“In 2012 I learned that Laura Summers, a woman in her late 20s with whom my wife and I have a close relationship, had been raped when she was in her mid-teens by a male peer,” Jon Krakauer explains at the end of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System In A College Town, his new book about a series of sexual assaults linked to the University of Montana campus there.
“After Laura told me about what she’d endured, I was angry with myself for being so uninformed — not only about her ordeal but about non-stranger rape in general. So I resolved to learn what I could about it. I did a lot of reading, and I sought out rape survivors who were willing to share their stories. Writing this book was an outgrowth of that quest. As the scope of my research expanded, I was stunned to discover that many of my acquaintances, and even several women in my own family, had been sexually assaulted by men they trusted.”
I appreciate that Krakauer has worked to educate himself. But Krakauer’s good intentions have produced a bad book. Missoula recaps a number of rape cases in detail. But Krakauer doesn’t answer the obvious question raised by this admission at the end of the book: How could it be that a smart, worldly journalist knew so little about sexual assault?
One of the things that’s always made Krakauer’s best work so powerful is the way he combines comprehensive technical knowledge, reportage and personal insight. I’m never going to shell out to summit Mount Everest, but Into Thin Air, his account of a 1996 disaster on the mountain, is compelling both for his first-person perspective and the clear way he explains how economics and safety concerns have come into competition. Krakauer’s personal identification with Christopher McCandless, who died in rural Alaska in 1992, has clearly driven his intriguing ongoing reporting into the causes of McCandless’ death.
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The best advice that I’ve ever heard about writing a book is that you should only embark on one if you’re sure it’s a story only you can tell. That’s certainly not the case with Missoula. Other people — including Buzzfeed’s Katie J.M. Baker and Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio, whom Krakauer cites extensively — have told similar stories, with richer reporting and insight into the dynamics of communities where sexual-assault rates appear to spike.
Krakauer recaps trials beat by beat, though he doesn’t appear to have gotten particularly deep in Missoula itself. Among other things, I wish he’d talked to Kristen Pabst, one of the most fascinating figures in the story.
At the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, Pabst appears to have had a record of pleading out or refusing to prosecute rape cases. She would later go into private practice, defending at least one prominent football player accused of rape, and then run for the County Attorney’s seat, positioning herself as tougher on sexual assault than her old boss.
Krakauer recites widely circulated research from clinical psychologist David Lisak and tells a familiar story about college towns that venerate their athletes. But he doesn’t really address whether Missoula is like other college towns when it comes to rape, or if not, how it differs, much less posing any sort of comprehensive package of reforms.
The story Krakauer could have told, and that he could have told better than everyone else, is how it was that he came to be “so uninformed” about rape and why it took the personal experience of women close to him to make him take an interest in the subject. If his “ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed,” where did it come from? If it’s so powerful and cathartic for rape survivors to tell their stories, what does it mean that the “many of my acquaintances, and even several women in my own family, (who) had been sexually assaulted by men they trusted,” never told Krakauer what had happened to them?
If Krakauer had turned his reportorial talents on himself the way the late David Carr did in his memoir The Night of the Gun, he might have produced a more valuable document. Were there statistics, studies or prominent news stories that made Krakauer think that sexual assault was in some way a marginal concern? It would be useful to identify the arguments and ideas that shape his thinking and may have influenced others. How did he talk to his friends and family matters about sex and violence? Did he invite them to open up? Or did he exhibit a lack of the curiosity that made him a reporter in his personal life?
It makes a certain amount of sense that after his revelation, Krakauer felt compelled to elevate the sorts of stories he was ignorant of for so long. He would have done readers and his cause a better service by making his own moral inventory the subject of his work. Individual survivors’ stories are supposed to help us understand sexual assault on a broader level. The individual story of a man who knew little about rape might help us understand the indifference and even contempt that have made comprehensive reform so difficult.
Alyssa Rosenberg writes The Post’s Act Fourblog, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/
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