Rape in a Western College Town

Ideas and Issues

51OmLU9LfHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Missoula      The first days going off-the-grid in the Sapphire Mountains along the steep, narrow valley of Rock Creek are always a shakeout cruise.  The ’72 Toyota pickup sputtered out when we arrived, and though it quickly revived, it meant renting a car from worry.  The Rock Creek Mercantile has new hours so no fishing licenses yet.  We adapt. 

Chaco and I didn’t mind.  The first couple of days are among the best with two whole weeks stretched out in front of us.  Off-the-grid, cellphones are just big watches that take pictures, computers are typewriters with a screen, and the internet is a far off dream.  Amazingly, the battery “trickler” system, which maintains just enough juice over the winter to keep our three pricey marine batteries alive and well, had worked like a charm this year, so with a bit of memory help from a buddy, we had power in the trailer thanks to our solar panels.   Propane was fueling the Silver Bullet stove and in a couple of days would do the same for the Airstream refrigerator as well.  Open fire restrictions along the creek mean no campfires this season for us, but also no heavy lifting and wood gathering.  This would be our six straight year on Rock Creek, and the living was easy.

            There are projects aplenty we have in mind, but for the first couple of days we’re about decompressing once the camp is set up, so you might ask what we do besides drink coffee, swat flies, and shoo-away chipmunks?  Usually naps are also on the schedule, although after 13 hours of sleep our first night in the trailer, Chaco didn’t feel he needed one, and he was probably right all things considered.   He comes prepared with a full Kindle and a hard-drive full of movies and downloads.  I bring a book bag brimming and a Kindle full as well, but with more variety than my usual load that tilts towards work.  I’ve already read two interesting, enjoyable, though sometimes repetitive, but smart, off-beat books by Jenny Diski, The Sixties and Stranger on a Train, and am currently immersed in Sally Mann’s brilliant and exciting, Hold Still, and just hoping the rest is as good as the first third.  The first book I had hoarded for several months for my first day in camp and as a permanent addition to the Silver Bullet mini-library though was the appropriately named, Missoula, by Jon Krakauer, which seemed like a must since the town is our constant depot and lifeline every time we come back on-the-grid to keep work moving forward and our family less worried, even though the sub-title, Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, obviously forecast an enraging bummer.

            I know Krakauer’s work reasonably well, now having read five of his eight books it seems, starting with Into the Wild, which is required reading for anyone going to or interested in Alaska.  Krakauer started as more of an outdoor-oriented writer and though he has moved more controversially into books about the impact and practices of the Mormons and the charitable school building scam in Afghanistan and Pakistan with roots in Montana as well, his interests are broadly triggered by the West and he doesn’t move too far afield from that orientation, and that’s right in my wheelhouse.  Missoula isn’t his best book by a long stretch, though it does the job.  He brings passion and decent reporting to the task, but some of it felt like filler as he tried to make his case through the two rapes he followed most closely.

Missoula is not a book that is going to be at the top of the local Chamber of Commerce reading list.  There are victims aplenty, and heroes of any kind are in short supply.  The police often seem little more than partners in crime, and the Department of Justice and current US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez rightly put their foot on the neck of the Missoula County Attorneys Office for its inept and irresponsible handling of sexual violence crimes and the plight of the women abused, though a woman non-prosecutor of most rape allegations ends up sadly being elected to implement these hoped for reforms.  A maligned newspaper reporter for the local paper kept on the story like a dog on a bone and is a bright light as well as a now retired University of Montana dean of students and former Congressman Pat Williams.  It would have been nice to spend even more time with them compared to the rest of the team on the field in this book.  But, this is nonfiction not a novel, so we have to swallow reality straight. 

How could a story about the broken lives and dreams of young men and women be anything but seeped in tragedy, and the chaos courted by drinking, sex, and a Wild West culture saturated in male privilege end well on the balance wheel of justice?  I asked friends what the reaction to Krakauer’s book had been in Missoula itself.  They reported initial community outrage and embarrassment, much of which no doubt remains, but also told about a turning point when Krakauer came to town to face a crowded mob gathered for questions and answers.  He argued this is a national crisis not a local one, since rape is epidemic among the 18-25 set, amazingly under-reported in more than 80% of the incidents, and festers on campuses where the young congregate and few universities have proven adequate in loco parentis.  Krakauer in this telling managed to quell the critics by arguing, as he does several times in the book, that he was clear that Missoula wasn’t special in its mishandling of rape, but something more like average since its 80 or so cases in three years on a per capita basis were less than many since the national average would have put them closer to 90. 

People found solace in the scandal.  Small comfort that, but ironically maybe enough to calm Missoula, Montana, even as Missoula, the book, quietly demands action to protect women from rape culture and the predatory serial rapists specializing in exploiting stupid and insensitive policing and a complicit and complacent legal system.