Former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, center, reacts to being acquitted of rape charges during his trial in Missoula, Mont., in 2013. Jon Krakauer’s new book, “Missoula,” investigates the campus’s culture and its response to sexual assault cases. (Matt Gouras/Associated Press)

Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor to the Atlantic.

Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

By Jon Krakauer

Doubleday. 367 pp. $28.95

Rarely have I greeted the news of a forthcoming book with as much excitement as I felt when I learned of Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula.” Krakauer is a writer of profound talents; his previous works have examined complicated subjects with compassion and the combination of literary and moral authority that comes from deep and scrupulous reporting by a writer of first-rate intelligence. What topic could possibly be more in need of such strengths than college sexual assault, which has dominated so much of the national conversation over the past few years? It is, moreover, a topic that has provided a rich temptation for those who might exploit it for their own gain: moral entrepreneurs, vote-seeking politicians and — as we have seen in the Rolling Stone disaster — unscrupulous reporters eager to compose a thrilling exposé. Here, at last, was the person for the job.

Krakauer bases his exploration on a scandal that emerged last year on the Missoula campus of the University of Montana: The school had such a high rate of sexual assaults (often involving members of its football team) that both the university’s president and the Justice Department had initiated investigations into the situation. For a bright media moment, these events burned intensely in the public consciousness, occasioning, among other things, a Time magazine cover story. But they just as quickly fizzled away, once reporters investigated and learned that the rate of reported rapes at Missoula — of both students and non-students — was no greater than anywhere else in the country. What had seemed an urgent national scandal turned out to consist of a confused and confusing set of facts and statistics that pointed in several directions at once. And so the caravan moved on.

“Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” by Jon Krakauer. (Doubleday/ )

That Krakauer chose to revisit the events at the university suggested — strongly — that the media had somehow missed the story. Surely this was possible: Despite the debunking that took place, there was a lingering sense that something very bad had happened at Missoula.

Krakauer attests that the university’s own investigation of the problem, conducted by a former Montana Supreme Court justice named Diane Barz, resulted in a damning assessment: The campus was “rape-tolerant.” Her report identified nine cases of sexual assault at the university, many of which were committed by members of the football team. “At the top of the list,” Krakauer writes portentously, was the rape of a young woman named Allison Huguet by a football player named Beau Donaldson.

I read on, eager to understand this centrally important case, which provides the overarching narrative of the entire book. What I found surprised me. The rape was indeed heinous, perpetrated against Huguet by a young man who had been a close friend from her childhood. But the judicial response to her report of the rape, made to police some 15 months after the crime, hardly constitutes a miscarriage of justice. The young man pleaded guilty and is now serving a 10-year prison term. That this case — unequivocally abhorrent but roundly punished — should be the book’s central example of a justice system out of control is puzzling.

So, too, is a simple bit of math. While Krakauer’s book is filled with what he accurately calls a “sprawling cast of characters” and employs a method that involves visiting and revisiting individual rape reports several times — thus leaving the impression that the volume recounts a disturbingly large number of assaults — the book seems primarily concerned with just the nine “identified incidents” enumerated in Barz’s initial report. That’s nine reported assaults over a period of 13 months at a university of 10,000 undergraduates — hardly a crime wave. Nor was the university unresponsive to the victims’ complaints: It initiated investigations into all of them, resulting in the expulsion of at least one student from the University of Montana; there might have been more if several of the victims had not chosen to discontinue the process.

More compelling are Krakauer’s descriptions of problems within the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, an operation apparently overly concerned with maintaining a high percentage of convictions, thus leaving more-difficult cases untried. He describes insensitive police interviews with victims, as well as an egregious incident in which the office waited a full five weeks before interviewing four football players accused of gang rape, by which point all four “had had ample opportunity to rehearse their stories.” Charges were never filed.

Two things stand out about the collection of cases that Krakauer reports. The first is that members of the football team were disproportionately involved in these incidents, a fact that seems to be true at a number of universities and that points to just one of the myriad problems presented by the practices of many big-time, Division I football programs. The second is that the consumption of titanic amounts of alcohol by young women in the company of powerfully built men whom they did not know well — and whom they sometimes invited to their beds for snuggling or making out — greatly increased their vulnerability to assault. Forcing sex on a woman incapacitated by alcohol is a vile, criminal act. But attempting to correct the college sexual assault problem without fully addressing this fundamental component of it is bound to prove futile.

But what makes the book confusing is the distance between its tone of smoldering outrage — the kind suited to vast and blatant acts of injustice — and the fundamental facts on the ground. We are not looking at an especially large number of sex crimes, or at a university that refused to deal with accusations, or even at a district attorney’s office that offered no help to victims: Two of the nine cases did result in criminal trials, one of which ended in a prison sentence. Most of the others seemed to lack either witnesses or definitive physical evidence of nonconsensual sex; in a jury system that depends on the presumption of innocence, how could the office have reasonably been expected to bring such cases to trial?

It is only at the very end of the book that we find out that this was a personal exercise for Krakauer. He writes that he had recently learned that a young woman whom he and his wife know well had been raped on two separate occasions, events that had set her on a path of deeply self-destructive behavior. Shocked by this new knowledge about his young friend, Krakauer became “angry with myself for being so uninformed . . . about non stranger rape.” He began to research the topic, and in so doing discovered that many of his acquaintances and even members of his family had been raped. “I’d had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain,” he writes. “My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.”

“Missoula,” then, comes to us partly as an act of expiation, a book with a mission: to inform readers of certain brutal facts about rape and the way it can alter its victims’ lives, and to highlight the difficulty victims often experience in their search for justice. But basing it on the reported sex crimes at the University of Montana — which yet again reveal themselves to be no special example of institutional indifference — may have undermined the enterprise. There is certainly great suffering described in these pages, but the book will do more to reinforce its readers’ various opinions about college sexual assault than to bring huge numbers of them to a new understanding of its basic realities.

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