Jon Krakauer: ‘If You’re Not a Feminist, Then You’re a Problem’

A round-table discussion with Jon Krakauer on his latest book, ‘Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town’


On Tuesday, April 21, Jon Krakauer joined a group of feminist bloggers at the Penguin Random House offices in New York City for a round-table discussion on his latest book, Missoula. In attendance were Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr, Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel, Ashley Ford of the Harnisch Foundation, Jessica Winter of Slate, Meredith Turits of Bustle, and Jenn Northington of BookRiot. What follows is a collection of highlights from Jon’s answers, ending with a delightful exchange on feminism.


On the inspiration behind Missoula

I was inspired to write this book because of a young woman I’ve known since she was born. She recently turned 30, and she ended up in rehab a few years ago. It was such a shock — she was a high achiever, everything seemed to be going great. When I found out that she had twice been sexually assaulted in her teens…I was…I was really, really upset. I was really ashamed, both that I was unaware and that — I’m not an insensitive guy — but that I didn't really get the trauma associated with sexual assault.

So I started doing what I do, which is research. It wasn’t like as it happened I immediately thought of a book, but you don’t have to dig really deep to see the extent of this problem. I don’t know exactly when but I thought ‘oh maybe a book’ — and I reject many, many more ideas than I decide to turn into books — but this one stuck with me.

Because this book was inspired by this young woman I know, I just wanted to convey how traumatic this really is. This isn’t bullshit. This is what it’s like to be checking the shower curtain and looking under the bed, and under the bed, and under the bed…That was my goal in this book more than anything else.


Why Missoula?

When I was 17 I lived really near Missoula. I quit high school and worked in the woods there. I love Missoula and I love Montana.

Even before [the] Jezebel [article], I saw the stuff that was going on there. It was everywhere you looked, you know? Florida State, Occidental, Amherst, Yale, Notre Dame, all these places. I have files on probably 30 or more cases or schools or cities.

Missoula was close. In the course of keeping tabs on all these places I saw that there was going to be a sentencing hearing for Beau Donaldson, which was originally scheduled I think for October, 2012, and I said Ah — I've got frequent flier miles, maybe I’ll just go to Missoula and watch this. I've never been to a sentencing hearing of any kind. Then it got postponed. Then postponed again. I finally went in January, 2013. You know I really thought it might be boring, I thought I’ll probably leave halfway through, there’s some cool stuff to do in Missoula…

But from the moment I walked in — it was this bitter cold morning — the first witness was Allison Huguet’s father and it was just riveting. And Allison was maybe the last prosecution witness, and she was amazing. That was the moment when I saw this woman stand up to this asshole defense attorney. You know, I just…I wanted to stand up and cheer. That’s when I was like wow, literally…I could maybe write a book around this woman. That was how it started.


“You don’t have to dig really deep to see the extent of this problem.”

On how the book became a larger examination of campus rape

It didn’t take long to realize there is a big problem in Missoula, and it seems to be emanating from the prosecutor’s office. What was interesting about Allison was — this was as slam-dunk a case as you can get, and she had to fight so hard. It was so traumatizing for her to get the prosecutors to take the case seriously and not just give the guy a slap on the wrist. And I thought how that was one of the more interesting parts of the book, to see how hard it is even in a case like that to get any kind of accountability, justice, retribution, whatever you want to call it.

It seemed obvious, then, that once I learned about Allison I should write about these series of assaults.


On the role of defense attorney Kirsten Pabst

Pabst is a fascinating and infuriating figure to me. She is a victim of domestic abuse — as she has talked about herself, she’s had all this trauma — and yet over and over again her default is to believe the perpetrator. There’s never enough probable cause in her book. Ever. I understand she’s a defense attorney and she’s gotta play that role and do everything in her power to get the quarterback acquitted. But after that, when she was no longer working to keep him out of jail, she posted a blog post saying basically I hope the prosecutors learn a lesson, this case never should have been prosecuted…

I mean that case…the evidence was strong. I believe he was guilty. And she’s saying there wasn’t even probable cause to prosecute. And now that woman is the chief prosecutor for Missoula County. That is not a good thing. This is a deep-seated belief. She talks about compassion, but if your head prosecutor believes that you shouldn’t even be prosecuting cases unless there’s just no question whatsoever…That’s disturbing.

