MISSOULA, Mont. — This town is bracing for a book. The local prosecutor wrote an urgent letter to its publishers trying to delay its release. Book sellers are taking orders for copies that wait in sealed boxes, ready to be opened on Tuesday. Some people are dreading its revelations about rape in their football-loving college town. Others are glad: Tell the story, they say, the louder the better.
“So much of it was hushed up,” said Tess Fahlgren, 24, who works at Fact and Fiction, a local bookstore that plans to donate proceeds from book sales to sexual-assault response centers. “Talking about it is good. Dialogue is good.”
All of Missoula is talking about “Missoula,” a new book by Jon Krakauer, whose previous best sellers recounted fatal adventures up Mount Everest and into the Alaskan wilderness. The new book offers a searing view into campus sexual assaults, some by football players from the University of Montana’s beloved Grizzlies, and how victims were treated by the local justice system.
The book is being released weeks after Rolling Stone retracted a discredited article describing a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, and offers a 350-page counterargument to assertions that large percentages of rape claims are false.
Missoula is no stranger to scrutiny. The rash of assaults and high-profile trials have been front-page news here since about 2011. Television newsmagazines have taken a tough look. The Justice Department reached agreements with the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department to improve their responses to sexual assaults.
The Justice Department lacerated the county attorney’s office for low rates of rape prosecutions and said its attitudes and policies toward sexual assaults placed “the safety of all women in Missoula at risk.” (It later reached a separate agreement with the county attorney’s office.)
But a major new book with an initial print run of 500,000 copies and the town’s name in capital letters on the jacket has captured everyone’s attention here and stirred passionate discussions, even though most people in town have yet to see it.
On Mr. Krakauer’s official Facebook page, Missoula residents are debating whether the scrutiny will bring a necessary discussion or will simply hurt their town’s image. The weekly Missoula Independent, anticipating a flood of negative attention, made this week’s cover story “12 Reasons to Love Missoula Right Now.” (Reason No. 2: Local craft beer makers support charitable causes.) A local artist altered the book’s cover to read “Our Missoula,” and is selling $25 posters.
Like many people in town, Cathy Scribner, a hospice chaplain who has lived here for 10 years, said her “back went up” when she first saw the title. She said she wanted a vigorous discussion about dark currents of assault and entitlement in this picturesque mountain town, but she wondered, why that title? Rape, she said, is part of every town’s story.
“It’s great, because it’s raising attention to the issue,” she said. “But Missoula is not the issue.”
Its rape statistics may be on par with similar size college towns, but Mr. Krakauer says that is what is so disturbing.
“The number of sexual assaults in Missoula might sound alarming, but if the F.B.I. figures are accurate, it’s actually commonplace,” he writes. “Rape, it turns out, occurs with appalling frequency throughout the United States.”
In addition to telling several young women’s stories of assault, the book is fortified by investigative reports, accounts of police interviews and transcripts of college disciplinary hearings that give a moment-by-moment account of the uncomfortable realities of reporting sex crimes.
Some of the women say the police asked them whether they had boyfriends, suggesting that rape reports were sometimes an effort to mask an infidelity. Time after time, police and prosecutors warn the women that the process is excruciating, with no guarantees of success.
Some current and former officials for Missoula’s police and for the county attorney’s office have already criticized Mr. Krakauer for not interviewing them. Kirsten Pabst, who was chief deputy prosecutor during the years chronicled by Mr. Krakauer, 2010 to 2012, faces the harshest scrutiny. In one scene, which Mr. Krakauer recreates through a transcript, she provides supportive testimony during a university disciplinary hearing for a student accused of assault. (Ms. Pabst said she went to the hearing to explain facts and legal procedures, and was not there as an advocate for the suspect.)
Last month, Ms. Pabst, who is now the elected county attorney, wrote to Doubleday, the book’s publisher, seeking to delay its release and criticizing what she characterized as serious deficiencies in Mr. Krakauer’s reporting, including that he “chose not to interview me.” Mr. Krakauer said he had sent a detailed list of questions to Ms. Pabst that were never answered.
“When you look at the past, some of the criticisms are justified,” Ms. Pabst said in an interview. “Did we miss things? Sure. We regret that. I regret that. But we’re willing to learn from those things, and we want to move forward.”
Mr. Krakauer said in an interview that he had thoroughly and carefully reported the book. Bill Thomas, publisher and editor in chief of Doubleday, said he hoped the book would redirect the public discourse surrounding campus rape.
“The national conversation in the last several months has focused on these very small numbers of false accusations,” he said. “It’s terrible that a small number of men were falsely accused, but this book is about the hundreds of thousands of women who have been sexually assaulted.”
Most of the stories in “Missoula” do not end with prison terms. Mr. Krakauer recounts the trial of a Grizzlies quarterback who was acquitted of charges that he had raped an acquaintance. In a separate case, a woman named Kelsey Belnap describes a gang rape by a group of Grizzlies players, none of whom were criminally charged (though one was expelled and another was barred from campus).
Kerry Barrett, then a college senior, recounts being assaulted in September 2011 after going home with another student she met at a downtown bar. They had engaged in kissing and foreplay in his bedroom until he got “a little aggressive” and Ms. Barrett told him to stop, that she did not want to have sex; she put her clothes on. She stayed over because she was leery of walking home alone at 3 a.m., but said she woke up to find that the man, naked, had pulled down her pants and was trying to have sex with her. Ms. Barrett pushed him away and fled.
When Ms. Barrett went to the police, a detective warned her she had a “tough case” because she and the man were the only witnesses. The man cried when the police questioned him, and said he had not assaulted Ms. Barrett. The detective investigating her report told the man that “I don’t think you did anything wrong,” and closed the case without filing criminal charges.
“I don’t think they’re bad people with bad intentions,” Ms. Barrett said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think they understand the reality of acquaintance rape.”
She left Missoula in June 2012 and is pursuing a career working on sexual-assault issues. She has not been back, but next month Mr. Krakauer is coming here to give a talk, and Ms. Barrett said she was planning to attend.
“People don’t want Missoula to be synonymous with rape, but that’s what it is for me,” she said. “I think of Missoula, I think of my assault.”
Source: The New York Times