When Jon Krakauer received his invitation to speak at Chautauqua, he thought he might walk there. Krakauer currently resides in Boulder, Colorado, which is just under 1,500 miles from Chautauqua, New York.
Google Maps estimates that walking the distance would take almost 20 days.
“There’s a Chautauqua in Boulder, Colorado, where I live, and when I was first invited, I assumed it was just the local Chautauqua, which is not nearly as big a deal,” Krakauer said. “But it’s near my hometown, so I said OK. And then it transpired that it was in New York. I literally can walk to the Chautauqua here in 20 minutes. So it was a little problematic, because I had to rearrange some travel plans.”
Despite the confusing tale of two Chautauquas, Krakauer was able to work out his schedule and will be speaking at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater on his new book, Missoula, one of two Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections for Week Two. This presentation is the first public reading of the book and closes out Week Two, the theme of which is “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men.”
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town provides an intense and intimate look at the nationwide issue of campus rape, focusing on the University of Montana. Between 2008 and 2012, the Department of Justice investigated 350 reported cases to Missoula, Montana, police, according to the book. Krakauer uses the University of Montana as a revealing example of the ugly truth and widespread problem of campus rape in the United States.
Krakauer’s investigation started with an old question, but one that’s become increasingly relevant today.
“One of the central themes in Missoula, which is clear from the opening epigraph — for millennia, maybe since the dawn of civilization, there’s been this debate, this question of, ‘Do women maliciously lie about being sexually assaulted?’ ” Krakauer said. “And there’s this widely accepted and, I believe, really wrong sense that women regularly — falsely — accuse men of rape.”
Krakauer said the consequences of such accusations can be profound and life-altering. But he said professional research shows that false cries of rape are, in reality, minimal.
“The consequences for the falsely accused — it can ruin that person’s life,” Krakauer said. “But one of the points I wanted to make in Missoula is that, too often, we forget that the consequences for a woman who is raped and not believed can be just as great.”
The CLSC’s vertical theme of “Truth and Consequences” can be easily applied to Missoula as well, Krakauer said, because it’s “basic and essential” to what he’s writing about.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said the last-minute addition of the book to this year’s list of CLSC selections was due to its importance — both for Week Two and for society in general.
Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, said Krakauer’s presentation may be an upsetting way to close out a week focusing on boys, masculinity and manhood, but it felt like a natural culmination for the thematic framework of Week Two.
“We know that this will be a very challenging and, at times, frustrating way to close our week,” Ewalt said. “And yet, as we think about the narrative that we’ve created that goes through childhood and into the teenage years, the young man growing into a man — to close the week, I think it’s exactly where we need to be.”
Krakauer understood that his book was a logical fit for the end of the week, particularly one with such a heavy theme. He said boys who are on the cusp of manhood “are really dangerous,” and remarked that they are responsible for a large number of sexual assaults, particularly in the United States.
“It’s the job of civilization and of socialization to make young men understand that their actions have consequences and to create young men who are good citizens and good people,” Krakauer said. “And it’s no easy task. It’s the culture. The best efforts of parents can be undermined by cultural forces and the subcultures of sports teams and fraternities and all kinds of things.”
Krakauer said he struggled to fight the stereotypical image of the rapist — the masked man hiding in the bushes — something he emphasizes in Missoula. He said that often, rapists can be young men discovering their sexuality, something that struck and horrified him.
He referenced a conversation he had with David Lisak, one of Krakauer’s many sources and a psychologist involved in the events of the book. Lisak was doing a study on serial rapists where he interviewed men anonymously in his office. His colleagues saw them coming and going from his office and couldn’t believe Lisak when he said he was interviewing serial rapists because they all looked like charming, young college students.
“His point was that you can’t detect a rapist by looking at them,” Krakauer said. “The rapist can often be really charming, outwardly nice and high achieving. And that’s one of the many troubling discoveries of mine in writing this book.”
Also troubling to Krakauer was the mindset of the young men accused of rape. He said many seemed utterly convinced that they were innocent, something he witnessed firsthand when he attended the court cases and saw the accused men take the witness stand. He said this was scary.
“Not every rapist is a terrible person — sometimes it’s just a young man who doesn’t understand what he’s doing,” Krakauer said. “But that doesn’t lessen the damage he does. The issues I raise in this book — I don’t think any of them are easy, they’re all disturbing. It’s not an easy book to read. It’s not light entertainment.”
