The reputation of Jon Krakauer’s Missoula preceded the book’s actual appearance in my hands. I had heard about the UM rape scandal when news outlets outside Missoula picked up the story. I had even heard about the book and hoped to read it. It wasn’t until late May when I received an email from an acquaintance that I started realizing just what a big deal this book was to my many friends and acquaintances in Montana.
The email was pretty innocuous, and it was sent to me in error. My acquaintance had been facilitating a copy of the book around her circle of friends, and she accidentally added me to the recipient list. We exchanged a couple more emails and she informed me that the book was “a big Montana topic right now.”
When I finally got my hands on a copy, another Missoula-area acquaintance expressed interest in knowing my thoughts once finished. Once reading, I started Googling names and uncovering the proliferation of public dialogue that happened over the previous few years.
One thing’s certain: this is an emotional book. Early chapters detail the incidents that set later action into motion, and they’re moving. We walk through each victim’s relationship to the police—deciding whether or not to even report the incident, and what happens if/when they do. We get to see how a community’s perception of a verdict may not reflect a full understanding of how the case was decided. Krakauer details how the academic discipline process is different than our larger criminal justice system, why that’s important and how it led to vastly different outcomes in some rape cases. After a court verdict that provides a climax to the book, further analysis is provided, including commentary from the US Department of Justice.
When I started reading, I felt hesitant because I didn’t want to think ill of Missoula. I still have friends there and still feel like it’s a home away from home. Having now read the book, I think I more fully realize the impact of the book on the community.
• It’s not pleasant to have a mirror held up to your community, especially by someone perceived as an outsider. (See also: Portlandia)
• It’s not pleasant to receive national attention for a negative thing. (See also: Mulugeta Seraw)
• It’s not pleasant to accept your hometown heroes are maybe just as human as everyone else. (See also: Portland Jailblazers)
Embarrassment aside, the book is entirely valid—not just for Missoula, but for other college towns, and hell, everywhere in the United States. What other crimes do we, as a society, tend to disbelieve when the victim reports the offense? So much that the majority of rapes, attempted rapes, and sexual assaults are never reported? Of the multiple rape victims I know, one victim chose to report it, and later described her reporting process as “a nightmare.”
Reports suggest that the Missoula Police Department, at least, has been making improvements to their process since the Department of Justice got involved. Negative attention can create positive change, and this speaks to the power of investigatory journalism such as early work by Gwen Florio at The Missoulian. Without her pieces, the story may never have been picked up nationally, and this book may never have been written.
Amigo Kitty still loves you, Missoula, and I do too. But we also love progress, and think that this book may have done Missoula a bigger favor than perhaps the community realizes.