Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer: Book Review

missoula jon krakauer book reviewDoubleday / Jon Krakauer
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town Book Cover Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Jon Krakauer
True Crime
April 21, 2015

Missoula, Montana is a typical college town, home to a highly regarded state university whose beloved football team inspires a passionately loyal fan base. Between January 2008 and May 2012, hundreds of students reported sexual assaults to the local police. Few of the cases were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.

In these pages, acclaimed journalist Jon Krakauer investigates a spate of campus rapes that occurred in Missoula over a four-year period. Taking the town as a case study for a crime that is sadly prevalent throughout the nation, Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims: their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the skepticism directed at them by police, prosecutors, and the public; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them. These stories cut through abstract ideological debate about acquaintance rape to demonstrate that it does not happen because women are sending mixed signals or seeking attention. They are victims of a terrible crime, deserving of fairness from our justice system. Rigorously researched, rendered in incisive prose, Missoula stands as an essential call to action.

As my first Jon Krakauer read, Missoula made an interesting first impression. However, I think I went into Missoula with expectations that were too high, to begin with.

Allow me to preface my review with my full acknowledgment that maybe I am not as committed to investigative journalism as I thought. Going into this book seemed like a breeze considering the subject matter—rape and an (in)justice system that more or less fulfills its purpose. I willingly binge out on episodes of Law & Order SVU as if it were how I made my living, so I was certain I’d hit my mark with Missoula. Instead, this book read like a marathon of Criminal Intent—you know, the lesser of the two Law & Order siblings.

Krakauer’s Missoula does a thorough job of executing each individual rape case that’s being recounted in his book. In short, the facts presented in Missoula concern female residents of Missoula, Montana—mostly but not limited to college-aged women—who made claims of being victims of sexual assault. I say “claims” there was still a lot of speculations in this book, some of which weren’t as thoroughly examined as others; and to be honest, there were quite a few I couldn’t keep up with. But that doesn’t dampen how engaging these stories really are.

On the other hand, however, the crux of Krakauer does explore viewpoints of both the accused and the victims, albeit unequally. It goes without saying that rape cases are some of the hardest to prove in the court of law, but especially when trying to point justice in favor of the victim. Because, typically, what these scenarios boil down to is a matter of miscommunication or hearsay—the lines of consent are so easily blurred it makes it so easy for the defense to claim misinterpretation, especially when one or more parties are under the influence (as most are claimed to be in this book). Be it victim-blaming at the expense of reasonable doubt, nonetheless, it’s almost impossible to have an opinion on the matter without ruffling the feathers of the opposing side.

Rape is a much more common crime than most people realize, and women of college age are most frequently the victims.

— excerpt from Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

While Krakauer establishes somewhat of an anonymous presence when recalling the legal proceedings and witness testimonies in each case, it’s difficult to ignore the sense of partisanship that varnishes the majority of his report. I don’t want to sound like one of those people because accusations of rape are nothing to joke around about and I would never minimize the severity of such an issue, but I couldn’t help but feel like, going into this book, there was already a preconceived position that sided with the many victims mentioned in this book.

About 80% of the statements offered in Missoula are by the victims, with interviews and extracted remarks from the assailants to fill in the other, rather small fraction of Krakauer’s report. This made my reading of Missoula even more slanted than I’d hoped. I really wished there was more of a voice from the men who were accused, or at least from their attornies because it leaves little room for disbelief, which can manifest misinformed opinions.

However, Krakauer did make it a point to disclose his process in an author’s note at the very beginning of the book that illustrates his methods and research for writing Missoula:

The research for this book included interviews with victims, their families and acquaintances, and, when possible, the men accused of assaulting the women I wrote about, but I didn’t speak with every victim or every alleged assailant.

— excerpt from Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

Again, to reiterate, I have no dog in this race. Maybe it is because I am so used to watching SVU (fiction or not, it makes a damned good yardstick for the legally incompetent, like myself) that I’ve always felt more comfortable with a leveled understanding from both parties involved. While Krakauer also admits he did not contact every victim or alleged assailant, the imbalance is painfully clear that the testimonies in this book are tilted for a particular narrative. Intended or not, it feigns a biased opinion.

Still, that’s not even what I’m mad at. Other than the bend in the narrative, I thought Missoula was a fairly solid read that was more or less averagely written. In all, I came out of this book learning very little more than what I did going into it.

In fact, my biggest upset had nothing to do with the book at all. It had everything to do with the people within it. Over and over, I had to remind myself that these were not characters I was reading but real-life wounded people who experienced trauma and I wanted to respect that as much as possible. However, some of the actions (and reactions) that took place in this book were playing on my fucking intelligence.

For example, there was a particular revelation from in Allison Huguet’s case that’s struck me since I first flipped the pages in this book over a year ago.

Upon realizing her childhood friend, Beau Donaldson, raped her, Allison insists on speaking with Beau while her mother, Beth Huguet, is present. Unbeknownst to Beau, his confession to raping her is being recorded. Sounds legit enough, right? But what Allison does next is incredibly unreal.

Allison demands an apology and Beau’s oath to seek therapy for his transgressions. What’s even more bizarre is the fact that Beth actually co-signs her daughter’s agreement that would essentially let him off with a slap on the wrist. Not only that but Allison’s terms of keeping hush on the matter so long as he promises never to rape another female again warrants a wicked side-eye…

(Yeah, just let that settle in for a moment.) A mother is consenting to her daughter’s requests to let her rapist go free so long as he doesn’t rape anyone else. What is the hell sort of positive reinforcement this?!

“You really need to look hard into your life,” Beth scolded, “and take stock, and think of how you need to improve on it. I guess our concern is—and tell me if I’m wrong here, Allison—one of the things that makes her want to go to the police on this, Beau, is the fact that she doesn’t want this to ever happen to another girl…”

“Honestly, if I hear of one incident, Beau—if I hear about any female ever saying that you touched them, I will go right to the police….”

— excerpt from Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

I’m sorry, but I remember throwing my book across the room when I first read this fucking passage, and my feelings remain unmoved. Allison’s proposal is unbelievable and Beth’s willingness to go through with it was appalling. I don’t know a mother in this world who would allow the man who just raped her daughter walk free, not without a few broken limbs at least. understand they’d known each other since childhood but this is your fucking daughter, for Christ’s sake! How do you let someone off like that? (Please do tell me if you thought I over-exaggerated this part because I couldn’t imagine any parent, let alone a mother, responding in this way.)

Another scene that really fucked me up was Jamie Merifield’s blatantly biased interrogation of Zeke Adams in the case of Kerry Barrett. Hearing Merifield side with Zeke in her query when she’s supposed to remain unbiased really frustrated me because it’s these sorts of inappropriate and unethical practices that lead to real cases of sexual assault (and any assault, for that matter) be thrown out because of “insufficient evidence.” It’s scary how much power we allocate to these people whose judgments can be so easily swayed.

The question is: Would I pick up another Krakauer? Well, to answer that, I already have. I own Under the Banner of Heaven (which I am most interested in starting) and a few others by him. So honestly, yes, I would. I don’t dislike Krakauer but I couldn’t get into this one as heavy as I wanted.

Nevertheless, Missoula delivers an extensive critique of just how fleeting and flawed out justice system still is today. Whether or not it can ever be fixed is an immortal question that refuses to be answered, and that’s the scariest reality of all.

This post contains affiliate links and if you make a purchase after clicking on our links Paperback Paris will receive a small commission.

Paris Close
the authorParis Close
Founding Editor. Give me Gillian Flynn or give me death.