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In May 2012, I spent a weekend in Missoula, Montana, after the Justice Department announced that it would examine the city’s handling of sexual assault allegations. The feds’ goal was to determine whether the city’s police department, its county attorney’s office, and its flagship university had allowed gender discrimination to obstruct the investigation and prosecution of rape, including a spate of high-profile incidents involving members of the University of Montana’s beloved football team. My goal was simply to speak with young Missoulians, including sexual assault survivors and their doubters, to get their read on the scandal.
I concluded that Missoula didn’t deserve its budding reputation as America’s “rape capital,” as one guy I interviewed put it. Missoula was on par with the rest of the country, both in terms of reported rapes and the belief that women are liars and football players “don’t need to rape to get fucked,” as a male student proclaimed. Like its citizens said, the mountain city was “just like any other college town,” I wrote. “What is happening in Missoula can — and is — happening all around us.”
Nevertheless, I was attacked for smearing Missoula’s good name, as if it were my fault that four football players were accused of gang-raping a woman, or that city officials had done such an egregious job of mishandling sexual assault allegations that the DOJ had to step in. My essay inspired outraged op-eds and a radio campaign arguing that I had unfairly demonized the town. One man sent me an email bragging about how he had posted my cell phone number online. As he had hoped, I got calls and text messages for days.
Three years and a damning DOJ report later, Missoula is apparently “hyperventilating” over Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, a narrative nonfiction page-turner out next week from Jon Krakauer, the best-selling author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. (Disclaimer: Krakauer references some of my reporting.) It’s understandable that Missoulians are sick of bad publicity, especially since the university, city police, and prosecutors have made significant changes in the way they handle rape cases thanks to the federal probe. But Krakauer’s book — based on three years he spent conducting interviews, attending court proceedings, and poring over police and UM disciplinary reports — reiterates that the real scandal is that Missoula is not at all an anomaly.
Krakauer certainly excels at holding city officials accountable. Missoulians should be dismayed after reading about the vicious ways current County Attorney Kirsten Pabst, who ran on a platform last year that included “compassion for victims,” smeared those alleged victims behind closed doors. Pabst won by distancing herself from her work as chief deputy county attorney from 2006 to 2012, the years when, according to the Justice Department report, the office neglected to provide basic training about sexual assault and frequently made statements “diminishing the seriousness of sexual violence and minimizing the culpability of those who commit it.” Krakauer quotes court transcripts from the 2013 trial in which Pabst took a yearlong break from being a prosecutor to successfully defend former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson against rape allegations. “[The accuser] wanted a relationship with the star quarterback,” she told the jury. “That’s why she gave him sex ... but the fact that he didn’t give her a relationship does not make what happened that night a crime.” In another chapter, Krakauer writes of Pabst’s bizarre decision to show up at a UM campus adjudication hearing to testify on behalf of an accused student after her office had declined to press charges, even though she had never once spoken with his accuser.
Still, Missoula is not an attack on Missoula. It’s an indictment of a criminal justice system that discourages rape victims from coming forward and an exploration of why so many people instinctively give rapists, not victims, the benefit of the doubt. What’s unique about Missoula is that a group of brave and relentless women refused to be bullied into staying quiet, inciting landmark change against all odds. These women, some of whom have remained anonymous until now, are the stars of Krakauer’s book. The recent retraction of a Rolling Stone article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia has sparked a debate about sympathetic reporting and the trustworthiness of trauma victims. Missoula demonstrates that it’s not only possible but advantageous for reporters to remain clear-eyed while also taking victims’ concerns into account. Krakauer skillfully strengthens his sources’ recollections without taking away their agency. He doesn’t hide from complexity or nuance.
“No more than 20 percent of rapes are reported to the police, a statistic that defies comprehension until one looks closely at how sexual-assault cases are adjudicated in the United States,” Krakauer writes. To illustrate this point, Krakauer tracked two rape trials involving UM football players with very different outcomes. He also interviewed a handful of women whose claims were shut down by police and prosecutors who told them — incorrectly, in Krakauer's assessment — that they didn’t have a case.
If there is a success story in Missoula, it’s Allison Huguet’s. Previously known only as the nameless victim responsible for sending former UM Grizzlies running back Beau Donaldson to prison, Huguet had been friends with her rapist since childhood. At first, Donaldson tearfully confessed to raping Huguet in her sleep, and Huguet told him she wouldn’t report him to the police if he sought help. When that didn’t happen, she got ready for battle: A lawyer friend told her to prepare for the “hardest, nastiest fight” of her life. It took two tape-recorded confessions, a second victim who testified that Donaldson had also sexually assaulted her, multiple agonizing court hearings dominated by Donaldson’s hostile lawyer, and a detective who had known and liked Huguet since high school to hold Donaldson accountable. Huguet struggled with PTSD and immense backlash from the community as she was repeatedly forced to argue why Donaldson was dangerous and should be punished.
