“It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who is disbelieved can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is unjustly accused of rape. And without question, the former happens much more frequently than the latter.” Jon Krakauer, Missoula
Here we’ve found a possibility for the book of 2015, the book that I’ve read and you’re going to read and then everyone’s going to read or at least say they’ve started, and we’re all going to be talking about, and not just because The Krak took a microphone away from an asshole berating him in a reading. Gawker Media is going to promote this book, for free, because much of the book was inspired by then Jezebel writer Katie M Baker’s piece on Missoula as the Rape Capital of the ol’ USA , and Buzzfeed’s also going to give it some love, because Ms. Baker has moved over from Gawker to Buzzfeed (I think?). You know it’s going to be big when Gawker and Buzzfeed have put aside their differences for a day– or at least a couple hours, until Buzzfeed deletes a post because it offends those sweet, sweet sponsor dollars and Gawker comes down on them like hell incarnate.
Actually, the biggest threat to Missoula’s media impact, if anything, is the fact that we live in a 24 H news cycle, in which the latest iteration of a controversial and ongoing issue takes up much of the energy and attention devoted to the previous iteration. Which is to say that what might steal Missoula’s thunder is the latest, worst college and/or sport + rape scandal, emerging tomorrow or next week or next month. This isn’t so much a possibility as it is downright likely.
We’ll see what happens.
Regardless of imminent popularity or obscurity, this is an excellently written book. Carefully researched and eloquently presented, written with compassion and an earnest honesty, Krakauer takes the reader by the hand and guides them through horrific subject matter with beautiful writing and even the very occasional and very unexpected moment of dry wit. Krakauer’s intended audience made for a daunting project; in Missoula, he means to appeal to a wide range, from those who buy into the old myths about rape culture to those who are well-versed in the subject. In other words, he has to both educate the obstinately ignorant while keeping the feminists engaged, despite that much of the facts and statistics he presents are nothing new. It’s a difficult task, and one he pulls off with aplomb.
For now, what I want to talk about is the changing narrative that Missoula both exemplifies and demonstrates in its text. Because the narratives that surround rape have been changing over the past two decades, with the introduction of third wave feminism, the advent and rising popularity of social media, and that 24 H news cycle that came hand-in-hand with said social media. If the narrative about rape has changed in the past two decades, much of that change has been in the past five years. And this is what’s interesting to me: because, when narratives change, especially controversial narratives that people are highly invested in, one segment of the population gets left behind, bewilderedly wondering what the fuck is going on and why people are denying what appear to be common knowledge truths, while another segment of the population is chomping at the bit, wondering why the fuck change is taking so long when we all know better than these old wives’ tales.
As much as I would like to present both sides as equally vituperative (because that makes for a better story), in reality, you can almost always expect people who feel their status quo being threatened to react with far more vicious and morally questionable attacks than their new-world counterparts. Not, I think, because they’re worst people; simply because they have the illusion of numbers and “everyone knows that” narrative on their side, and when the ground under your feet feels more stable, you’re going to feel safer testing it.
Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that Missoulais absolutely not a men vs. women story; no one who reads it and has half a brain cell between their ears could come to that conclusion; and anyone who goes about insisting that it is a matter of men vs. women is a moron who should not be listened to any further on the subject, or any subject. Kirsten Pabst has made a great deal of the fact that she is the “central antagonist” of Missoula, and she’s absolutely correct about that assertion (I should also mention that the Department of Justice appears to be rather concerned with how Pabst is going about her protests of the book). Krakauer makes it abundantly clear that she has no one but herself to thank for that role (not, I think, that that will keep her from suing him– we’ll see). In a book filled with rapists, she comes across looking the worst because we expect rapists to be monsters– and everyone else to be decent human beings, which, it turns out, is something Pabst entirely fails to be. By the way, the rapists are mostly a bunch of sobbing children, whose audacity is equal only to their entitlement. Evil, it turns out, comes in depressingly banal forms.
I come from a decidedly sports-oriented Midwestern family (including a cousin who worked for the NFL), who have spread their sports love over college and professional and more flavors of sport than I’m going to bother trying to list here. Though sometimes said family can be annoyingly enthusiastic, and I would really appreciate it if no one’s mood depended on the goddamned Twins, this sportiness has never been a problem in my life. Still, I think, for those of us Americans who are observing the people who spend large amounts of time and money watching other people kick/toss/batter a ball around a field, there’s always been a question of just how far that sports love goes: just how much will you tolerate from your heroes?
