Missoula: A Review…and More

September 9th, 2015

When I was in eighth grade, I carried a Trapper Keeper in front of my chest at all times when I walked down the halls of school between classes. Unfortunately, this left my bra strap, my butt and my crotch unprotected against the hands that always seemed to find me. I finally let it slip to a teacher what was happening to me – not as a cry for help, but as an admission of guilt – it was obviously my fault somehow, right? The assaults worsened after that point, hands sometimes reaching out so quickly I couldn’t tell to whom they were attached. I wasn’t the only one, I later discovered, but at the time, we all remained isolated in our cages of shame.

I wish I could say I didn’t let this get to me. That I realized it wasn’t my fault, put it out of my mind and moved on. But I think we all know it doesn’t work that way. Instead, this daily assault had long-lasting repercussions on my self-esteem and development as a young woman. Which is why when it came time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life (the first time), I knew I wanted to work in a women’s center, helping to educate others about sexual assault and feminism. I majored in women’s studies in college, eventually got a job as a sexual assault educator and then an assistant director of a women’s center overseeing a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant.

I share all of this because it’s relevant to how I perceived the book Missoula by Jon Krakauer. In case you haven’t seen anything about it, Krakauer has written an extremely compelling overview of several sexual assault cases in the town of Missoula, Montana – home to the University of Montana – as well as the Department of Justice investigation into how sexual assault cases were being handled over a three-year span. Delving deep into both university hearing documents as well as official trial documents for a handful of cases, Krakauer gives a glimpse into what it means to be a survivor of sexual assault seeking justice.

I think for a lot of folks, this book is going to be a rude awakening – disturbing and sad and provoking disappointment and mistrust in the system that is supposed to help sexual assault survivors. Honestly, while I found it all of these things, because of my past experiences, it was less of a surprise and more of a confirmation of my own experiences as an advocate and those of others with whom I’ve worked. I repeatedly found myself yelling at people in the book and hoping for positive outcomes for the survivors while knowing that the chances were slim. And while you might think the people I was yelling at were the perpetrators, most often it was the lawyers and administrators that inflamed my ire – again, not a surprise to me, but I think it will catch those who haven’t done this work before off guard.

In fact, the biggest surprise to me was the kick-ass dean of students at the University of Montana who doggedly pursued justice for the survivors and did his best to stick to the letter of the student code while doing so. It was refreshing to see an administrator fighting for the survivors of sexual assault despite their high-profile assailants instead of against them to keep the university’s name and reputation free of blemish.

Honestly, the most disappointing thing about this book is that I fear the right people won’t read it. I have already recommended it to my vice chancellor for student affairs in the hopes that we will do a division read to go along with recent changes we have been making at a system-level to how we handle sexual assault cases. I think this is a book every student affairs administrator should read – if for no other reason than to understand what survivors have to experience just to report an assault. I also think prosecutors and the police should read it for that same reason. I hope that people reading it understand that, though this book focuses on the gross injustice happening in Missoula, these are by no means isolated or unique experiences of survivors – this shit happens everywhere. This book is a small step in recognizing what we can do to change it.