We gave it a B+
Jon Krakauer has ventured into precarious terrain before in best-sellers like Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, but those extreme adventures were more like strolls in the park compared with what he’s navigating this time: campus sex, acquaintance rape, and institutional and cultural impediments to justice for many traumatized young women. Missoula examines a wave of alleged sexual assaults that occurred at the University of Montana between 2010 and 2012—when the town was dubbed “America’s rape capital.” The book is a devastating exposé of colleges and local law enforcement when it comes to investigating and prosecuting campus sex crimes. The college town was ripped apart by the avalanche of ugly headlines, especially because several of the accused men were prominent members of the school’s successful football team, one of whom went to prison for drunkenly raping a friend he’d known since first grade.
The crimes are grim—they’ll be especially tough to read about if you’re the parent of college-age daughters—and the University of Montana handled them abysmally. But it’s the justice system for which Krakauer reserves his most stinging indictments. The Missoula police treated rape accusations like unfortunate adolescent misunderstandings, and even in cases where they ultimately did recommend prosecution, an intransigent county attorney’s office filed charges only 12 percent of the time—reflecting a self-serving preference for taking sure things to trial. A heads-up to readers of the book: “It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict,” according to trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. “The bystander is forced to take sides.” Indeed, the writer does at times. Krakauer comes across as more crusading journalist than dispassionate bystander, occasionally presuming guilt in cases where the evidence is not so black-and-white, as if the legal process were simultaneously insufficient and inconvenient. He’s a better journalist than he is a lawyer, but even if parts of Missoula can be picked apart by legal scholars, it’s a substantive deep dive into the morass of campus sex crimes, where the victim is too often treated like the accused. B+
“Missoula’s greatest source of civic pride, hands down, is the University of Montana football team, the beloved Grizzlies of the Big Sky Conference….”