Jon Krakauer does yeoman’s work as a journalist to keep his prose disinterested as he investigates the terrible reality of acquaintance rape. Without editorializing, he lets his research speak for itself. This is a stylistic decision, and it’s a smart one. The cool tone of “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” carries much authority. And insofar as research speaks, it speaks clearly.

The situation is this: Rape after rape by University of Montana students (many of them, importantly, football players) goes mostly ignored, denied, excused and, ultimately, condoned. Krakauer narrates several of these cases from back story to violent incident to traumatic aftermath to punitive repercussion (or the lack thereof).

The best-known of these cases is that of Jordan Johnson, the star quarterback who was expelled from the university after being found guilty of rape in University Court. Johnson was allowed four appeals — the fourth for murky reasons that Commissioner Clayton Christian has filed a motion to prevent Krakauer from learning — until Dean of Students Rhondie Voorhes found him not guilty. Johnson was reinstated to the school and subsequently returned to football, as well.

Johnson’s accuser was granted no appeal and was subjected to much public hostility; one of the eye-openers in the book is that those in positions of authority and football fans often come off worse than the rapists.

Such injustice pervades “Missoula” as Krakauer shows a system that fights accusers at every step in the process and holds women responsible for the actions of the men who rape them.

The town of Missoula has received a lot of attention for its rapes, largely because of Katie J.M. Baker’s widely read Jezebel article “My Weekend in America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’ ” and a Department of Justice investigation into mishandling of cases. But it’s not uncommon elsewhere for college athletes to be accused of rape — Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and three University of Oregon basketball players are two recent examples. (In both cases, prosecutors didn’t file charges and the accusers sued.)

Perhaps the scariest thing about “Missoula” is how utterly average is the town it describes. Krakauer uses Missoula as a case study for the wider phenomenon of silencing rape victims: The vast majority of rapes are not reported; the vast majority of rapists are not punished.

For rhetorical reasons, Krakauer seems an ideal writer to make this example. In previous books such as “Under the Banner of Heaven” and “Into Thin Air,” he has demonstrated his ability and reliability as a reporter. His trustworthiness has never been more important than with this book, which critics will have a hard time dismissing. Krakauer’s tough-minded and tough reputation will count as much as his writing in the debates this book is sure to stir up. “Missoula” will be a touchstone of any future correction to the rape culture we live in.


Scott F. Parker is a writer and book critic in the Twin Cities.