Jon Krakauer’s Missoula is the true-crime story of a handful of acquaintance rapes in one college town. Krakauer, who happens to be my favorite narrative nonfiction writer, uses the same technique he applied in his last two books about fundamentalist Mormons and a covered-up death in Afghanistan, respectively, to examine the way a single American community handled a number of university rape cases.
His is essentially the Truman Capote school of reconstructive nonfiction, with less embellishment: Krakauer threads the crimes themselves into the trials and their aftermaths, but in this case he’s solving neither a murder nor a mystery. He’s taking something that we think of as banal (campus date rape), and using a step-by-step style to bestow gripping suspense on his subject and garner our obsessive interest in the proceedings. None of the stories Krakauer chose to write about in Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, all involving University of Montana students, are particularly “sensational” on their own (there is one horrifying gang rape, but it’s not a central story), yet they are all the more heartbreaking because of the way we get to know the characters (including the families of the accused rapists).
The writer pieces these elements together with a skill that renders his book, at times, a page-turner. During the trial scenes in particular, the reader may hold her breath waiting to see if a victim gets justice. In the initial set-up of the book, the network of friendships on campus enables an understanding of how far-reaching the problem is. One victim runs into another, and suddenly we’ve moved on to the next date-rape story, which is heartbreakingly familiar and unique at the same time. There’s even a section towards the end of Missoula about a back-and-forth between the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice that reads like a compelling TV drama constructed entirely of memo excerpts.
There are many feats that Missoula neither achieves nor attempts. Not once does Krakauer use the phrase “rape culture,” although he shows how rape culture operates. He avoids the term “victim-blaming,” although he writes frequently of society’s tendency to blame victims and victims’ tendency to blame themselves. He similarly eschews feminist language and ideas like “patriarchy” or even “power structure,” and only refers to “feminism” a handful of times, while making an incredibly feminist concept come to life, stripped of jargon:
Rape ur-text Against Our Will and Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth may be cited in Missoula, but their ideas are less explicitly presented and instead drawn in to the stories being told. When the reader closes the book, he or she will understand exactly how social, legal, and institutional forces conspire to keep victims from speaking up, from seeing justice done. Krakauer includes Internet comments and courtroom scenes that demonstrate how communities rally around beloved athletes and public figures even when they confess to rape. Through firsthand accounts and psychological studies, he shows us the trauma of rape, both physical and emotional, and how it plays out over a long time, creating fear and anxiety in victims. Their houses become tombs walled in by depression, or perhaps they act out, recreating their trauma through risky sex.
Though it paints a picture, Missoula is less painterly than the author’s gorgeous series of mountaineering books, less chilling than his explorations into cover-ups and crimes in the fundamentalist Mormon community. It’s more of a detailed pencil sketch. He doesn’t stray across centuries and geographies, remaining almost claustrophobically clinical and local. There are a few sections that feel like Rape 101 — this is, after all, writing for a general audience.
Because of his laser focus, Krakauer can partially sidestep the critique that he’s impinging on feminist writers’ territory, or tackling subjects that have already been covered. In fact, the author gives a plethora of credit to the prominent feminist writer who covered the city of Missoula before, Katie J. M. Baker of Jezebel and BuzzFeed, quoting blocks of text from her and scrupulously attributing her findings. He also comes to fairly feminist conclusions: prosecutors’ offices need to devote resources to capably handling these cases; false rape accusations are rare; it’s reasonable for some victims to expect redress from universities instead of the legal system; it’s legally and morally correct to begin from the position of believing a victim and then seek corroboration; entitlement, impunity, and power lead to rape.
Yet some of the goodwill the book might garner was put at risk by Krakauer’s highly irritating NPR interview, in which he said he’d never thought about rape much and essentially acted as if decades of activism on the subject didn’t exist — explaining how shocked he was to realize this was common. A thousand women listeners banged their heads. This raises the legitimate question of whether it’s permissible, from the perspective of social justice, for a white man to come in and take on a major feminist topic with the eyes of an admitted newbie — and make considerable money off of it. In essence: Is Krakauer mansplaining rape? Is he appropriating the work of dozens and dozens of feminist writers who piece through the detritus of rape culture every day to tell stories and try to make a change?
Thankfully, Krakauer’s book isn’t a piece of feminist advocacy or even feminist journalism. Instead, it’s another product of a singular mind, and let’s be honest; Krakauer probably would have made more money going back to the wilderness. Instead, he chose to use his considerable skills and notably obsessive mind to show, not tell, the lessons of rape culture. I have no idea whether his rock-climbing fanboys will follow him into this new territory, but if they do, Krakauer is a skilled guide. My guess is his “Aw, shucks, I never thought about rape” persona in interviews is an attempt to lead those fans who are initially uncomfortable with the topic into the book, where they will face his straightforwardly presented evidence.
The truth is, it may be impossible for entrenched feminist writers to write about rape the way Krakauer does. With any sort of broad-based social injustice, once you see the light, which many women sadly do early on, it’s hard to back up and break things down to the basic elements that Krakauer uses. This is presumably why he roves from topic to topic, moving on once he gains an understanding of how a system (the FLDS church, the army, rape prosecutions) functions, almost always nefariously.
Yet because misconceptions around rape persist, feminism may benefit from this kind of “drop-in” writing that uses only the power of example to dispel myths. And we may need it to come from smart people who don’t understand intrinsically the structures that oppress others. This is a hard idea to swallow, and I understand that some will never accept this model of allyship. Perhaps I’m justifying Krakauer because I am a devourer of his writing, but I nonetheless echo other feminist writers in hoping this book becomes mandatory reading for college freshmen, prosecutors, fraternities, football coaches and others who need it. Krakauer isn’t speaking to “us.” He’s speaking to his mainstream audience, and many of them are probably as ignorant as he admits he was. By some standards, that’s called being an ally. But by any standards, it’s being a good writer.