presumptions of innocence | 2018.04.24

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer | Review

Krakauer, Jon_Missoula

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2015]

Genre: Investigative Journalism, Nonfiction

Pages: 367

Formats: Paperback, Hardcover

Source: MCL

I’ve been avoiding this review for personal reasons but now feel some comment must be made in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court Justice confirmation.

This book details the rape and sexual assault crisis at the University of Montana from 2008 to 2012 and details the repeated failings of the justice system in its inability to appropriately respond. Krakauer’s research, alongside his own investigative journalism, gives this book a measured voice. It certainly hits the nerve needed to pull our country out from its hiding place behind white male rage so we can try and have a more productive discussion about sexual abuse.

The same friend who recommended Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, to me also recommended Krakauer’s. While my friend’s encouragement for me to read Partanen’s book was based on her own feelings of frustration about the United States’ current political and economic situation, her holiday gift to me last December of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town felt more like a gesture of understanding and attempted solidarity.

When non-victims of sexual abuse (and mind you, the national statistics show victims of contact sexual abuse are as high as one out of three women, and that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday) practice compassion by offering up tools for possible real understanding, they give room for those of us who are victims to have an impactful voice. And, please note, the type of understanding I’m talking about is not the kind that non-victims tote around in a prayer bag of self-aggrandized ideas of healing and reconciliation. I’m cheering for those non-victims who have the humility to actually clear their minds and listen to those of us who have survived sexual abuse in one form or another.

(Disclaimer: I am extremely lucky in that I have not experienced rape. However, a male authority figure in my family did sexually abuse me on repeated occasions beginning when I was about eight or nine years old. That’s all I’m going to say on that subject at this time, as there are better mediums where these details can be brought into the focus that I may utilize someday. I’m happy to talk with anyone about the details offline if you’d like to message me on Twitter @agathaagnusblac.)

The number one takeaway from the Kavanaugh-sexual-assault debate has been that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony (as well as those of Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick) could not be proven true and therefore, according to the tone from the right-leaning media and Kavanaugh himself, all accusations of sexual abuse should be deemed as ploys by one political party to destroy American values. But this entirely misses the point. Specifically, this type of thought process is an infuriating example of misused inductive reasoning, in that it allows one specific observation to inform a broader conclusion, such as “Sally’s grandfather is bald, therefore all grandfathers are bald.” We need to remember that Ford’s accusations were also not disproven, and that the mantra of the U.S. justice system that trumpets the presumption of innocence needs to apply to the accuser also.

Certainly, the highly aggressive, victim-stance that Kavanaugh took on when questioned about his possible past misconducts should not put confidence in the minds of the undecided about his case. Yes, being accused does not equate to being guilty, absolutely. But when/if someone is falsely accused, one would hope they would have the decency to remember the larger conversation and to handle such grave accusations with more maturity than to shout such a childish threat like “what goes around, comes around.”

And what is that larger conversation? Coming back to Krakauer’s book, which gives some very soberingly explicit examples of sexual assault, that larger conversation is about how our nation’s culture does not seem to understand sexual abuse, how to talk about it, or how to respect those who have been its victims. We are so scared to falsely punish those accused of sexual crimes that our knee-jerk reaction has instead been to criminalize the victims. On the last page of his book, Krakauer states that “rapists [and other types of sex offenders] rely on the silence of their victims to elude accountability.” By allowing the silence to continue, we have let gross and damaging acts of sexual aggression become the norm. Krakauer’s narrative and the recent conservative responses to actions like the #MeToo Movement or the Kavanaugh hearings showcase that our society has lost all moral perspective on this issue (if we had any to begin with).

Remembering my initial reaction to Krakauer’s book earlier this year and then watching the Kavanaugh debate this last month has reminded me of how quick our justice system is to do nothing, or at least as little as possible, in the name of “the presumption of innocence.”

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