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Krakauer Surprised At Missoula's 'Defensiveness'

Author Jon Krakauer speaks about his book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" during a community forum in Missoula, Montana, in 2015.
Cheri Trusler
Author Jon Krakauer speaks during about his book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" during a community forum in Missoula, MT Wednesday May 6.

Author Jon Krakauer got a standing ovation at a forum last night about his new book: Missoula Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

The capacity crowd of more than 500 people at the Doubletree Inn ballroom applauded Krakauer several times when he stood up for rape victims, and repeated the main point of his book.

“Rape is a serious crime that’s not being taken seriously,” he said.

If there were people in the crowd who didn’t like Krakauer or his book, they were in the minority. The writer was never booed, nor did he take questions directly from the audience.

At the end a man who identified himself as Thomas Dove was briefly given a microphone and questioned Krakauer about his methods, but moderator Larry Abramson shut him down, and after a brief face-to-face discussion, the author walked away to applause from the crowd.

The crowd was clearly on Krakauer’s side throughout the evening. He started out by addressing why he chose to write about sexual assault, and why in Missoula, which has a slightly lower sexual assault rate than the country as a whole.

Krakauer said his book is personal. After he learned that a close family friend had been sexually assaulted, he realized how ignorant he was about rape.

”I set out to remedy my ignorance, by doing what I do, which is research,” said Krakauer. “And I started tracking these publicized rape cases around the country. They’re everywhere. Amherst, Florida, Oregon State, where I grew up. There’s more than 30 of them probably I was tracking. One of them was Missoula.”

After that, things fell into place by chance, Krakauer said, that made Missoula the place he ultimately set his book. He likes Montana, he said, and was more inclined to come here for research than Florida. After he attended a rape trial here, he met victims with good stories who were willing to talk to him, and he says he was able to get the documentation he needed to write a factual book.

“It was literally by chance,” said Krakauer. “It’s not like it was just on a whim. I didn’t think it would be fruitful.”

As for naming his book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town - "

“No one can believe this, but I was pretty surprised that Missoula wasn’t happy about the title,"Krakauer said. "The book is about Missoula, it seemed, like, weird to think you could somehow give it a title that would spare the town having to face this scrutiny.

"I like Missoula, it’s a wonderful town. It doesn’t seem like this town would be so defensive. And I was wrong, I grew up in a small town. I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, it’s like a smaller version of Missoula. I get it now, that if somebody had come to town and written: Corvalis, I personally wouldn’t have been upset, but I know a lot of people in Corvallis would have been. So I get it.

Having said that, I think it’s a really good title. It’s not sensational; it’s almost like an academic paper. It says exactly what it is. It’s concise. I’m sorry it caused so much turmoil.”

Moderator Larry Abramson, dean of the University of Montana Journalism School asked several questions about why Krakauer, who described himself as a journalist, didn’t try harder to interview some of the people he wrote about in the book, like attorneys David Paoli and Kirsten Pabst, who defended former Grizzly Quarterback Jordan Johnson when he was charged with raping a fellow student.

“I had genuine questions I really wanted to ask, David Paoli, Christen Pabst,” said Krakauer. “So I waited until February, the book had just been announced, and Paoli called my attorney Mike Malloy and threatened to sue him, to sue me. The next day he followed up with a letter, a very thinly veiled threat to sue me again if I didn’t show him the book.

"With, Kirsten Pabst, contrary to what she wrote, on February 19 I sent her an email. I hadn’t heard a reply so I sent it again, and by the way since I haven’t heard from you I also faxed it, and immediately there was a reply saying, 'have your lawyer call me.' The letter was three questions which she refused to answer. I asked Mike to ask them for me she wouldn’t answer them. She then sent not even a veil threat to sue me. The two people that I hoped to question the most are now off the table because now I’m looking at a libel suit.”

Krakauer said he got the information he needed to write a factual book from documents, including trial transcripts. He singled out the University of Montana for not making public the documents relating to why former Quarterback Jordan Johnson was allowed to stay in school after two campus panels had voted to expel him.

“For the University to say, 'oh, you never talked to us...'” said Krakauer, exasperated, “Why would I talk to you, when you won’t even tell me if this even happened?”

Beyond the specifics of how he wrote his book, Krakauer talked a lot about why he wrote it. Because, he says, rape is a serious crime that isn’t taken seriously enough by law enforcement. He says the judicial system is so afraid of convicting someone falsely accused of rape that it forgets about the victim.

“And she’s being falsely accused of being a liar, and that’s at least as damaging of being falsely accused of being a rapist,” Krakauer said.

Krakauer’s advocacy for victims of sexual assault was warmly received by the crowd. After the event, Missoula Psychotherapist Katie Simon says, after finishing his book today, she was excited to see Krakauer.

“But mostly I was excited to see how Missoula showed up, and what the vibe was, and what the community was, and I was proud to be a Missoulian tonight.”

Missoula resident Curt Spurzam says he was intrigued to read the book after hearing people complain about it’s title. He doesn’t think it will damage the town’s reputation.

“No, certainly not after reading it,” said Spurzam. “He goes over and over and compliments Missoula. I think anybody that reads the book is not going to feel that it does Missoula injustice. I think most of the comments out there are from people who haven’t read the book, because at the end of the day, he’s very, very complimentary of Missoula.”

In the book and last night, Krakauer said that there’s lots of evidence that things are getting better in Missoula, in terms of police and prosecutors taking sexual assaults more seriously, and victims being willing to come forward. Drew Colling, who works with victims at the University’s Student Advocacy Resource Center, was staffing a table at the event last night. She agrees that the attention the issue started getting in local media a couple of years ago, and drew Krakauer to Missoula, has led to meaningful improvements.

“I work really closely with the Missoula police department and the University police department,” said Colling. “They’ve updated policies on their sexual assault response; they’ve had a ton of training in the last couple of years with national experts coming in. We work very closely and collaborate. It’s a lot more supportive.”

Last night’s event was put on by Fact and Fiction book store in Missoula. Krakauer said he doesn’t like doing public speaking events about his books and doesn’t do many, but he said he felt an obligation to come here and answer questions. He did that, for about an hour, in a very controlled atmosphere where few of his sharpest critics appeared to be present, and at the end, those who were there, stood and applauded him.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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