Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer, read by Mozhan Marno

When I first heard about this book I was very intrigued. The topic was fascinating and I love the author. However, I did pause for a moment to consider if a male author was the right person to write about young women being raped. But only for a minute. I knew Krakauer would research the crap out of the topic and write like a savant, as always, and I also knew that there are some people who would not be willing to truly hear this story, if it came from a woman. For those people, this book is sorely necessary.

Krakauer, like many people, had no idea the real width and breadth of the problem of campus rape. He'd heard stories in the media but had dismissed them as blown out of proportion. Until a family friend was raped at college. And then he heard other stories about women he knew who'd been raped, attacked, and assaulted themselves, and also how many of their friends had been victimized. He thought he'd take a look at the statistics to see if the volume of these stories could be true and he was shocked at the prevalence. He picked the University of Montana in Missoula to focus on, not because the rape culture was so out of control there, but quite the opposite--he picked it because it was so ordinary, and fell smack into the middle of the statistics, if a little on the low side.

At UM, the football team reigns supreme. I understood that at schools like the University of Tennessee or the University of Alabama, which regularly are contenders for the #1 spot, but I did not realize that was true at a school not in a major conference. (My college football team was a joke, and I assumed all non-major-conference schools saw their teams that way.) The years that Krakauer spent in Missoula, looking into the rapes and sexual assaults associated with the school, a rape crisis broke out in the local media that eventually went nationwide, mostly surrounding the football team. And every case Krakauer follows except one brief one, involves the football team, particularly the quarterback Jordan Johnson. While the University of Montana's rape incidence might be average in the United States, hopefully its treatment of these crimes is not so. The prosecuting attorney, Kirsten Pabst, only took to trial less than 10% of the rape cases brought to her by the police, only the ones she was certain she could win. In recorded sessions, she frequently told accused rapists that she believed them and she knew it would ruin their lives if they were prosecuted. She often did not speak to the rape victims (in violation of state law.) I already pretty well hated her when she quit the county attorney's office to join the defense team for Johnson. I still can't fathom how a woman could be so callous and disregarding towards the assault of other women.

Luckily, the Department of Justice decided to look into local practices due to the media outrage. New policies were put into place, including telling the police they must believe the victim unless proven otherwise (I do not have to convince the police that I am not lying when I report a burglary, after all.) And this is doubly good when you learn who ends up being in charge at the end of the book. Shudder.

I am very proud of Allison, one student who was raped by a childhood friend when she was asleep at an off-campus house after a party. She was persistent and calm and eloquent when repeatedly having to relive her rape and the aftermath, even when he inexplicably appealed his sentencing after a plea-bargain (which is not allowed after a plea-bargain but he got to do it anyway.) I wish all young women had the strength to prosecute and see it through. Although after seeing the way they were treated by both the police and the attorneys, it's a lot more understandable to me why some might not be up for it.

The descriptions of the rapes and attacks, which are repeated, are graphic and violent. This book is not for the faint of heart (although it's so important that they should push through and read it anyway.) I found it very interesting that the audiobook was read by a woman. There are a handful of occasions where the author speaks of himself in first person that were a little odd in her voice, but I think that made it more even-handed in some ways. I listened to this book with my husband on a trip and he had no idea of the extent of this problem or the reasons behind the lack of prosecutions, and this was eye-opening for him as well (and lead to some interesting discussions.) I think it's actually more important for men to read this book. And well, for everyone to do so. This has to stop. When I went to college, women were given lectures on how to stay safe. But when will we start teaching our young men not to rape?

We were visiting with my father and step-mother on that trip and the day after we told them we were listening to this book, they shared the news that Vanderbilt University's new football slogan, which I think lasted for less than one day, was: "We Don't Need Your Permission." Last year, members of their football team were investigated for several very bad instances of sexual assault. How in this day and age can a football team be so tone deaf after two of their own members were convicted just a few months ago? It just goes to show how far we have to go in changing the culture that allows this behavior to go on and convinces big, strong young men that they are entitled to whatever they want and aren't responsible for any of their bad actions.

I checked this audiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

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