Missoula by Jon Krakauer: A Discussion

November 5, 2015 Crime, Nonfiction 26

Missoula, Jon KrakauerNonfiction
Released April 21, 2015
386 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased


Krakauer’s incredibly readable investigative journalism had me turning the issues of rape and the justice system over and over in my head and was almost a 5 star read for me (only a tedious final section prevented me from giving it that last half star). It would make for a meaty book club discussion.

Plot Summary

Krakauer explores rape and the justice system on college campuses through a look at several acquaintance rape cases at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Why I Read It

I’m interested in this particular issue and love Krakauer’s very readable investigative work (particularly Under the Banner of Heaven).

Major Themes

Rape (particularly acquaintance rape), criminal procedure, criminal and university justice systems, rape victim recovery

My Major Takeaways

It was difficult for me to critically review Missoula as a book because my mind was too consumed with the issues that Krakauer raised. So, I’m going with a discussion of those issues rather than a traditional review.

  • Acquaintance rape and stranger rape are vastly different animals…mostly as they pertain to the affects on the victim, her recovery, and the experience she is likely to have if the rape goes to trial. A victim of acquaintance rape could face the prospect of questioning whether a rape even occurred, having her character torn apart publicly, having people not believe her story, having a lower likelihood of putting the rapist behind bars, and blaming herself for what happened. Not to say that victims of stranger rape don’t deal with any of these issues, but I’d say it’s on a much lesser scale than for victims of acquaintance rape.
  • The incentives for prosecutors to take on rape cases are skewed in favor of defendants…prosecutors want to maintain a high win percentage and rape cases are notoriously difficult to win given their he said/she said nature (particularly acquaintance rape cases). So, prosecutors might choose not to press charges in cases that aren’t sure winners (i.e. many rape cases).
  • In fact, the entire justice system is skewed in favor of the defendant…which makes sense given the U.S. is an “innocent until proven guilty” nation. But, it’s tough on rape victims. A rape victim has no lawyer fighting for her personal interests (like a defendant does) and no say in how the prosecutor argues her rape case or if a proposed plea deal is acceptable. Defense attorneys are not bound by as stringent a set of ethical expectations and deterrents for telling the truth in court, and in many cases, will go to whatever length necessary to get their clients off.
  • Feeling empowered again is critical to a rape victim’s recovery and the ability to put the rapist behind bars goes a long way towards a victim regaining her sense of empowerment.
  • Title IX legislation included sexual assault directives for Universities…which required Universities to develop a system for handling sexual assault cases. Then, per a subsequent 2011 directive, Universities were required to use a lower standard of proof when trying rape cases within the campus system. Instead of the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt”, Universities are to use “the preponderance of evidence” (aka “more likely than not”) as the standard of proof, meaning “just 51% of the credible evidence indicated that the accused had committed the offense.”

Lingering Questions

  • How do you balance the police’s responsibility to believe a rape victim’s story with its responsibility to protect the alleged rapist’s right to be “innocent until proven guilty”? The police need to create an accepting atmosphere to encourage terrified rape victims to come forward, but they also need to question the victims’ stories to respect the alleged rapist’s right to be “innocent until proven guilty”. It’s a tough balance.
  • How do you feel about the differing standards of proof for rape cases in the criminal vs. academic justice systems? Do you buy the rationale that the difficulty of putting a rapist behind bars through the criminal system makes it fair to use a lower standard of proof for the academic process given the worst possible punishment is merely expulsion from school (rather than jail time and a permanent criminal record)? 
  • The book doesn’t propose a solution to the the issues Krakauer raised. What type of solution do you think is necessary to ensure victims feel comfortable reporting rapes and that more rape cases get to be decided by a jury?

A Defining Quote

Police and prosecutors are morally and professionally obligated to make every effort to identify specious rape reports, safeguard the civil rights of rape suspects, and prevent the falsely accused from being convicted. At the same time, however, police and prosecutors are obligated to do everything in their power to identify individuals who have committed rape and ensure that the guilty are brought to justice.

Good for People Who Like…

Investigative journalism, exposes, narrative nonfiction, criminal justice system, psychology, books that make you think

Other Books You May Like

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg
Under the Banner of Heaven
by Jon Krakauer

Also check out Tara at Running N Reading’s review for a different style analysis of this book…including links to the real life news stories and pictures of some of the major players.

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26 Responses to “Missoula by Jon Krakauer: A Discussion”

  1. Tara @ Running 'N' Reading

    Sarah, I was especially taken with the fact that the alleged victims are really at the mercy of their assigned (if not chosen) prosecuting attorney; it seems like, often, even if they’ve paid for their own representation that person is under some “undisclosed” restraints within the justice system. I’m pretty sure we could discuss this one for days; great post and I’m glad we read this one!! Thanks so much for the shout-out, too!

    • admin

      Yep – I was too. The prosecutor is under no obligation to keep the victim informed about trial strategy, etc…it’s really up to him/her to choose to keep the victim in the loop. And – I think, in the mind of a victim, she probably sees it as “her trial”…her chance to get closure and vindication. Whereas, through the eyes of the prosecutor, the victim is merely a witness at the trial. You’re welcome for the shout-out!

  2. Heather

    I had a problem with the underlying, “I didn’t know this kind of thing happened” vibe in the book. I guess it seemed like this is something that women talk about a lot and here comes a male journalist just discovering it and being all surprised. I hope he exposes a lot of other people who may not be aware of the scope of the problem though.

    • admin

      You know, I didn’t really get that vibe from this book. I thought he presented a balanced assessment of the situation. Though I was in college 15 years ago, this was definitely not something we talked about. Could be that some girls did have horrible experiences and chose to keep them to themselves. But, this was definitely not a topic of conversation among my friends when I was in college. I do think it’s good that there is more open discussion about it now, which would certainly make victims feel more comfortable coming forward.