And when Jerry Sandusky hit the news, it turned out that Joe Paterno answered the hell out of that question.
Obviously, most people, and most sports lovers, do not support athletes when those athletes behave less like good citizens and more like psychopaths. But it turns out that there’s a small but vocal minority of people for whom you need only put a monster in a jersey, and they will see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. None of my sport-lovin’ relatives would throw a rape victim under the bus in the name of said sport (and you better fucking keep it that way, guys, I swear to god, if I have to live through just one Thanksgiving listening to anybody at all talk about how “maybe she shouldn’t have been drinking so much”, shit’s gonna get hella real at Chez Onion), but I bring this up because, if you google Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, you are likely to find nothing so much as an awful lot of Missoulians whining about how just a few bad apples– a few rapes, really– have given their town a bad name.
To which I might say: suck it the fuck up.
As everyone who lives in a major metropolis already knows, no one owes your charming little settlement the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, do you not like it when people generalize the many based on the flaws of a few? Well, fucking deal with it. It is a universal, and universally unfair law, that the name of the group is tarnished by the actions of a few shitty members. You don’t like being called the Rape Capital of America? Why is the big ol’ Department of Justice picking on you poor folk? Here’s what you do about it: you take responsibility for your past failings, you make amends, you strive for transparency in your future handling of sexual assault cases, and you do everything within your power to make absolutely sure that Missoula is the only non-rape capital of the US. Because the one thing that Missoulians are right about is that Missoula is no worse than anywhere else– they’re just not any better, either, and failing to appreciate just how little this argument means.
Ironically, the first step in this process would be to see to it that as many people read Missoula as you can possibly wrangle, because Missoula the book is far kinder to Missoula the town than current public opinion. Krakauer details the actions of those Missoulians who did everything they could to bring about justice and did their best to ameliorate truly awful situations (for example, Det. Guy Baker). The University of Montana comes out of it, not smelling like roses, but comparatively as much less evil than, say, Columbia University.
To return to the idea of changing narratives: allow me to go through just a few of these narratives…
- Rape is rare but false rape accusations are common. This was the conventional wisdom for decades. But we live in the Information Age, today, and studies and statistics show, again and again, that rape is depressingly common but rape accusations are no more common than any other kind of false accusation– which is to say, they happen, but not frequently.
- He’s just an ordinary guy who made a mistake (and now his life is ruined). The most notorious recent example of this narrative that I can think of is CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville rape case, where the victim was largely ignored and the forfeited futures of the rapists were bemoaned at length. In reality, rapists– even non-stranger rapists– are rapists, and they’re not ordinary guys. A very small percentage of the human population commits the lion’s share of rapes, as Krakauer demonstrates at great length in Chapter 10. People know that– we all watched the same crime shows, after all– but we sometimes have a hard time applying that knowledge to non-stranger rapists.
- Women are liars. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that women are no more or less dishonest than any humans en general, and anyone who says otherwise has a decent chance of beginning that sentence with “I’m not sexist, but…” The best recent example of this narrative is Bill Cosby’s recent media troubles. We all understand the concept that one rapist has a trail of victims, but even when twenty, thirty, forty victims came forward, there are still people who simply can not believe it. Or in the words of Larry Wilmore: “… Why aren’t people listening to these women? … is it just because they’re women? Because I would say enough have come forward.”
- It’s not really rape, if she was drinking/consented once and then later did not consent/didn’t scream or fight back/didn’t behave like the saintly ideal of a rape victim before or afterwards. These are all ideas that rely on ignorance at best and misogyny at worst to function, and, in our modern world, the tides are changing. This was the nastiest of our conflicting narratives to become readily apparent in Missoula. In at least a few (but not all) of the stories told, the victim had at one point either consented to have sex with the rapist, or indicated to him that she would have sex with him. Then– sometime before the attack– she clearly, explicitly, and vocally changed her mind, and did not consent to the immediate sex, which the rapist then ignored. In the view of some (not all) of the police and prosecutors investigating the crime, initial consent is forever consent, and that despite the evidence very much to the contrary (for example, blood, everywhere). There was clearly an attempt to hide behind the rhetoric of “this case can never get a conviction”, therefore eschewing the question of rape by going straight to the matter of a judge and jury (which ignores that most convictions are plea deals, and that a proper investigation has the potential to turn up multiple victims, therefore establishing a pattern of behavior that even the most ignorant jury can readily grasp). In practice, the end result of this modus operandi is a world wherein a woman who has consented once can forever after be legally raped by that individual.
