

Filed To: Books / Missoula
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