I would not normally pick up a book about sports, rape, and local government in Missoula, Montana, as none of these subjects is necessarily appealing to me.
But I’ve been a huge fan of Jon Krakauer for years. Also, the rape allegation in my novel, The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife, has created quite a stir in book club discussions. And finally, my household has been overflowing with both testosterone and sports news for the past twenty-some years (I have a husband and three sons). So I went ahead and ordered Mr. Krakauer’s new book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town almost as soon as it came out.
As with his other narrative nonfiction books, Mr. Krakauer has clearly done his research, including extensive interviews with rape victims, some of the young men accused of rape, various university officials, and members of the city and county legal system. And, also like his other books, he has come to teach us not only about these heinous crimes but about our society as a whole.
Several truths about rape
Rape victims, he said, frequently exhibit behavior that’s confusing to the outside world, which is one reason why they are often not believed when they make their accusations. During the rape, for example, most women will actually not scream or fight because the fear is so overwhelming. When I read this in the book, it actually didn’t surprise me; I remember discussing with girlfriends long ago what we would do if we were physically assaulted, and the prevailing opinion was to lie back and let it happen and get it over with quickly so it didn’t turn into something even worse. Unfortunately, when a woman doesn’t fight off an assailant, she can’t stop it from happening and, perhaps worse, it’s harder to prove whether she ever said no.
Behavior of rape victims can be perplexing after the assault, too. They often don’t want to acknowledge (to themselves or others) what actually happened, for a variety of reasons. As Allison Huguet (one of the victims Mr. Krakauer interviewed) put it, “your mind is pretty good at blocking out traumatic experiences and preventing you from thinking about them. At least until something comes along to trigger you.” Even worse, rape victims sometimes, surprisingly, become more promiscuous in self-destructive ways after the incident. Freud named this “repetition compulsion” and says it’s an unconscious attempt to “gain control over the traumatic event and thereby extinguish it.”
Mr. Krakauer also reported several disturbing statistics about sexual-assault crimes:
- 80% of rapes are never reported to law enforcement agencies.
- 85% of rapes are committed by people with whom the victim is acquainted (which can make the trauma even more complex because there is a loss of trust as well as the loss of dignity, sense of security, control, privacy, and the other losses that many rape victims experience).
- Only a small percentage of these “non-stranger” incidents are successfully prosecuted, often because these assailants don’t fit the image of a deranged rapist.
- 90% of rapes are committed by a serial offender, which is the byproduct of rapes not being reported or successfully prosecuted.
- Females between 16 and 24 face a higher risk of being sexually assaulted than any other age group, and it’s during the first few weeks on a college campus that a woman is most vulnerable when she is “in the midst of negotiating the fraught transition from girlhood to womanhood.”
Athletes are some of the most common serial rapists
“Recent sexual-assault cases in fanatical football towns such as Tallahassee, Florida; South Bend, Indiana; Seattle, Washington; and Columbia, Missouri, give credence to the notion that if the defendants are star players, it can be difficult to hold them accountable,” wrote Mr. Krakauer.
His assertion is supported by one of Missoula’s deputy county attorneys, who admitted that it was unlikely to expect much prison time for the accused athletes because the community was “in thrall to Griz football,” referring to the University of Montana Grizzlies team. Even more telling was a statement made by Pat Williams, a member of the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education, who said the University of Montana was recruiting thugs involved in rapes, other personal assaults, and vandalism. He said the “players were pampered and adored. Too many of them had the feeling they were bulletproof and immune to the rules that all of us must follow. They acted like arrogant marauders.”
I’ve been quasi-following athlete-criminals for several years now, and it makes me ill when I hear about college or professional athletes who get away with crimes. Yet it doesn’t surprise me, given what I personally witnessed when my own kids were in middle school. Whether it was bullying or smoking pot on school property, I saw first hand a number of student athletes who were given a pass and not held accountable for their behavior when rules were strictly enforced for non-athletes. I have never understood why an athlete is so godlike that he or she doesn’t need to be held to the same standard as the rest of us. If anything, I would expect those in the limelight to be held to a higher standard. But that’s apparently not the way we roll.
The result of this dichotomy in acceptable behavior was explained in part by Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. In his October 18, 2014 New York Times op-ed, which Mr. Krakauer quoted in the book, Mr. Bissinger asserted that athletes get mixed messages. They’re accustomed to being harshly criticized for their mistakes on the playing field, but then are treated with kid gloves in real life. “If someone gets into trouble, the first move is for an authority figure, usually in the form of a coach, to get them out of it.”
In other words, our athletes learn that they won’t be held accountable for their actions off the field. When you factor this into the equation, along with the notion that the community worships them and that most rape cases aren’t reported or successfully prosecuted, it’s no wonder our athletes learn to behave as if living in an anarchy.
And then there’s our judicial system
As we see on Law and Order: SVU, prosecutors won’t take on cases they don’t think they’ll win. This is why they are often unlikely to take on a rape case. (In fact, according to Mr. Krakauer, one of the reasons a Missoula county prosecutor could boast a 99% win rate was because she only accepted 12% of the sexual-assault cases referred to her by the police.)
And they’re not only afraid of losing. Prosecutors, and jurors, are also hugely afraid of convicting an innocent man.
So when cases do come to court, everyone in the judicial system works hard to make sure they get to the truth. Which sounds good, but the way they do it isn’t always so nice.
If you’ve ever watched Law and Order: SVU then you know that victims are not exactly treated well when they take the witness stand. Mr. Krakauer emphasized that this is the way it plays out in real life too when he quoted Judith Lewis Herman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Aggressive argument, selective presentation of the facts, and psychological attack” are perceived as appropriate methods for finding the truth, she said.
Mr. Krakauer rightfully called this verbal combat and “egregious misconduct by trial lawyers,” especially when considering the emotional, perhaps even neurochemical, needs of rape victims. These women need social acknowledgement and support, not verbal abuse and questions of credibility. They need to be able to tell their stories in their own way, not in a rule-oriented (and shall I add male-dominated?) courtroom. They need to regain a sense of control over their lives, which is hard to do when they’re facing nasty interrogations and may even have to relive the experience in the courtroom with their assailant(s) sitting across the table.
As if all of this isn’t enough to question the propriety of how courts handle these delicate cases, Mr. Krakauer also said it’s common for lawyers to deliberately make untrue statements in court. Although this isn’t exactly a shock to my system, what I did find interesting was his assertion that defense counsel gets away with this more than prosecutors. And what makes this terrifying is that, whereas a wrongfully accused defendant can request an appeal, there is no appeals process to overturn a wrongful acquittal that might have been based on a defense attorney’s lies.
I can’t say I “enjoyed” this book; who would enjoy a book with this subject matter? Further, I will say that, in my opinion, this book didn’t live up to Mr. Krakauer’s other works in terms of craft. The organization of events was redundant at times and confusing at other times, although in his defense these sorts of cases are indeed confusing. Although my heart went out to the girls who had been raped, and also to various family members, I didn’t get a strong sense of empathy for any one character in particular. There were moments when Mr. Krakauer slipped into subjectivity when I would have preferred a more objective presentation of the facts. And, finally, I wish this book had gone beyond Missoula. True, there were a few brief references to the wider scope of the problems of non-stranger rape, sexual-assaults on campus, and athletes getting away with far too much, but I would have appreciated it if the author had invested more time exploring just how deep and pervasive these problems are. Of course, he might have had to change the title if he had, but the statement he made in writing this book would have carried far more weight.
Still, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is a worthwhile read as an introduction to the sort of tumult that’s advancing across our country at an alarming rate and that, somehow, has to be stopped.