From 'Missoula' to Moorhead, Jon Krakauer to talk about rape and justice on college campuses

Author Jon Krakauer discussing his book, "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town." Office of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's Flickr page / Special to The Forum

MOORHEAD — Jon Krakauer made a name for himself with his outdoors writing that pits man against nature, like “Into the Wild,” the story of a 24-year-old who hiked into rural Alaska with minimal provisions and died four months later, and “Into Thin Air,” his first person account of a deadly attempt to summit Mount Everest.

His latest book, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” takes on a different subject: justice — or the lack of it — for sexual assault victims.

Krakauer will talk about his book and the larger issue of sexual assault and prosecution of rapists Wednesday night, Nov. 14, at Concordia College’s Centrum in the Knutson Campus Center.

The book was written in 2015 but seems as timely as ever as the #MeToo movement grows.

“People say this is an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s a huge problem that’s been huge for thousands of years,” he says.

“Missoula” explores cases of women raped in the town, many linked to the University of Montana. In particular, he looks at why so many victims are reluctant to report the crime.

“The deck is stacked against victims,” he says from his home in Boulder, Colo. “The victim is the one put on trial. She doesn’t get any benefit of the doubt. The victim has no protections. If she testifies, she knows she’ll be attacked. She won’t be believed. The accused man has all of the advantages.”

Krakauer says the belief of “innocent until proven guilty” is meant to protect against false accusations, but puts the accuser on the defensive.

“When you’re trying to figure out who is responsible for a sexual assault, you don’t start with the accused is innocent until proven guilty,” he says. “You start with believing both parties until the facts suggest you shouldn’t.”

He says authorities need to use their judgment after being presented with facts.

“We do this all of the time,” he says. “We make important decisions about life-and-death matters without requiring evidence to be beyond a reasonable doubt. We should approach sexual assault accusations the same way.”

As opposed to the legal system, cases of rape on college campuses are handled differently, where often the harshest penalty is expulsion, which he says is rare.

“Their No. 1 goal is to sweep sexual assault under the rug because they want to protect their brand,” Krakauer says of how colleges and universities tackle accusations. “If schools were honest, you’d be hearing about assaults on every campus. When a student says, ‘We had no sexual assaults this year,’ that’s the school you should be worried about. Sexual assaults are very common on every campus in the country. It happens more than anyone will acknowledge, and most aren’t reported.”

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, about 30 percent of sexual assaults are reported, 20 percent among college students.

He feels the imbalance of how sexual assault allegations are treated was broadcast nationally when Christine Blasey Ford told was called to the stand during then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September. Blasey Ford told of a 1982 party at which a teenage Kavanaugh and another young man held her down and groped her against her will.

“I watched every word of it,” Krakauer says of the hearings. “I was riveted by her testimony. From all the interviews I’d done with rape survivors, I knew what was going to happen. She was going to be attacked. She was already being attacked. Her credibility would be challenged. I found her utterly believable, much more so than Brett Kavanaugh.”

While he says Kavanaugh’s evasive answers and most senators’ support of the judge infuriated the author, he feels it contributed to a growing dialogue and awareness.

“The country is undergoing a big change, but it’s happening slowly,” Krakauer says. “It’s going to take decades, centuries, but it’s got to happen. It’s got to start somewhere.”

‘Wild’ again

While Krakauer is coming to Concordia to talk about “Missoula,” he was just as excited to talk about a recent documentary film, “Free Solo,” about rock climber Alex Honnold's attempt to ascend El Capitan, the sheer, 3,000-foot granite-faced formation in Yosemite National Park, with no rope, harness or protective equipment.

“I was blown away by it, and not just because of the climbing. The footage they got, it made me sick to my stomach,” says Krakauer, a seasoned climber, who had done a variation of the route as a traditional climb with ropes. “I was brought to tears in that movie by Alex baring his soul, being willing to be vulnerable. It’s a remarkable film on many levels, even if you have no interest in climbing. It’s just a valuable film about human nature.”

He sees “strong parallels” between Honnold and Chris McCandless, the subject of “Into the Wild.” Both men had troubling pasts and difficult home lives leading to risk-taking adventures.

“They both found solace and purpose in doing things in nature,” Krakauer says. “I was touched by the humanity in both stories.”

A key difference was their approach to their adventures.

“Alex prepared as thoroughly as he could, and McCandless was reckless and threw his fate into the wind,” he says.

In writing “Into the Wild,” Krakauer related his own experiences trying to find peace through nature and its challenges, but tried not to come across as too sympathetic to the doomed and reckless main character.

“I worried about romanticizing Chris. A lot of people have romanticized him and that’s not good,” he says. “He’s not a romantic figure. It is a cautionary tale. It’s also an inspirational tale. And a tale that I hope people would have empathy for him. And some do and some don’t. I get more hate mail from people about ‘Into the Wild’ than anything else I’ve written about, and that includes religion and sexual assault and architecture. I don’t set out to write controversial books, but I have to admit, my books seem to polarize people.”

If you go

What: A Conversation with Jon Krakauer

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14

Where: Concordia College's Knutson Campus Center Centrum, Moorhead

Info: This event is free and open to the public.