One of the things that Pabst did that bothered me, when she was cross-examining [David] Lisak (he was the expert witness talking about trauma, its effect on brain chemistry at the Jordan Johnson trial) she opened by pointing out: you were sexually assaulted, don’t you think that makes you…you’re on a crusade?

[Lisak] knows the defense attorney’s job is to do whatever they can to win and they have no compunction to cross the lines, but about a year later in his home I asked him about it, and he said that’s the first time a defense attorney ever brought up him being sexually assaulted himself.


On the importance of activist bloggers

I gotta say since some of you are bloggers: I’m a big fan. I was able to get those posts [from Kirsten Pabst] because a blogger in Montana has this killer blog, and that’s where I got this. She archived them unofficially. She’s impressive. I have no idea how many readers/followers she has, but she’s this thorn in the side of Missoula county officials, and it’s people like her that keep them honest. I think it would be easy to ignore someone like that if you’re some official, or think you can ignore it, but you can’t, with the world as it is and the internet as it is.

There was the Jezebel piece, Katie Baker’s Jezebel piece, I think it made a huge difference. The title really pissed people off, you know, “Is This the Rape Capital of the World?” She didn’t think so but it was really effective. It really brought attention to the problem. It got my attention.


On whether Missoula will have a ripple effect upon release

You know when I write books, I’ve learned not to have any expectations that I’m going to change the world.

I wrote Into Thin Air in 1997 thinking it was going to change things. That was the worst experience of my life. I thought everyone will see climbing Everest as this horrible idea, to pay $70,000 and all. This will kill the commercialization of Everest. My friends who were climbing guides were pissed at me, saying ‘you’ve ruined my business.’ One of the larger guides on Everest, who was the most adamant and in my face, telling me I’m an asshole for writing this book, two years later — and this is no shit — he came to me and said: ‘Thank you for writing that book, it’s the best thing that ever happened to my business, it’s the best marketing it could get.’

So I don’t know what effect this book will have. I certainly hope it raises awareness and creates more discussion.


On being a man writing about campus rape

Absolutely [I had reservations]. Absolutely. And I had some real concerns. But I thought you know what, this is something I need to write for my own reasons, and I’ll take the criticism for being a guy. I know someone has already written that it’s a problem for them. And I get that. I just had to write the book for my reasons.


“I think the adversarial system of justice is fucked.”

On the systemic issues in our legal system in handling rape cases

I knew very clearly as I was writing the book that the deck is stacked so high against sexual assault victims. I’m a firm believer in due process, the bill of rights, the fourth amendment…and I’m not advocating we change it. I think unfortunately this is the system we’ve got. But as I point out, people like David Lisak and his amazing organization End Violence Against Women International, they have figured out ways to improve the conviction rate of rapists. So I’m not saying we’ve got to overhaul the system because…I’d love to but I don’t think we can. I think the adversarial system of justice is fucked. I think it would be way better if we had a different system. But this is ours for better or worse.

Still, you can do things like David Lisak and End Violence. They have these teams that go around the country training prosecutors, police departments, and whole cities. Ashland, Oregon, is one city they really transformed by showing: OK, you’ve got this problem, you need to know that most rapes are committed by a small number of serial predators. And once you start thinking about that, you realize — you need to take this way more seriously, because there’s a 90 percent chance that any given rapist is a serial rapist.

You can’t blow off cases and say he’s just a frat boy or it was just, you know, a bad hookup. Each of these serial rapists on average sexually assault six people, women generally, but each one is responsible for 14 crimes of violence of other kinds — domestic abuse, child abuse. You need to go after [each case], because they’re probably a serial predator. And you need to educate your cops and prosecutors the way trauma effects testimony, so they can educate the jury.

So yeah, I think it’s systemic as hell. You know, Missoula really is typical unfortunately. There’s a lot of good cops and good prosecutors, but even female detectives, having listened to their audio recordings, it’s just this feeling of resignation, like…you know that the prosecutors are never going to prosecute this guy, what are we wasting our time for…literally if they didn't have a confession, pretty much, they weren't going to refer it for prosecution. So there’s a long, long way to go.

And as David Lisak travels across the country giving these seminars to police departments, he’s realistic and pragmatic. He says You know, as I’m giving this lecture I can see in the back of the room those old-school cops, nudging each other and rolling their eyes, likeoh boy, listen to that, believe the victim, hah’— because cops are the most skeptical people you will ever meet. They’re cynical and skeptical…and not in a bad way, but one of the things you learn is that if cops start believing the victim that’s when you get the best evidence. By just listening.

