The news is rife with stories of sexual violence on college campuses. In his excellent new book, “Missoula,” Jon Krakauer takes a close look at the emotionally tangled issue of acquaintance rape and how it affected victims and perpetrators in Missoula, Mont., during a rash of incidents from 2010 to 2012. That town of 70,000 is home to the University of Montana and its extremely successful football team, the Grizzlies — or The Griz, as the fans put it — some of whose players figure prominently in Krakauer’s investigation.
Krakauer tells the stories of several young women and how they were raped — not by knife-wielding thugs in ski masks, but by people they trusted. He opens with the story of Allison Huguet.
Allison grew up in Missoula in a close, family-friendly neighborhood. One of her neighbors, from age 5 on, was Beau Donaldson. They were friends, not romantic partners, and ended up going to the university together. One Saturday night in 2010, Huguet was at one of Donaldson’s house parties when she drank too much to drive home. Huguet fell asleep on the living room sofa and awoke two hours later with her pants pulled down to her knees. Donaldson was raping her.
She pretended to be asleep because she feared what Donaldson would do if she resisted. He had a hundred pounds on her and, as Huguet said, “He could have snapped my neck like a twig.” When Donaldson finished and left the room, Huguet quickly dressed and ran from the house, calling her mother to come pick her up. As she ran down the street talking to her mother on her cellphone, she realized Donaldson — a Grizzlies running back — was chasing her. Her mother pulled up, and Huguet jumped into the car and fled.
Krakauer also tells the story of Cecilia Washburn and Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson. Though they had a flirting relationship and ended up one night kissing in bed at her apartment, she clearly said no when Johnson tried to have sex with her. Johnson held Washburn down, bruising her chest and tearing her vagina as he raped her. Though her roommate was one room away, Washburn did not cry out and later gave Johnson a ride home.
In all, Krakauer recounts a half-dozen assaults involving the Montana football team, including a horrifying gang rape. The stories are heartbreaking and infuriating, but the offense is compounded when the victims make the courageous and difficult decision to report the assaults to police.
In Missoula, football players were treated like gods. Accusing these local heroes of sexual assault unleashed a torrent of abuse on the young women. In daily conversation and later in the courtroom, the victims faced the all-too-common kinds of questions aimed at turning the blame back on them: How were you dressed? Were you drunk? Did you fight back?
Krakauer doesn’t just tell the story of these crimes. As he has done so brilliantly in his other books — “Into Thin Air” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” among them — he sets the story firmly in the context of social history. He gathers relevant research and debunks scores of misconceptions about rape. Under the “very old concept of rape,” Krakauer writes, “there can only be two precursors of rape: 1) A stranger jumps out from the bushes; 2) There is no rape unless the woman puts up a fight, to the death if necessary.”
Research also quashes the man-in-a-ski-mask image. Most of the rapists are often described as “nice guys who would never rape anyone.” In a chilling interview with a fraternity member named “Frank,” we learn that he and his fraternity brothers worked for days crafting guest lists for parties, selecting women carefully, based on vulnerability. The plan: Get them too drunk to protest when the brothers had sex with them. Frank describes one of his rapes, when his victim didn’t begin to protest until they were wrestling on the bed.
“It pissed me off that she played along the whole way and then tried to squirm out of it,” Frank said.
The young women who reported their assaults to police — and who later spoke so movingly to Krakauer — were motivated by a common goal: to make sure their assailants were punished and would not rape again. (Eventually, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into Missoula’s handling of rape cases.)
Unfortunately, even if there is a courtroom victory, there is little peace or satisfaction for the victim. “He gave me a life sentence,” Huguet said of Donaldson, “a life in which I have to work every day to get through the pain.”
William McKeen teaches at Boston University and chairs its journalism department. He is the author of “Outlaw Journalist” and “Mile Marker Zero.”