Missoula and the revelations of rape

 

Missoula, Montana, home of the University of Montana, is abuzz with debates about rape, a football culture gone to extremes, criminal prosecution or the lack thereof, and ruined reputations. 

You can blame Jon Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild,” who has now tackled the subject of sexual assault throughout the country, but more particularly in Missoula in his latest book: “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.”  Not surprisingly, many Missoulians deplore the book’s title. Although some locals praise Krakauer’s work, the majority criticize him for singling out Missoula and the shoddy way it handles its rape cases.

 

What seems to be sadly lacking from anyone -- and that includes even those who praise the writer -- is any expression of concern for the victims of sexual assault. Anyone who bothers to read Krakauer’s book understands that the crime of rape is not confined to Missoula. It’s tragically common in the U.S. and throughout the world, and public perception of the crime is usually far from the truth.

When the U.S. Justice Department chose to investigate the University of Montana, the Missoula County attorney’s office, and the Missoula Police Department, they asked this question: Did their procedures treat with fairness both the victims and the accused?  After conducting scores of interviews, the Justice Department concluded that there was a serious need for improvement.

Although the city police chief and university administrators cooperated with the Justice Department’s investigation, county prosecutors were loath to admit that their procedures might be deficient. Yet the victims interviewed by Krakauer were uniformly critical of the way their cases were handled.  Word in the community was that a rape victim’s story would be viewed with a skeptical eye, and that if a case did make it to trial, the victim’s reputation would end up thoroughly trashed. The odds were against conviction or appropriate sentencing. Only a very determined woman would have the guts to take a case to trial.

In a college town like Missoula, the issue was further clouded by a “football is king” mentality.  A number of the accused rapists were adored members of the Grizzly football team.  Some of them were expelled through a university administrative process that did not require the level of incriminating evidence necessary for a criminal conviction.  One such decision was later overturned on an appeal to the state’s commissioner of higher education.  In only two instances did the county attorney decide there was probable cause to prosecute, so the students whose only punishment was expulsion still have a clean criminal record. Their accusers were left feeling frustrated with the justice system.

When Krakauer was interviewed recently during a public forum in Missoula, the questions were submitted in advance. Many focused on why the author chose Missoula, and why his book didn’t contain much response from law enforcement, the county prosecutor or the university. Krakauer explained that he’d researched the issue across the country, but when he came to Missoula he found himself drawn to the victims’ stories. However, his attempts to interview representatives of the justice system were repeatedly blocked by lawyers.  A suit to obtain university records relating to one case went all the way to the Montana Supreme Court, where an appeal is still pending.

Today, the city, county and university are drafting and beginning to implement revised procedures for handling sexual assault cases. But it remains obvious from online comments to news stories that a definite bias against the victims persists. One result is that women still think long and hard about reporting rape. They have doubts that their stories will be believed by those in authority. Skeptics will demand to know why they didn’t say “No!” with more authority, fight, or scream. Some will accuse of them of being somehow responsible for what happened, especially when alcohol is involved. The victim, already shattered by the crime, can’t help but wonder whether she is strong enough to withstand a trial. 

The great majority let their doubts overcome their desire for justice. Instead, they try to push the nightmare into a locked box and get on with their lives. That decision has long-term consequences, as one victim told the writer: “I have struggled with extreme anxiety and I have recently been put on medication to help deal with it. This has changed the way … I carry myself as a person.”

If nothing else, the book is creating the opportunity for a long-overdue discussion. Perhaps it will lead to a better understanding of a crime that damages women – and the entire community – for a very long time.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News.  She writes in Roundup, Montana.

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