Jon Krakauer has an impressive bibliography. Into Thin Air, about the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest; Into the Wild, the tragedy of Christopher McCandless, who undertook a fatal adventure into the Alaskan wilderness; Under The Banner of Heaven, an in-depth investigation of the religious-fueled murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby, to name a few.
Initially, Missoula seems a departure from Krakauer’s usual fare. Named for the town in which it is set, Missoula, Montana, Krakauer explores the shocking events that prompted a 2012 investigation. Young women reported a rash of rapes (some committed by members of the town’s beloved football team) and an abysmal failure to prosecute them.
In Missoula, there is no wilderness, no adventure and little inspiration. Instead, it is a setting dominated by violence, frustrating legal loopholes, never-ending procedures and ultimately, a lack of any real resolution.
Yet Missoula is just as gripping, visceral, timely and full of heartbreakingly human characters as any of his other works. And like his other books, it forces us to re-examine how we treat the people around us and the values we claim to uphold.
Krakauer does not spare his readers any details; we are forced to confront the horror of what the girls in Missoula went through. He describes what it is like for Allison Huguet to fall asleep on a childhood friend’s sofa after a party, then wake up to find him moaning while he rapes her. Kelsey Belnap details swimming in and out of consciousness, finding someone forcing her to perform oral sex, and then later waking to herself bent over a bed while men come in and out of the room to have sex with her. He recounts the violent assault of Kaitlyn Kelly, whose attacker leaves her sheets and mattress covered in blood after violently jamming his fingers into her repeatedly, and steals her jeans when he leaves to brag about his sexual conquest. Perhaps harder to read, he reports how hard each girl has to fight for each assault to be recognized, and watch as some of the perpetrators wriggle free of real punishment, aided by a system sympathetic to them.
Critics have noted that Krakauer has clearly taken sides in the book. While Krakauer may not hide his empathy for the victims in the book, what critics may not realize is the extent to which art is reflecting life. Rape victims who go public face incredible hostility, undergo humiliation and very seldom is there justice at the end of the road. (Even after the publication of the book, the girls are fighting opposition. Kristen Pabst, a lawyer painted in an unflattering light for her actions during the trials of the boys, attempted to smear Belnap’s image in response.)
Krakauer also brings up the case of Brian Banks, who was falsely accused of rape. He was eventually exonerated after 5 years in prison, but as an athlete, it robbed him of 5 crucial years in his career, not to mention the emotional trauma he underwent.
Krakauer notes that the incidence of false rape is said to be around 2-8% and writes, quite compellingly:
“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.”
Krakauer wrote the book after finding out that a friend had been sexually assaulted twice in her lifetime. Said Krakauer, “I’d had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain. My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.”
Ignorance about rape in general is astounding – so embedded is rape culture that some rapists don’t realize they’ve committed it. Krakauer reports a 2009 study in which researchers asked enlisted Navy a group of questions, careful not to include the word ‘rape’ to see the responses:
Have you attempted to have sexual intercourse with a female when she didn’t want to by giving her alcohol or drugs but you did NOT succeed?
Have you made a female have sexual intercourse by giving her alcohol or drugs or getting her high or drunk?
Have you attempted to have sexual intercourse with a female when she didn’t want to by threatening or using some degree of force but you did NOT succeed?
Have you made a female have sexual intercourse by using some degree of force or threatening to harm her?
Have you made a female do other sexual things like anal sex, oral sex, or putting fingers or objects inside of her or you by using some degree of force or threatening to harm her?
13% answered yes to at least one of the questions. They did not consider what they had done rape. Rape was seen as strangers jumping out of bushes. “Nice guys” didn’t rape.
It is little surprise, with an accepted entitlement to others’ bodies, vicious retaliation against victims who speak out and thin hope of conviction, that rape remains such a pervasive phenomenon.
Indeed, what is the most tragic about Missoula, as noted in the book itself, is that Krakauer didn’t choose to focus on the town because it was an exception in its level of sexual assault. Missoula, in fact, has a lower-than-average rate of sexual assault.
The fact that this is happening with such frequency, in so many places, and remains such, is as Krakauer says, “that’s the real scandal.”