“The night Beau chose to wait until I was alone, asleep and defenseless, walk over to me, pull down my pants, pull down my underwear, pull down his pants, pull out his dick, and shove it into me, he gave me a life sentence — a life in which I have to work every day to get through the pain,” Huguet testified during a hearing after Donaldson asked the Montana Supreme Court to reconsider his sentence. “Some days I have to convince myself if it is even worth it.”
Huguet, sadly, is one of the lucky ones. The Department of Justice eventually found “substantial evidence” that Missoula's response to sexual assault was discriminatory toward women. In Missoula, police officers and prosecutors ask women who report sexual assault whether they have boyfriends because sometimes girls cheat “and regret it, and then claim they were raped.” The former chief of police agrees that one woman likely, in Krakauer's words, “eagerly engaged in painful, injurious sex with four men she’d never met before that evening,” and goes out of his way to harass an alleged victim, including emailing her incorrect information about false rape reports. Although some university officials are sympathetic, others consider disciplinary action against women who speak to reporters and support the high-powered lawyers representing football players accused of sexual assault. One lawyer produces a life-size cardboard cutout of an alleged victim in court and simulates having sex with it to prove she’s a liar in front of the victim and her family. District attorneys criticize women who speak out as “disgruntled” and blame them for the so-called scandal.
Throughout the book, everyone from city and university officials to anonymous internet commenters wonder why women might want to ruin the lives of nice young men by accusing them of rape. Are they regretful? Fame-hungry? Jealous? All of the women in Missoula told Krakauer that they had the same motive for reporting their assaults: to hold their assailants accountable for what they did and to prevent them from doing it to anyone else. Krakauer’s reporting shows how their stories are linked together: As each woman spoke out, another gained the courage to come forward. And as each new woman came forward, she bolstered the claims of the women before her. Some of these women have never even met each other. But in Missoula, their support network is more dependable than the cops or courts.
The current national movement around campus sexual assault has led many well-meaning people to wonder why victims don’t bypass university disciplinary hearings and go directly to the police. Missoula is a necessary reminder that while campus adjudication is deeply flawed, the criminal justice system is often much worse. According to the DOJ investigation, from 2008 to 2012, the Attorney’s Office prosecuted only 12 percent of the sexual assault cases involving adult women referred to it by the police — and those were the cases the police didn’t shut down. Law enforcement consultants say that Missoula officials have shown “exceptional effort” in improving its response to reports of sexual assault. But what happens in all the other cities in the country where female outcry doesn’t yield a federal probe?
Krakauer writes that predators get away with rape because we are in denial, “disinclined to believe that someone who’s an attentive student or a congenial athlete could also be a serial rapist.” His argument, backed up in anecdotes and peer-reviewed scientific papers, is that we must start believing the women who are courageous enough to accuse them. “Simply by recounting their stories and breaking that silence, survivors of sexual assault strike a powerful blow against their assailants,” Krakauer writes. “Many victims who come forward will be disbelieved and will fail to find justice ... but by speaking out, they are likely to encourage other victims to tell their stories, too, and may find that they’ve advanced their own recovery in the bargain.”
But Krakauer’s own reporting shows that, on an individual level, victims still have little incentive to speak out. There’s too much at stake, and too little a chance anyone will listen. There are even repercussions for the female reporters who cover other women’s sexual assaults. I’m not the only one who was slammed for covering Missoula — Gwen Florio, a former senior reporter for the Missoulian, was viciously attacked by both city officials and readers for her persistent and sympathetic coverage. But without Florio’s reporting, Krakauer writes, women wouldn’t have continued to come forward to the press, the Department of Justice wouldn’t have launched its investigation, and today’s reforms wouldn’t exist.
Near the end of Missoula, a jury member laments that most people think about rape in two ways: “(1) A stranger jumps out from the bushes; (2) There is no [assault] unless the woman puts up a fight, to the death if necessary.” It shouldn’t take a compelling courtroom drama or a rugged, best-selling male author to convince us to take women with more complicated stories seriously. But neither should the burden fall completely on the women themselves. Perhaps Missoula will convince Krakauer’s massive fan base — the first printing by Doubleday will be 500,000 copies — to reconsider their own attitudes toward sexual assault.