- Even if it is rape, you’ll never convince a jury to convict. As Krakauer points out, it is difficult, but it can be done. He further points out that in several of the instances in Missoula wherein rape cases were dropped because of the perceived difficulty of prosecuting the case, while there are other cases across the nation where rapists were not only tried but convicted with less evidence.
- The victim decides whether or not to investigate or prosecute a rape. We all know that rape is the most underreported and under-prosecuted serious crime, but most of us assume that’s due to the shame that keeps the victim from coming forward. While it is true that victims do feel an enormous amount of resistance to reporting what happened to them in the first place, even a victim who is adamant about wanting to bring his or her rapist to justice can still find the police refusing to investigate or the prosecutor refusing to prosecute, ostensibly for lack of evidence– though, as Krakauer demonstrates, this lack of evidence is not infrequently a bullshit claim. Therefore, it turns out that Missoula is not merely about several rapes perpetrated by UM athletes; it’s about police, detectives, and prosecutors who simply weren’t doing their jobs. Because this part of their job was hard.
If anyone has to take home that dubious trophy, it has to be Kirsten Pabst, who Krakauer points out, ominously, had a 99% conviction rate when she retired.
“… ‘if you’re winning 99 percent of the time you go to trial, you’re not prosecuting nearly enough of the cases that land on your desk’… What Pabst’s record actually shows is that she was adept at recognizing what made some rape cases problematic to prosecute. And in the spring of 2012, when she started working as defense counsel for Jordan Johnson, she made good use of that aptitude. Pabst quickly identified Cecilia Washburn’s greatest vulnerabilities, and then exploited them ruthlessly.”
Pabst went from general prosecutor to retired to working for the defense in the biggest rape trial of Missoula’s sordid history, wherein star UM athlete Jordan Johnson was accused of raping fellow student Cecilia Washburn (pseudonym assigned by Krakauer), in a move that seems calculated to do nothing so much as make readers of Missoula go, “Wait, you’re allowed to do that?”
Johnson’s trial makes up the most agonizing part of the book, as we watch his attorneys, Pabst and David Paoli, exhibit in public the kind of asshole behavior that would make Internet trolls cringe, all while interrogating a rape victim, and all allowed because, you know, it’s a courtroom. The truly interesting thing about this trial was how much we can see the narrative shifts. For example, the prosecution brings in professor Dr. David Lisak specifically to address rape myths so as to better educate the jury, and nothing gets Paoli and Pabst worked into quite as much of a raging froth as the good professor. They can feel the ground shifting under their feet, and it feels like the possibility of losing. Also, for Kirsten Pabst, possibly like the Department of Justice reexamining your career and finding decades of atrocious neglect.
(As an aside, an especially galling moment in the trial was when Paoli and Pabst were discrediting Washburn based on the fact that Washburn had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a diagnosis she shares with almost a fifth of adult Americans. In the context of the trial, they were doing their best to paint Washburn as hysterical and unreliable, but the greater implications of their argument is that anyone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder cannot be trusted when they say they were raped and, by extension, no one can be convicted of raping an individual who has an anxiety disorder– which very much seems like the kind of thing that a rapist would be interested in knowing.)
Johnson was found not guilty, a victory which Pabst and Paoli crowed over, and quite clearly pained Krakauer (to say nothing, I’m sure, of the victim and her loved ones). Interestingly, however, Krakauer interviewed juror Joanne Fargo (pseudonym) who said: “The evidence presented by the prosecution from the rape center Ms. Washburn went to for evaluation was convincing to me… [I found] Ms. Washburn completely credible. … I did not believe she manufactured her story…” However, as Krakauer explains, “Even though Fargo believed that Johnson might have raped Washburn… she also believed that the jury arrived at the correct verdict. The defense raised reasonable doubts, she said, ‘about whether Mr. Johnson was aware… the sex was non-consensual,’ and the verdict was ‘based wholly on the letter of the law as instructed by the judge’.” Not guilty by way of reasonable doubt is a far cry from innocent. Johnson is as not guilty of raping Washburn in the same way that O.J. is not guilty of murder.