Lisak and these other groups train cops and detectives on how to question victims the first time, the kinds of questions to ask so you let them tell their story. For instance, how did you feel about it, as opposed to well, really? You were wearing what? It’s like just tell me what you remember. And that’s how you get the best information, even if it’s a false accusation, or if that’s going to help you exonerate the accused, that stuff is just good police work that isn't being done now.


On the connection between male institutions and rape culture

I didn’t set out to write about football players, it’s just that quite a few of the rapists I wrote about were football players. It’s a huge problem, this culture…

I spent many months for my last book embedded with combat troops in Afghanistan, almost all of them were male. It was really insightful for this book because in that case you have this platoon of guys, a lot of them didn't like the war but they would do anything for each other. And the army inculcates this sense of being a part of a team, your first responsibility is to be loyal to your brothers, you protect them and they protect you. It’s an amazingly strong thing. A lot of these guys when they go home and have PTSD — it’s [exacerbated by] the loss of that bond and that incredibly supportive culture. For [soldiers in] combat there are good reasons for that [kind of unwavering loyalty].

For football teams, you have this pseudo ‘It’s all for the team, all for each other,’ but it’s just for winning a fucking game, you know? Give me a break. So yeah, you hear rumors the quarterback raped somebody and the response is: no he didn’t, she’s just a lying bitch. When wait a minute, that could be your girlfriend or sister or mother. Whoever. You really think it’s better to just blindly support your teammate? I think it’s a big problem. And it’s not just male culture, it’s [that a lot of these athletes and frat brothers are] boys on the cusp of becoming men. Which are the worst.


“If you had coaches who care about more than winning, they could end this problem in team sports.”

On how the pressures and priorities of college football are part of the problem

What’s disheartening to me is, if you had coaches who care about more than winning, they could end this problem in team sports. Just by saying, You know what? I don’t care if it’s true or false, if I hear a rumor that any of you committed sexual assault, you’re suspended, and if I learn there’s more than that you’re gone.

That would fix the problem overnight if coaches did that. But there’s so much pressure on them to win and there’s so much money involved, even in a small backwater division like the Big Sky in Montana. That was a surprise to me: how many people have ever seen or heard of the Montana Grizzlies outside of Montana, you know? But in Montana, on game day, you’d think you were in Tuscaloosa and it’s like, “Roll Tide!” It’s this same fanaticism. There’s no pro-sports team in Montana, this is their New York Yankees.

[There is also] this problem of entitlement. The last of the six or seven epigraphs in the book is one from Buzz Bissinger about college/pro athletes, “The Boys in the Clubhouse” from a New York Times op-ed, and it’s so perfect — it explains how we demand so much out of these athletes because we care about winning and we tolerate no slip-ups on the field. But off it you’re just coddled, you’re fed this sense of entitlement and that’s the problem.


On what was intentionally left out of Missoula

People ask — well, why didn’t you write more about — or try to explain — why these guys rape. And to me it’s been done much better than I ever could do by Susan Brownmiller. That’s my generation. I went to college in the 1970s, from ’72-’76. Against Our Will. Have you guys read that book? For the women that I went to college with that was their manifesto. It’s brilliant. It’s over the top at times but it’s a brilliant book about the history of rape.

So with my book I didn’t try to do that. Also with that book I was very cognizant of you’re going to be attacked for this — I tried to keep it to just the facts. I tried to just rely on documents. This is what happened, in this town, to these women. I wanted more than anything to show how this is what it’s like to be a victim, this is what it feels like to have someone you trusted rape you. And then to face all the slut-shaming, and then to face the system, and good luck trying to get justice. I felt like: if I can just describe that fairly [and] accurately...I wasn't trying to create heroes and villains.


On Krakauer’s own experience with PTSD

I could have this wrong, but I’m pretty sure the research shows that about 50 percent of rape victims get clinical PTSD. (You can have the symptoms of PTSD and not get classified.) But anyway, it’s a serious, lasting trauma.

Through my last book I got to know veterans, and I came back from Afghanistan and started hanging out with them and working with veterans groups in my home-town in Colorado. The veterans started telling me to come to their group therapy. I said No, I don’t need therapy, you know, and for two years they bugged me to come. Finally they said We think you have PTSD, and I said No, I didn't have any serious trauma in Afghanistan. They said No, no we’re not talking about Afghanistan, we read your Everest book and we think you’re still fucked up from that. And they were right.

