Underneath the surface of Krakauer's incisive critique of these profoundly flawed systems lies a single necessary question: Why is it so hard for us as a culture to believe the word of a woman asking for help? ... by grappling so rigorously with this issue and with the myriad ways women are traumatized and retraumatized by seeking justice through the institutions that claim to serve us, Krakauer's investigation will succeed in altering the conversation around sexual violence in ways women's experience alone has not.
Krakauer doesn’t just tell the story of these crimes. As he has done so brilliantly in his other books he sets the story firmly in the context of social history. He gathers relevant research and debunks scores of misconceptions about rape.
Missoula comes to us partly as an act of expiation, a book with a mission: to inform readers of certain brutal facts about rape and the way it can alter its victims’ lives, and to highlight the difficulty victims often experience in their search for justice. But basing it on the reported sex crimes at the University of Montana — which yet again reveal themselves to be no special example of institutional indifference — may have undermined the enterprise. There is certainly great suffering described in these pages, but the book will do more to reinforce its readers’ various opinions about college sexual assault than to bring huge numbers of them to a new understanding of its basic realities.
Krakauer doesn’t seem to have spoken to Johnson or Washburn. And it’s not clear that he spoke to any prosecutors or police officers in Missoula, or to university officials. As a result, the book feels one-sided. It also lacks texture. Much of the story is told through transcripts of court proceedings or recordings of police interviews and news coverage. Krakauer doesn’t take us inside the student culture at the university or the community of Missoula. He lets his contempt for certain city officials show, but they’re neither memorable villains nor three-dimensional characters afforded the opportunity to explain themselves ... More generally, Krakauer doesn’t fully grapple with the complexities of campus sexual assault.
While statistics are woven throughout, and legal maneuvering is covered precisely, Krakauer artfully keeps the book from becoming a compendium of troubling facts ... In another context, some graphic details could be seen as salacious, but nothing here is written to titillate. In fact, quite the opposite. Krakauer's precise language serves only to further bolster his book's stark premise. It's an important, difficult and timely subject that needs to be handled carefully.
The tone of Missoula is, for the most part, clear and dispassionate, offering level-headed, in-depth reportage. At times, Krakauer's own disdain for alleged assailants bubbles to the surface ... While the second largest town in Montana has certainly had its share of media attention regarding sexual assaults, the disquieting fact running through Krakauer's narrative is this: Missoula is typical.
Krakauer comes across as more crusading journalist than dispassionate bystander, occasionally presuming guilt in cases where the evidence is not so black-and-white, as if the legal process were simultaneously insufficient and inconvenient. He’s a better journalist than he is a lawyer, but even if parts of Missoula can be picked apart by legal scholars, it’s a substantive deep dive into the morass of campus sex crimes, where the victim is too often treated like the accused.
To its great credit, Missoula tells both sides of these disturbing stories faithfully enough to let readers draw their own conclusions. Yet Mr. Krakauer is convinced that a great many men get away with rape (which is true) because the authorities don’t try hard enough to punish them (which was true once but is much less so now). He urges universities to not let 'legalistic quibbling' impede expulsion of alleged rapists. This is troubling, especially as Mr. Krakauer’s passionate convictions rely heavily on the contested claim by psychologist David Lisak that only 2%-10% of sexual-assault reports are false.
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 ... [Krakauer's] trustworthiness has never been more important than with this book, which critics will have a hard time dismissing.
Though it paints a picture, Missoula is less painterly than the author’s gorgeous series of mountaineering books, less chilling than his explorations into cover-ups and crimes in the fundamentalist Mormon community. It’s more of a detailed pencil sketch. He doesn’t stray across centuries and geographies, remaining almost claustrophobically clinical and local. There are a few sections that feel like Rape 101 — this is, after all, writing for a general audience ... Krakauer isn’t speaking to 'us.' He’s speaking to his mainstream audience, and many of them are probably as ignorant as he admits he was. By some standards, that’s called being an ally. But by any standards, it’s being a good writer.