After Johnson’s acquittal, someone posted on the Missoulian’s twitter feed, “Hopefully UM [the University of Montana] will stop getting such a bad rep now.” How’s that working out for you?
Kirsten Pabst went on to run for county attorney, and win. A not inconsiderate part of her campaign was the self-congratulation for getting Johnson off the rape charge, and the UM Grizzlies’ subsequent winning streak after Johnson rejoined the team. Pabst seems to have hitched her wagon to (a) the assumption that we don’t live in a world wherein any schmuck can use google to discover the aforementioned juror’s qualifications regarding that not guilty verdict (and while the verdict may have been correct according to the letter of the law, such verdicts are precisely the sort of thing that makes communities deeply unhappy); and (b) therefore, the understanding that Missoulians (Griz fans, specifically) are willing to make a devil’s bargain, wherein they get to win a lot of college football games, and in exchange, a rapist goes free.
Even in Johnson’s trial, his defense makes a deliberate attempt to present him to the jury as not an “ignorant and generalized football thug.” That alone was especially interesting to me. Because, you see, the conviction rate for rapists who happen to be involved in sports (be they coaches or athletes, professional or college) has never been especially good. If anything, if you must be a rapist (please don’t be), it seems that the logical best course of action for you is to become a college athlete or a fraternity brother, wherein your proclivities can be protected by a loyal and well-funded in-group that galvanizes into action at the first whiff of accusation. And this works. Professional and semi-professional athletes and frat bros will win most of rape cases that they fight. Most of them won’t ever have to fight in court.
But that’s the problem with winning again and again and again; eventually, your opponent isn’t going to take it any longer and the tactics are going to change. In the Information Age, the story of a girl carrying around the mattress she was raped on after her university was worse than unhelpful can reach millions of eyeballs in a matter of hours. With social media, those voices proclaiming that just because a victim wasn’t cautious doesn’t mean that he or she deserved it, and that a rapist is a rapist and fuck his bright future can become the new discourse. The idea that a woman can say no, despite having earlier said yes, can become, not a concept that the jury will never understand, but widely understood by millions. The narrative is changing.
The narrative didn’t change fast enough for Cecilia Washburn. One of the things the jury simply could not get their mind around was the idea of a rape victim who didn’t fight back– essentially, they believed, to some degree, that a woman would rather risk death than be raped. In the new narrative, there’s an understanding that victims who don’t fight back are not so much suspicious as they are the norm– after all, to be alive but traumatized is still to be alive.
As Krakauer clearly demonstrates in Missoula, the contentious matter is not merely rape, but non-stranger rape, which is to say, 82% of rapes. As the Department of Justice’s findings on the Missoula County Attorney Office’s dereliction of duty discovered, “the County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute nearly every case of non-stranger assault involving an adult woman victim who was, at the time of the assault, subject to some type of heightened vulnerability… even when the assailant had confessed or made incriminating statements…” Much of this ties into what Krakauer said regarding Kirsten Pabst’s talent for recognizing what makes certain rape cases problematic to prosecute, therefore avoiding the risk of marring her good score. Pabst, it seems, is not a good attorney, but an attorney who chose her cases carefully, at Missoula’s expense. Every rapist she declined to prosecute remained free in the community to reoffend again.
While I have nothing but the deepest disgust for Pabst’s behavior, I do also find her somewhat pitiable. She is something of a relic of her times, a time when you could get away with such neglect without a best-selling author coming to investigate your town, a time without viral media pieces declaring your day to day operations to be endemic of what those dratted Millennials are calling “rape culture”. In some sense, Pabst has gambled on the notion that people do not, and will not in the foreseeable future, understand non-stranger rape. While that was a safe bet twenty or thirty years ago, it’s rapidly becoming untrue. For example, in the last few years, two of the most widely watched television shows have depicted non-stranger rape, with varying degrees of sensitivity; Joan, raped by her fiance in Mad Men, and Cersei raped by her twin brother Jaime in Game of Thrones.
The court of public opinion is neither reliable nor fair. There is no presumption of innocence. It is fickle at best, and while it can certainly ruin lives, it can only debatably bring about justice. It is by no means the way that anyone wants to do things. The justice system, what with a jury of peers and the presumption of innocence, might be flawed, but it is the better option– as long as we can make it work.
So get your shit together, America.
Until next time,