So I said OK I’ll go, just get off my back and I’ll go. I went — I said I’d go three times — and I've been going for the last three years every Tuesday. It opened my mind to all kinds of things, but one of the things it enlightened me about was PTSD. When I started writing this book, and seeing the PTSD in the women I wrote about, I went to my group one day and asked the therapist — who’s a young, Naropa-trained Buddhist therapist (who has the total respect of these Vietnam, Afghan vets) — I said man you know this sounds a lot like these women in Montana, and she goes Of course, the two most prevalent kinds of PTSD in our culture today are veterans returning from war and rape victims, and the rape victims outnumber the war veterans and have higher rates of PTSD. I was like…wow.

And then, it was really interesting, she asked the vets’ group, this mix of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan vets, most of whom tend to be extremely conservative politically — full, hardcore Republicans…good guys but very conservative politically — she asked them what they thought about what I was saying about rape, and I expected serious pushback about how women make this stuff up. But to my delight and surprise they were like Oh no, one of them said, Yeah, my wife was sexually assaulted. So it was encouraging, their response was Oh yeah, it’s great, I’m glad you’re writing this book. I thought they’d be like Man you really drank the Kool-Aid but it wasn't that at all. It was an encouraging sign.


“That’s a terrible thing. A justice system that depends on lying isn't a good system.”

On the impossible choice to press charges

I would never criticize a woman for not pressing charges. The shit they go through and the trauma, it exacerbates trauma in sometimes life-threatening ways. It’s anecdotal, but I’m sure women have committed suicide simply from the trauma of reporting their assaults.

What I’ve noticed in the last two years, and this is just intuitive but, well before I got on this, before I was enlightened myself, you know, women were starting to come forward in greater numbers and by doing so, they embolden other women. And so, there seems to be this tipping point where there’s now this support women feel, it’s easier for them to report because they have support among themselves. So I think the more women do that and make those changes and pay that price, it benefits a lot of other people. So I think it’s a great thing if you’re tough enough to do it but man, I would never hold it against anyone who didn't do it.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of this book called Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, who I quote several times in the book. That’s a really powerful book and she very articulately explains why the justice system is so hard, especially on sexual assault victims, it’s the exact opposite of what victims need. When you go in a courtroom and you’re not allowed to tell your story but you’re forced — you know defense attorneys are the worst, they’re designed to exacerbate PTSD. And to see that, in person… One of the books I read in the course of doing my research, at the recommendation of the therapist who runs my veterans group, is Alice Sebold’s book Lucky, and the first thing she said to me was, you know you need to read that.

There’s this great scene where she’s facing this asshole defense attorney and what was so interesting to me is that she lies. She was raped. There’s no question. But she feels she has to lie on the stand to fight fire with fire. I would never recommend this but she did it and wrote about it and it was very enlightening that this woman feels she has to embellish her story because otherwise the guy is going to get away with something he did. And, in some of the cases I’ve read about, I’ve wondered if that had happened. If women lied and paid the price to be lying but part of it was: This really happened but I’m not going to be believed unless I sort of counter the misrepresentation of the defense. And that’s a terrible thing. A justice system that depends on lying isn’t a good system.


On getting society to recognize the problem

It [can be] disheartening. How do you change the mindset of I feel so bad that she got assaulted but that doesn't mean it’s a national problem. I was encouraged in talking to some Missoula cops and not just talking but hearing them make statements to others. The recordings [of detectives like Connie Bruekner interviewing victims] that I’ve heard…Connie Brueckner is a kickass detective and yet when she interviewed Kaitlynn Kelly, it was clear…You listen to that audio and she’s asking all the right questions and she’s sensitive…[but] it’s clear that she’s not going to prosecute, and Kaitlynn picks up on that and starts to cry.

In the case of Brueckner and others like her, I heard from cops in Missoula that admitted that oh my god, if only I’d… You know, these [people] changed their ways because of the DOJ investigation and trainings they were forced to do. They really got it right away.

Some male cops, just old-school cops who, including one of the cops who said ‘Do you have a boyfriend?,’ afterwards I asked him So, did you learn anything from this training? because he was, you know, a good detective and he said Yeah, I learned a lot. I definitely benefited greatly by knowing how to question victims. So some of these cops, yeah they’re hide-bound, they’re old school, but if you just explain to them…They like to catch bad guys. They like to catch rapists. It’s not like they don’t; it’s just they think there’s no point because they’re not going to be prosecuted or that you can’t believe these girls. A lot can be done by educating cops and prosecutors. But educating the general population, educating juries, that’s still going to be a huge challenge.