Babcock agreed that the nature of the book — and its topic — is both difficult and disturbing.
“It’s not a fun read,” Babcock said. “But it is an amazing piece of work.”
Babcock said what she admired about Missoula was the clarity with which Krakauer delineates the complicated issue he’s writing about while also presenting a solid position on it.
“Everybody else that’s written about this subject, in my opinion, has taken the path of just saying we need to ‘fix’ sexual assault without any ideas about how to do it and without any real knowledge of how it works in both systems,” Babcock said.
She said it’s easy to say it’s an issue that needs to be fixed, but the reality is much more complicated and fraught.
As a former dean of students at Southwestern University, Babcock had a natural interest in the topic of campus rape.
Ewalt said Babcock has been a passionate advocate for the implementation of the theme “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men” for several years, and he trusts her discretion when she facilitates the discussion with Krakauer during the presentation on Missoula.
“I have complete confidence in Sherra’s approach to this dialogue,” Ewalt said. “She will create an atmosphere so those challenging questions can be asked by the audience and, as with any lecture, so that the conversation continues beyond the Amphitheater.”
Krakauer said he worried about discretion in his approach toward the victims depicted in his book, especially in terms of reporting on and investigating such a sensitive topic. Despite the book being completed, Krakauer said he still worries about the fallout that might occur for the women he interviewed.
“I approached these women who had been victimized,” Krakauer said. “In each case, I wanted them to share their stories with me. But I also wanted them to understand that they were taking a huge risk.”
With such a controversial topic, Krakauer said he also tried to keep his book from becoming exploitative or gross in its depictions.
“I definitely worried about that,” Krakauer said. “I felt like I had to be absolutely explicit and clinical and tell it like it was. I felt like I couldn’t sugarcoat it or euphemize it. I felt like I really needed to tell it in a brutal way and I wasn’t sure how that would work.”
Besides struggling with sensitivity in regard to the emotional stories of victims, Krakauer also had his own feelings to contend with when writing Missoula.
“This book made me really angry to write, and it was hard to contain that anger at times,” Krakauer said. “And I don’t think I always did. And I’m not sad about that. But it was hard to figure out how much of that I could let show. This is an angry book. And I felt like I had to explain why I wrote this book. It was a very personal thing, as all my books are.”
According to the author, the book has been criticized for having such a strong point of view on the issue of campus rape, but he doesn’t believe in journalists “who pretend to be totally objective.” For Krakauer, criticism about his obvious stance in writing Missoula is something he can live with, because it’s the way he’s always written — and because he felt compelled to tell this story.
“Writing a book — I’m not exaggerating — it’s so hard and painful,” Krakauer said. “And I wouldn’t do it, and don’t do it, unless a subject really gets me by the throat and won’t let go. I just wouldn’t do it as a job. There are easier ways to make a living.”
One thing that was easy for Krakauer was getting Missoula published, something he thought would be much more difficult. He pitched the book to his publisher, Bill Thomas of Doubleday — an imprint of the Penguin Random House empire, which published Krakauer’s previous works Into the Wild and Into Thin Air — who was enthusiastic about the book from the start.
“He totally got what I wanted to do and was all for it,” Krakauer said.
When Thomas started reading a draft of the book, he told Krakauer it was almost too disturbing to read with his young daughter running around the house, but that was why it was important. He was keen on getting the book to press as soon as possible. Krakauer said wrapping up a book can often be a difficult procedure, but the publishing staff at Doubleday was eager to help speed up the process.
The book hit store shelves on April 21, and now Krakauer is bringing it to Chautauqua. Krakauer said he’s eager to discuss the book and answer any questions thrown at him, noting that with such a tricky topic, “there’s an engagement.”
“I knew when I wrote this book that I was going to get pushback, and it was going to make people angry,” Krakauer said. “That’s certainly been the case, and there’s no way around that.”
Babcock and Ewalt believe that it is a difficult topic to discuss, but that it’s one worth bringing to the audience at Chautauqua.
“I think it speaks to the respect that we all have for this community to bring this topic to this week-long conversation with the understanding that Jon’s work may be challenged and struggled with publicly within the community,” Ewalt said. “But this community’s here to engage with issues that are difficult.”