How Shame Inspired Jon Krakauer’s Book on Rape

The campus of the University of Montana in Missoula.
The campus of the University of Montana in Missoula. Photo: Joel Rogers/Corbis

Jon Krakauer made his reputation writing about extremes — survival on Everest, Mormon fundamentalists — but his new book addresses a subject that’s (depressingly) mundane: rape on a college campus. In Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, he examines a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana.

He spoke to the Cut about how he came to write the book, what he’s learned since, and how things are changing.

You’ve spoken about the discovery that a close friend of yours was raped, and how that changed your understanding of sexual violence. What was that like?
It was shocking. This is someone who really is like a daughter to me, and was on this fast track where everything seemed to be going great. She had a high-profile, challenging career, she was excelling, and all of a sudden she’s in rehab. It was more than shocking; it was really, really upsetting. And I knew one of her assailants.

So, I mean, what can I do except try to learn about this? And so that’s what I did, and it doesn’t take very long to realize this is a huge problem, it’s really widespread, and how come I didn’t fucking know about it? I felt ashamed. It was this embarrassment mixed with this anger — I set out to educate myself thoroughly. I read a lot. The more I read, the more I learned how it’s just everywhere, and it seemed so maddening that so little was being done about it. The criminal justice system is so ineffective at holding rapists accountable.

How do you think being a man influenced the access you got and people’s willingness to talk to you? And how you felt about this story?
I’ve read what Jessica Valenti’s written and I know it’s upsetting to some women that, wait a minute, why does it take a man to get attention for this? Well, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it does take a man. When I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking, gee, I could be more effective as a man; that never occurred to me. I actually thought it would be a problem — I thought victims would be more reluctant to talk to a man.

Maybe it’s less that I’m a man, but that I have not been sexually assaulted. That seems a more pertinent difference. Maybe it would be much better; I would have more empathy or more understanding. But if the book has any shortcomings, I don’t think it’s a lack of empathy. I’m not sure how to answer that — I’m a male and I wanted to write this book so I did.

I grew up in a family of women; I have three very high-powered sisters, which is actually part of the reason I felt so embarrassed. I should’ve been aware of this problem. There’s no excuse for it. Now I have the zeal of the newly converted: Now that I saw the light, why don’t the rest of you?

I think denial is easier than facing unpleasant truths. It just is. We all do that. You don’t want to believe something. So you tell yourself that it’s not true, or it’s not your problem. I think that’s essentially what is going on. It interests me and fascinates me and infuriates me, the anger of these deniers. The vehemence with which these deniers attack those who claim there’s a problem.

What do you think that anger is about?
I don’t know. And even more peculiar is most of those deniers, or so many of them, appear to be conservatives and Republicans. Why should this be a politically partisan issue? I don’t get that. Republicans are supposed to be the law-and-order, throw-’em-in-prison party, and here they are, when it comes to rape, No, no, everything else but rape. Unless they’re black of course, and then it’s fine to throw them in prison. But if they’re a football player who’s going to help our team win, then we’ll make an exception as we always do for good athletes. So, I haven’t figured that out.

I think also people don’t want to think that our country could be that misogynistic.
None of us do, but it is, and anyone, male or female has to be careful. I was careful in this book by design. I read Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller — I think it’s a brilliant book; I think it speaks the truth — but I wanted to pretty much just stick to: This is what happened in Missoula. That was the original working title of the book: What Happened in Missoula. I didn’t want to distract people from the central points by debating feminist theory or even debating, is alcohol to blame? Clearly from the book, alcohol was involved, but I really want to keep the discussion focused on rape, not alcohol. That’s another discussion to have. Because, as Jessica Valenti says, women don’t get raped because they drank too much; they get raped because somebody raped them. And that’s the most pertinent point here.

A lot of people say a university has no business adjudicating rape cases, that something as serious as rape should be done by the police, in the same way universities wouldn’t adjudicate a murder case. Well, if police treated rape cases with the same seriousness they treated murder cases, that might be true, but to say universities shouldn’t adjudicate because it’s too serious — that’s the reason they should adjudicate! Because the cops aren’t doing it, the justice system isn’t doing it. You have rapists in your midst, predators, this is the hunting ground, that’s the exact reason universities should do something, need to do something.

Why do you think law enforcement has a hard time not only prosecuting rape, but even just believing women when they say it happened to them?
Cops, it’s this kind of hidebound old trade. They have their traditions. But in Missoula, a number of cops and detectives, once the DOJ investigated and they started getting training, they were surprisingly open to it. One of the best detectives I wrote about, Guy Baker in Missoula, was a third-generation cop. Baker acknowledged to me, yeah, I definitely learned some stuff, I learned some really important stuff about how to interrogate and how to interview victims. But it’s not just training, because David Lisak goes around the country teaching seminars to prosecutors and cops, and he said he can always tell when he’s giving a seminar and the old-school cops in the back of the room are smirking and nodding off and elbowing each other and rolling their eyes. You’re not gonna convert everyone, but it’s a start, and the way change happens is slowly.

Have you had other women come forward to you since you’ve written this book?
You wouldn’t believe how many. I was shocked, when the book was first announced, all these acquaintances — two members of my own family! — came to me and said that they had been raped.

The silence is the problem. The silence is the weapon. And if women are courageous enough to break that silence, that’s huge.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How Shame Inspired Jon Krakauer’s Book on Rape