On whether universities should adjudicate rape

Another debate that drives me crazy is that there’s this whole movement out there that universities should not adjudicate rape, they should turn it over to the criminal justice system. Like, right, that’s a good idea. They take two years and the guy is going to walk. And they say that one of the reasons is that these university courts and people who decide aren't trained and that it’s just these kangaroo courts. Forget that in juries you have a defense attorney that’s going out of his way to exclude anyone who’s got a brain in their head and anyone who’s going to remotely take this seriously.

Criminal juries, it’s not like they’re well-trained, or that they are paragons of enlightenment. That’s tough. That’s a challenge. Changing the way that society views acquaintance rape is going to be a long, slow process but I feel like, again, long before I got on the case, it’s already started. It’s from the ground up. It’s things like these bloggers, you guys, and I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, I really believe this, women underground — that’s how this whole no, we’ve got to speak out. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, that fucker raped me. That’s how it started and that’s what it’s going to take to bring about change.


On what keeps him up at night

One of the most discouraging things was the Kaitlynn Kelly case, with a guy I called Calvin Smith. I met with him…I had to really put some pressure on, but I got him to meet with me, he and his parents. And they are so utterly clueless! The Kaitlynn Kelly assault was so upsetting to me. How an eighteen or nineteen year-old kid could be that stupid…He knew nothing about women except what he learned on the internet from watching porn. In his mind — I don’t care how drunk you are, if someone is saying ‘No, no,’ and pushing you away . How could you not be horrified [by what Calvin did]? And he still doesn't get it, he’s still like No, I didn't rape anybody, I was a virgin, and his parents are like You guys are just politically correct and rush to judgment! That…I literally think about that in the middle of the night.


On the need for early education

Keely Williams, Allison’s friend, when she was raped in Portland, she knew it was terrible, but she didn't even know that that was rape. So boys and girls need this education. In Missoula, before I got on the case, one of the things that really pissed me off was a little article in The Missoulian about how the football team was all participating in this “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes” thing — these football players would wear high-heeled shoes. And what are we going to gain from that? But somehow people thought that was a good idea.

And now Missoula and many of the other campuses that are under scrutiny by the DOJ are saying yeah, these courses are mandatory…. I think that’s a great thing, but it’s too little, way too late. If you’re 18 and don’t get that you can’t be doing this…. Consent isn't that hard to figure out if you just think about it.


On consent education for men and binge drinking on campuses

I don’t think [consent education] it exists for the most part. I’m all for that education. I was aware as I wrote the book I wanted to stay away from things like [consent] education, or ‘don’t drink,’ because that diverts. I want it to be clear that yeah, education would help and yeah, drinking less would help but…I love that quote by Jessica Valenti, that I use at the start of the book about how Yeah, women should take responsibility for their decisions but, you know, they don’t get raped because they were drinking and they don’t get raped because they took drugs…they get raped become someone raped them.

So yeah, have a conversation about drinking but don’t conflate it with that’s why women get raped.

That’s really important and I’d go to the mat for that. That’s a really tough argument to win. There’s research out there that actually shows, it’s credible research, if you remove alcohol from the equation, the rape statistics would stay the same. You’re not going to lessen the rape numbers by much at all by removing alcohol.


“I mean, how can you not be a feminist if you have a brain in your head? If you’re not a feminist, then you’re a problem.”

On feminism

Jon Krakauer: I left out the history of rape. If you so much as bring up that, biologically and historically, men are rapists — which is all true — you’ve now doomed your book. People are going to miss the point: Oh, you’re just one of those feminists.

Rachel Fershleiser: Are you a feminist?
JK: Of course.

Erin Gloria Ryan: How long have you identified as a feminist?

JK: Ever since 1972, when I went to college. I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, which is a lot like Missoula. White as fuck, small town, logging town. So I went to Hampshire College in its third year of existence — Northampton, radical feminists, and man, I was schooled. My first girlfriend…I still have the t-shirt…But anyway…
Jenn Northington: Wait, I need to hear about this t-shirt.

JK: It’s a fist, surrounded by “Berkley Women’s Health Collective.”

Rachel Fershleiser: I want one!

JK: I mean, how can you not be a feminist if you have a brain in your head? If you’re not a feminist, then you’re a problem.