  3. Stacy (The Novel Life)

    it sounds like some good questions are raised.
    now I remember why I haven’t picked up this book yet ~ Heather’s comment about the male journalist & “I didn’t know this kind of thing happened” vibe is what I read from several early reviews. It’s great that he is bringing to the public’s attention the epidemic on college campuses, but I can also see where many women are frustrated with the lack of realization by men that it DOES really happen. Did you find the tone to be at all bothersome to you?
    Side note ~ even with my sweetheart I’ve learned that he never really paid attention to things that us women all know to be true and infuriating. For example, he didn’t even realize the prevalence of photoshopping til I pointed it out to him; now he sees it everywhere. Not a great analogy but I’m wondering if same is true with good men and the realization about rape facts. Most men ARE good and cannot even fathom the idea of rape. Wondering if that was true of Krakauer. . .
    sorry for the long long comment ~ my daughters and I have talked about this A LOT. One is a rape advocate & coordinator/educator and the other is a senior in college ~ we’ve had so many discussions about this, reading this book and what the public knows, believes, ignores, etc.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve reserved it at the library.

    • admin

      I responded to Heather’s comment as well, but I didn’t get that vibe from this book. I felt like he was making the effort to illustrate that this does happen more frequently than one would imagine and then attempt to figure out why, structurally, the system is stacked against rape victims. I didn’t feel like he had a lack of realization that this does actually happen. Just my opinion.

      • Stacy (The Novel Life)

        oh good. well i’m glad i went ahead and ordered it then. i’ve thoroughly enjoyed his other books and thought he brought both compassion and honesty to the subjects so hopefully this one will feel the same as well. thanks again for swaying me 😉

        • admin

          Well, just my opinion, but I hope it works out for you. I definitely thought it was a powerful book.

    • admin

      Thank you! This is definitely a tough topic, but I didn’t feel like the book was overly emotional to read. There is a lot in there about the law and structure of police procedure and criminal justice procedure, which tones down the emotional parts.

  4. susan

    Yeah I like Krakauer. Into the Wild and Into Thin Air particularly were favorites. But I havent wrapped my head around reading this one yet.

  5. Carmen

    I haven’t read this nor do I intend to; the topic is just too difficult to swallow.
    Regarding your point about the difference in punishments between academia and the justice system, I think that particularly the world of academia is dominated by men, usually very conservative men, and it may be hard for them to wrap their minds about those things happening on college campuses. I also know there is a lot of physical abuse in college relationships and those too go on unnoticed and oftentimes unreported, which is a shame. I think that the victims are victimized twice when they can’t find justice or they aren’t believed. Unfortunately the phenomenon isn’t confined to the world at large or college campuses; it occurs in the military as well, and usually goes either ignored or the women are perceived as provokers for whom things got wrong and want to stir trouble. Again, the military is a world dominated by men, some with power to coerce their victims and silence them.

    • admin

      It definitely wasn’t an easy book, but I did think it was incredibly worthwhile. Actually, according to the book, the alleged rapists are treated more harshly in the academic system than in the criminal system. In the criminal system, juries have to be sure “beyond a reasonable doubt” that an alleged rapist is guilty in order to convict, but in academia, they can convict as long as they think “it’s more likely than not” that the rapist is guilty. So, they can convict based on less evidence in academia.
      That’s an interesting point about the military and I can totally see how that happens. Another organization that gets to mete out its own system of justice…or choose not to.

    • admin

      I think this would be a meaty..if not somewhat emotional…book club discussion! I’d actually love to see a coed book club discuss it.

  6. Kathy @ Kathy Reads Fiction

    This is one of those few non-fictions that grabbed my attention but I never read it. I looked at it at the library many times and found it available, but I never took that step to checking it out, even though I love the premise and the time period. I really need to rethink my non-fiction (I’m starting to think snobbish) ways. *sigh*

  7. Kristen

    This sounds like a tough read and I have to admit I’ve been avoiding it because of that. I should probably pony up and be a grown up and tackle it, especially if it’s that good and thought provoking.

    • admin

      It’s incredibly thought-provoking. And – I honestly didn’t find it over the top emotional to read…there’s a lot of legal and police procedure stuff that balances out the emotional personal stories.

  8. Savvy

    30 years ago, my college roommate was raped at a party in her hometown while passed out on a couch. She remembers other males in the room standing around the couch and laughing. She had her character questioned during the trial and the other boys from the party wrote statements saying she was promiscuous. The rapist got nine months probation. She was then ostracized by her community for ruining the rapist’s good family name. She suffered emotionally for years. Eventually she moved to California, became a divorce lawyer and had two children. I looked her daughters up on-line recently and was delighted to see one of them is also an attorney specializing in women’s rights. Perhaps something good came out of all this.

    To date I haven’t been able to bring myself to read this book. I now think I have too.

    • admin

      Oh my gosh – I’m so sorry to hear that. It sounds very similar to the stories Krakauer profiles in Missoula. I was a little skittish about reading this one myself, but I think it was absolutely worthwhile. There’s also some interesting info about the psychology of the rape victim…typical reactions, recovery process, etc that you may find relevant to your roommate. Also the particular issues surrounding acquaintance rape, which sound similar to what your friend experienced.

  9. Michelle

    I will ashamedly admit that the subject of this one made me leery about reading it. Rape of any kind is such a difficult subject, and I know I should not ignore it. Your review makes me want to add it to my TBR now. In fact, I may just do that as I have some Audible credits waiting to be used.

    Thanks, Sarah!

    • admin

      I heard it’s great on audio…Tara at Running N Reading said it felt like listening to the Serial podcast!

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