‘Missoula’ Jon Krakauer examines college rape epidemic

MISSOULA: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. By Jon Krakauer. Doubleday. 384 pages. $28.95.

In a recent article titled “Will new focus on rape test kits put thousands behind bars?” the Associated Press reported that a “dramatic shift is now taking hold across the country as police and prosecutors scramble to process these (rape) kits, and use DNA matches to track down predators, many of whom have attacked more women while evidence of their crime is in storage.”

Lawmakers in more than 20 states are taking action to begin processing the overwhelming backlog of rape kits. In March, the federal government announced — under its Sexual Assault Kit initiative — a $41 million investment to help support law enforcement agencies’ testing backlogged rape kits.

This initiative is a step in the right direction, but the frustrating reality is that processing a rape kit does not always lead to a conviction. The truth, illustrated in “Missoula” by best-selling author Jon Krakauer, is that all too often rapists go free, rape kit or not. Krakauer dives deep into the complex issue of rape through the accounts of several young women at the University of Montana during the years of 2010-12.

Fans of Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild” should know that this book does not follow the gripping, adrenalin fueled style of those acclaimed narratives. This time it feels personal, and, in fact, the author says that he began working on this story after he learned that a close friend was sexually assaulted. In “Missoula,” Krakauer examines a series of heartbreaking events on the UM campus to raise awareness of sexual assaults, and to give a voice to the victims.

These victims are Alison Huguet, Kerry Barrett, Kaitlyn Kelly, and Cecilia Washburn who were students at UM when they were raped by colleagues. Several of the accused were Grizzlies football players. In first-person accounts, these women describe in disturbing detail how they were held down and forced to have sex against their will. (Readers, be warned of the R rated content in these sections.) In each episode, alcohol was involved, and I wish that Krakauer had offered insight into the connection between binge drinking and rape. While he doesn’t spend time examining the role of alcohol on college campuses, he profiles the lives of these young women and demonstrates how they were transformed by sexual assault.

Once vibrant young women, Alison, Kerry, Kaitlyn and Cecilia, after they were raped, struggled to stay in school, found themselves crying uncontrollably and were scared to be alone. Many felt guilty and ashamed. One of the victims reported that she felt responsible and wondered if she had done something to make her rapist think that his behavior was what she wanted. She avoided reporting the rape because of these conflicting emotions and because she thought she could “just move past it.” But of course, she couldn’t.

In a particularly disturbing interview conducted by David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and one of the nation’s foremost experts in rape and trauma, a young man states, “We have parties every weekend. That’s what my fraternity was known for. We’d invite a bunch of girls, lay out a bunch of kegs or whatever we were drinking that night. And everyone would just get plastered. ... We’d be on the lookout for the good-looking girls, especially the freshmen, the really young ones. They were the easiest. ... The naive ones were the easiest. And they’d be the ones we’d target.”

The student goes on to describe taking the drunken girl to a bedroom, holding her down with his arms, and leaning on her arms until she stopped squirming.

Another disturbing but important aspect of this story is the adoration heaped upon the Grizzlies football players, and the willingness of the community to look away from the crimes committed by several of the players.

Krakauer examines the ways in which this scandal divided the community.

The series of rapes was reported by local media and drew national attention from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. An article on the website Jezebel titled “My Weekend in America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’ ” went viral. The University Court was quick to respond to the claims and Krakauer goes to great lengths to report on the political mishaps between the university and the U.S. Department of Justice, and the seemingly unscrupulous tactics by the lawyers representing the accused.

While his writing drags in the sections devoted to the legalities of the story, Krakauer’s excellent reporting and research offers eye-opening statistics, including the fact that rape is the most underreported crime in the nation, and that at least 80 percent of rapes are never reported to police.

The most compelling chapters focus on the stories of the individual women who come across as particularly strong in the face of such conflict, but also made me wonder how many other women could do the same? How many other women would not speak up and instead, “just try to move past it”? Krakauer gives us this piece of evidence as an answer: “Statistically, the odds that any given rape was committed by a serial offender are around 90 percent. ... By reporting this rape, the victim is giving you an opportunity to put this guy away.”

In the end, one wishes for justice and truth to prevail and for the rapists to be properly punished, but, of course, that doesn’t happen. Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. However, examining the backlog of rape kits will begin the process of taking these assailants off the streets. This book, too, will raise awareness and hopefully be a catalyst for change.

“Rapists rely on the silence of their victims to elude accountability,” Krakauer writes. “Simply by recounting their stories and breaking that silence, survivors of sexual assault strike a powerful blow against their assailants.”

Reviewer Amy S. Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.