The strange property of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is its atmospheric numbingness. It does a good enough job of narrating a series of rapes that occur at the University of Montana. The victims are young women students of the University. The rapists are, or are purported to be, football players for the most part. Krakauer obviously means the example of Missoula to stand as the symbol of a much broader problem in the United States, that of the prevalence of rape not only in college campuses but in general society as well. He focuses especially on the inability or unwillingness of the justice system—police, district attorneys, defense attorneys, court proceedings--to handle crimes of rape.
Krakauer shows how rape victims, as soon as they report their crimes, become figures of suspicion to the law enforcement system that should be defending them. One of the first questions many police officers ask rape victims is whether they have boyfriends. They ask this question because they suspect the victims have invented the rape as a way of getting revenge on boyfriends who have been unfaithful or who have broken up with them. The true incidence of false rape accusations, Krakauer shows, is less than 20%. Rape victims are never able to escape the suspicions of society at large that they somehow invented or invited their rape or could have avoided it.
Also disturbing is the sympathy that automatically seems to well up around the accused rapists, especially if they are popular athletes.
Krakauer’s descriptions of the rapes, based on interviews, testimony and first-hand accounts by the victims, are graphic, perhaps unnecessarily so. But it is, perhaps, the graphic fact of rape—the forcible penetration of one person’s body into another’s—that accounts for the damage it does, not merely the physical damage, which in most cases heals soon enough, but the psychological damage, which can persist for years. All of this said, Krakauer’s accounts of the rapes have a faintly prurient value.
Krakauer made his reputation writing narratives about men in confrontation with nature and their inner selves—Into the Wild (1996), Into Thin Air (1997). In Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) he investigated many of the more extreme and scandalous aspects of the Mormon Church. The subject matter of Missoula is significantly different. Not that he doesn’t give it due effort, nor that he doesn’t make clear in any number of ways that his sympathies lie with the victims and that he regards rape as a horrendous crime. But his reliance on first-person accounts, newspaper articles, courtroom transcripts, and interviews in some sense strips the author from the story. He arranges and edits and introduces and glosses the sources he presents, but he doesn’t explore them very deeply. Although we come to understand the damage suffered by the young women who were the victims of rape in Missoula, what we don’t understand is the nature of that particular masculine mind that commits rape, especially the athletic mind. That aspect of the story remains a disturbing mystery.