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

As Katie J. M. Baker observed in her Jezebel article, "In Missoula...drunk guys who may have 'made mistakes' nearly always get the benefit of the doubt. Drunk girls however, do not." (66)
Now should we treat women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don't get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren't careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them. - Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth (emphasis added) (7)

I don't usually read new releases unless I feel incredibly strongly connected to them. I knew reading it would leave me compelled to throw the book across the room and even more disappointed in humanity than I already was, but considered it necessary. In this case, I found this one especially important, because of my own experience with sexual abuse, and because of the many women I know and have encountered in my life who have experienced similar situations to my own and those in the book. I will acknowledge up front that I am not impartial when it comes to rape and sexual assault cases; I will believe the victim until proven otherwise. After reading Missoula, I stand by that even more.

Jon Krakauer found himself driven to write about sexual assault after finding out that a longtime, close family friend had been raped. Following this revelation, Krakauer talked with many other women in his life and discovered that many of them had had similar experiences. Around the same time, he was reading some articles that were attempting to expose the massive cluster that was Missoula and its prosecution of rape cases. He started investigating one particular case, and unfortunately the pool of information about similar cases grew from there. Krakauer uses several specific cases in the book, most especially the case of Allison Huguet and Beau Donaldson.

I think there were several overarching issues that Krakauer wanted to illustrate utilizing examples from Missoula as a cautionary tale; issues related to sexual assault—and more specifically to perceptions and misconceptions, and how we prosecute these cases. For me, the three that stand out are the myth of the stranger rapist, the ambiguity in some people's minds of what constitutes rape, and the overwhelming prevalence of victim blaming that still exists.

We still have a widely held misconception that rape is perpetrated most often by a scary stranger in a ski mask who jumps out of the bushes or lurks in a home and attacks; the truth of it is, the majority of rapes ("well over 80 percent") are actually committed by "non-strangers." As we see in Missoula, many people have a hard time reconciling the "good person" they think they know with the rapist that person is accused of being. Another less emphasized yet related issue that Krakauer addresses is the erroneous statistics about the number of women who claim they were raped, but were really just unsatisfied with the consensual sexual experience or were dating someone else and didn't want to own up to having cheated on them. Common sense should tell people that's a ridiculous notion if they even take one glance at the hell women go through when they accuse someone of raping them. In Missoula, there's the added variable of the football team pride tied into the whole problem. While to some extent it's understandable that people would struggle to label a friend or family member a rapist, the level to which these people will absolutely delude themselves in order to avoid doing so is staggering.

This misconception about stranger/non-stranger offenders is also related to the issue of ambiguity in sexual assault cases. Recently there has been a push to emphasize "yes means yes" rather than the age-old adage of "no means no." In several instances included in the book, rapists were defended by friends and family because they insisted that the girl hadn't said no, or that she may even have "obeyed" when asked to participate in certain acts. Krakauer relates the psychology of why the latter might be the case, when women fear for their safety and think, "If I don't do what he wants, I might not make it out of here." Many people still have the antiquated idea that a woman has not been raped unless she has fought essentially to the end of her life to prevent it happening.

These two factors, in turn, tie into the third point: victim blaming. This is perhaps most poignantly related with the example of Allison Huguet. When her lifelong friend Beau Donaldson raped her, she struggled with it. She felt incredibly guilty about the impact it might have on his life when she accused him because he was her friend. But ultimately Donaldson admitted to having raped her, and even pled guilty in order to receive a reduced sentence. And yet there were still mutual friends and community members who accused Huguet of having lied about the assault, of ruining Donaldson's life. There was still so much vitriol against her even though he admitted to raping her. Donaldson was not meant to have a parole hearing for several more years, but towards the end of the book, Krakauer tells us about how Donaldson actually requested his sentence to be changed. Meanwhile, Huguet is thinking that she can finally start to rebuild her life because Donaldson had signed the plea with the understanding that he was not able to have any further action until his parole hearing. Donaldson's parents plea for his life, insisting he's a good boy who made a mistake—or, as we find out, at least two mistakes, as another girl later came forward saying that her life had been irrevocably shattered when Donaldson assaulted her—and that he's already given years of his life for the mistake that he made, not even acknowledging the fact that Huguet has to live with the psychological repercussions of the assault for the rest of her life. Once again, to some extent I can understand that you don't want your child to be in prison; however, if that's the case, perhaps you should have taught him not to rape women. And knowing that he is guilty, how can you not want him to be held responsible for his actions? The degree to which people will say, "But that young man's life is going to be ruined" without taking even a split second to consider how that young woman's life has been upended is appalling to me. They're obviously different cases and fights, but it reminds me of things like the protests and riots that we have been taking place in the past year or so, and people being more upset about the destruction from the riots than they are about people being murdered by the police. Where are your priorities?!

There are also quotes like this from the book, related to the defense attorney representing one of the young men accused of rape. Pabst in this case is a defense attorney, who was actually a district attorney decidedly not prosecuting rapes until she quit to start her own practice. "Suddenly, [Cecilia Washburn] was getting a lot of attention from her friends," Pabst explained to the jury. "Attention from the dean of the pharmacy school...Attention by Dean Charles Couture, the then dean of students; by the Crime Victim Advocate office; by the nurse, [Claire] Francoeur...Miss Washburn got attention by the investigator and by the prosecutor. Her regret was replaced by sympathy, attention, and support, and a little bit of drama, and a little bit of celebrity...Her regret, fueled by drama, became purpose. She received a new public—and important—identity: victim." Yes indeed. It's every woman's dream to become a celebrity based on their rape victim status. All young girls think, "Perhaps one day, I can accuse a promising young football star of rape, and I'll become famous as a result of my false accusations. Ah. One day."

I read several articles and interviews with Krakauer regarding this book and I found him incredibly thoughtful about the subject matter, and also very real about his own ignorance prior to investigating the Missoula cases. He also seemed to answer some of the concerns mentioned in Emily Bazelon's NY Times review in his interview with Medium. In Bazelon's review, she indicates that Krakauer kind of missed out on an opportunity to give us more insight into the victim's lives, to make us feel more emotionally connected to them. She says, "He tells us little about these women outside of the experience of reporting rape and coping with the aftermath, reducing them, however inadvertently, to victimhood." While I do agree with her to an extent—that telling us more about the lives of these women would have done more to "humanize" them, make them more real—I appreciated his response as well. He says, "...I was very cognizant of you're going to be attacked for this—I tried to keep it to just the facts. I tried to just rely on documents...I wasn't trying to create heroes and villains." I think it's worth reading the articles, which I have linked below.

Missoula infuriated and frustrated me, and reminded me of moments in my life that I would much rather forget. But I encourage everyone to struggle through it. It was incredibly difficult but necessary, I think; perhaps one of the most important books that I've ever read. I guarantee at least one astounding statistic or realization. Perhaps it will get us one step closer to a place where books like this no longer have to be written.

Popular Posts