The riveting and painful news accounts of the St. Paul’s School rape trial are unusual only for being set at one of the most privileged and wealthy private schools in the country. But the story itself has been way too familiar in recent years on college campuses, where the issue of sexual assault has brought colleges massive protests, scrutiny from the federal government, and much institutional soul-searching. Our state university here in Connecticut settled for $1.3m with five plaintiffs who alleged that their complaints of sexual assault and harassment were ignored by UConn, and my alma mater, Amherst College, got a lot of press when a student’s harrowing account of date rape went viral three years ago. Some statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 5 female college students will be sexually assaulted during their college years.
This swirl of dismal realities led me to catch up on a book I’d meant to read when it came out last spring: Missoula, journalist Jon Krakauer’s account of several sexual assaults that occurred – or were alleged to have occurred – at the University of Montana. Krakauer first became known for Into the Wild, the story of a college kid who fled civilization to head out, alone and unaided, as far away as he could get - a tragedy that ended with his death from starvation in a remote reach of Alaska. Krakauer later became famous for his chronicle of a doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air, which again betrayed his fascination with the harshness of nature and those who choose to risk their lives in it.
Given these preoccupations, Missoula seems a strange book for him to have written, and maybe just a strange book, period. It’s part police procedural -- a kind of extended Law and Order episode -- part social-work trauma primer, and part indictment of the inadequacy of the police and criminal justice systems vis-à-vis victims of sexual violence. Krakauer reveals that the book’s origins lay in surprising revelations by a younger female friend about having been raped by an acquaintance years ago; stunned, Krakauer decided to educate himself about the subject. Looking for survivors who would tell him their stories, he set out “to comprehend the repercussions of sexual assault from the perspective of those who have been victimized.” The resulting book lies somewhere between lurid exposé and earnest advocacy journalism.
Missoula delves into four cases that rocked the campus town and severely tested the University administrators charged with adjudicating them. Some are assaults of the most brazen kind, including a gang rape perpetrated by members of the football team; others occupy a vexing zone of ambiguity, in which alcohol, partying and promiscuity blur the picture – and leave prosecutors reluctant to wade in. Krakauer offers a clear-eyed analysis of how our criminal justice system fails victims of sexual assault, and especially of the inherent difficulties of the adversarial trial system, in which zealous defense lawyers do their best to diminish the credibility of the accuser, an effort that almost inescapably re-traumatizes victims. As for the police who investigate sexual assaults, Krakauer points out that the presumption of innocence -- a trial right -- has been broadly misconstrued as an investigational rule, again to the detriment and insult of victims. (It would be strange, he points out, if police answered a call about a robbery and attempted to cast doubt on whether it had happened.)
Krakauer doesn’t go very deep into the protagonists in these cases; they remain pretty generic, and in a book that argues for respecting the humanity of victims, this is a problem. In one large instance there’s also an unsettling disjunction – at least, there was for me – between his take on a case and the reader’s. The centerpiece of the book is a contested sexual encounter between a woman he calls Cecilia and the football team’s star quarterback. The agreed-on facts include the woman’s prior statement to him that she “would totally do you anytime,” her invitation up to her room, and her eager entry into a sexual encounter; where testimony differs is in her subsequent claim to have changed her mind in the middle of it -- after which, she charges, he forced himself on her. The University, acting on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, expels the young man; but when the case goes to trial, the higher probative threshold of the “reasonable doubt” standard results in a verdict of not guilty. Krakauer views this outcome with bitter disappointment, as a failure of the system, while to this reader at least, the facts of the case reflect precisely that, reasonable doubt.
But Missoula’s main fault is its failure to address the catalytic role that a campus culture of excessive drinking and sexual promiscuity plays in these conflagrations -- the general avidity among students, indeed pervasive social pressure, for ingesting massive amounts of booze and chasing the casual sexual hook-up. I’m guessing Krakauer was reluctant to be seen as blaming the victim. But there has to be a way of sounding a cautionary note without doing that. Until college administrators address this challenge, young people will continue to engage each other in circumstances that constitute a kind of mutual moral hazard, with the same distressing results. Krakauer is an enormously talented journalist, and could have done better with this book. As Emily Bazelon noted in her NYT review, “Missoula ends up sounding only one cautionary note in a debate that’s becoming ever more layered and cacophonous.”