Missoula: The Book Every College Freshman (and You) Need to Read

I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. Not a day has passed since I closed the cover that I haven’t contemplated its harrowing account of the sexual assault scandal that enveloped the town of Missoula, its university (the University of Montana) and its revered football team, the Griz, from 2010 through 2012. The book is a powerful work of investigative journalism that challenged some of my beliefs about the incidence of sexual assault on campus.missoula

What Missoula is about.  The book recounts the results of University of Montana (UM) and Department of Justice investigations that were launched after reports surfaced that several Griz football players had allegedly raped or otherwise sexually assaulted female students. The university’s report uncovered evidence of nine sexual assaults by UM students (not all of them football players) over a 15-month period. DOJ’s investigation was broader, and included a review of sexual assaults of all women in Missoula, not just university students.  The focus of the federal probe was the failure of the university, local police and the county attorney’s office (the Montana equivalent of a district attorney) to adequately address complaints of sexual assault.

Turns out Missoula is not actually the nation’s rape capital. In the frenzy of media publicity that followed these reports, Missoula was labeled the rape capital of America. Krakauer points out that this label was unfair. The rate of sexual assaults in Missoula actually is on par with other college towns of Missoula’s size. What made the situation in Missoula stand out were the sometimes troubling responses of the agencies and institutions to which the sexual assaults were reported. Those kinds of responses were founded in unwarranted but ingrained skepticism about the veracity of victims who report having been sexually assaulted and a widespread lack of understanding of the dynamics of sexual assaults by acquaintances rather than strangers. What makes the book stand out is the ease with which one can imagine the very same events transpiring in many other college towns.

Parallel investigations. Missoula discusses in detail UM’s procedures for adjudicating allegations of sexual assault by its students and how those procedures relate to and contrast with the criminal prosecution of sexual assault.  Krakauer makes a convincing case for investigating and prosecuting claims of sexual assault on these parallel tracks, pointing out that universities can dispose of cases more quickly and without affording the same degree of procedural protections to an alleged perpetrator as are required for criminal prosecution.

Robust review of research. Missoula describes the findings of studies exploring the incidence of sexual assault as well as how victims respond to being sexually assaulted by someone they know. One of the more fascinating studies reviewed in the book is “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” by David Lisak and Paul M. Miller, which was published in 2002. The study involved a random sample of nearly 2,000 young men who were students at university in Boston between 1991 and 1998. Based on the subjects’ answers to questionnaires, study identified 120 of the men, 6.4 percent of the sample, as rapists.  Moreover, the study concluded that 76 of the 120 were responsible for 439 rapes, average of nearly 6 assaults per rapist.

Not everyone charged is guilty. Though Missoula focuses on the plight of disbelieved victims, Krakauer acknowledges that false claims of sexual assault do occur. Krakauer cites the infamous Duke Lacrosse case from March 2006 as well as the 2002 rape prosecution of high school junior Brian Banks as notable circumstances in which blameless men were falsely accused of rape. Banks’ story was new to me and is indeed tragic. Rather than attending the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, Banks spent five years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Banks’ accuser admitted to him after he was released from prison that she had fabricated the allegations, apparently to prevent her mother from learning that she was sexually active. Banks was exonerated in 2012, which turned out to be too late to revive his once-promising prospects of becoming a professional football player.

Like Law and Order.  The centerpiece of Missoula is its play-by-play review of the sentencing of one UM football player who pled guilty to rape and the prosecution of another who pled not guilty. I was on the edge of my seat when the jury returned. I wanted the bailiff to get on with formalities and read the verdict.  Despite Krakauer’s extensive review of the evidence, I wasn’t at all sure what that verdict would be.  And I won’t spoil it for you.

Krakauer is not a lawyer, and the book is written from the perspective of a (very-informed) layperson.  As a result, Missoula gave me insight about how such a person might view the criminal justice system.  There were times when I was frustrated by that perspective. At first, I wondered whether Krakauer understood the difficulties of proving rape charges. But later in the book, it became clear that he did. For the most part, I appreciated Krakauer’s outsider viewpoint, and found his observations startling insightful.

Why should college freshman–and you–read Missoula? Krakauer deftly describes the social activities and interactions of modern-day university students without passing judgment. That description includes accounts of undergraduates drinking alcohol to great excess and the prevalence of casual attitudes about sex. Krakauer refuses to cede, however, that sexual assaults by acquaintances are an unavoidable byproduct of such a culture. College freshman would benefit from hearing the accounts of events that transpired following heavy drinking by university students. University administrators obviously ought to be similarly informed. And Missoula offers something for law nerds of all stripes, covering sentencing law, professional ethics, investigative protocols, political intrigue, civil rights, and trial procedure.



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