"Rolling Stone has a lot to answer for": Jon Krakauer on campus rape, victim backlash and why "Missoula" was the hardest book he's had to write

The celebrated author of "Into the Wild" investigates rapes in a football-worshiping college town

Published April 22, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Jon Krakauer         (AP/Brennan Linsley)
Jon Krakauer (AP/Brennan Linsley)

Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula” is a tale of two trials, a football-worshiping college town, a politicking DA and a handful of courageous and determined young women. Its subject — rape, particularly rape on campus — marks a departure for a writer famed for such books as “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” stories of human beings testing their limits against the natural world. The main characters in “Missoula” battle some equally daunting, if considerably less majestic, forces: Indifferent institutions, a cultish civic devotion to star athletes, and discredited but tenacious beliefs about rape, its perpetrators and its victims.

The book is an account of the events surrounding a 2012 Department of Justice investigation of how sexual assault accusations were handled by the Missoula Police Department, the County Attorney's Office, and the University of Montana. (Krakauer praises the steps taken by the MPD and UM to improve. The prosecutors are another matter.) “Missoula” looks at a handful of cases of women who reported being raped — most by members of UM’s Division I football team, the Grizzlies — and examines two in great detail. The book was hastened to print in the aftermath of Rolling Stone magazine’s notorious 2014 article, “A Rape on Campus,” centered on a woman who claimed to have been gang raped at a University of Virginia fraternity. The magazine later retracted the piece.

“Missoula” is a counterexample to “A Rape on Campus:” scrupulously reported, with accusers who took their charges to the police and who all agreed to let Krakauer use their real names. The depth of his reporting on the trials of two Grizzly football players accused of raping female friends illustrates just how difficult it can be for victims to get justice.

You became interested in the problem of rape when you learned, to your surprise, that a longtime friend of yours was suffering terribly from the lingering trauma of having been raped in her youth.

Right. It was a shock because she was like a golden child. She’d gotten her foot in the door in a very difficult career and everything seemed great — up until the moment she landed in rehab. That was devastating in itself. But then to learn the reason she was there was that she had been raped twice, once when she was in her mid-teens and then a couple years later. The first time by someone a little older than her and the second time by someone who was significantly older and a family friend. Someone that I know.

This woman is like a daughter to me. I’ve known her since she was born, and I was so ashamed of myself for a) not being aware of her problems and b) for being so ignorant about the trauma of rape and how lasting and horrible it is. I’m an obsessive, and I like to learn stuff, so I just started reading books. Then I got on the Internet and quickly -- it doesn’t take a genius to realize this is a widespread problem. It’s everywhere. I started just following different assault cases in different cities. I must have 34 files. One of them was Missoula. Then when Katie J.M. Baker wrote that Jezebel piece [“My Weekend in America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’”] …

A great piece by a wonderful young reporter.

It is great. One of the cases I was following was the Allison Huguet case [Huguet was sleeping on the sofa after a party at the home of Beau Donaldson, a longtime family friend. She woke to find Donaldson had removed her clothes and was raping her.] I saw there was going to be a sentencing hearing. I thought, I like Missoula, and it’s close. So I went. I walk in, and the first witness is Allison’s dad and it’s just riveting. You could tell how angry he was. He pointed at Donaldson and said, “That piece-of-shit rapist.” The courtroom was full of Beau’s supporters because he’s this popular football player and that was all pretty interesting.

And then Alison was called, four or five witnesses in, and she was so compelling. She’s not a large person. She’s kind of unassuming, The defense attorney was just this asshole, lecturing her, and she just kept her composure and spit it right back at him. I literally wanted to stand up and cheer. I thought, oh my god, I could build a book around this person. That was it. When I first met her, I said “I know this is weird. You don’t know me, but I have this idea to write a book about you.” I don’t want to commit to it yet. How about if I call you in a month after I think about it?” When I decided yes, I told her and she said, “Great. I’m all in. I want you to use my name.” So then I said, “I’m going to wait a month and I’m going to try and talk you out of it because you don’t really know the shit you’re gonna catch.” She said, “Oh yes I do, but whatever.” A month later, I met with her parents and she went for it.

Why did you need to think about it for month?

For every book I’ve written, I’ve thought about 10 books seriously that I didn’t write. Originally it was just going to be about Allison. It was going to be a really short book. And then it kept -- man, there’s this problem in this town. It was weird. So the story kept expanding. I really resisted including the Jordan Johnson case. [Grizzly quarterback Johnson was accused of forcing a female friend into intercourse as they lay watching television and making out on her bed. She maintains that she told Johnson she did not want to have sex. He insists that she consented.] I got the trial transcript and it’s a couple thousand pages. I kept telling myself, OK, I’ll just write another 5,000 words, but it ended up being an important part of the book.

The book has two spines. One is a successful prosecution and one is failed. The failed prosecution is important because it illustrates how difficult it is for rape victims to get justice.

You’re absolutely right, and I wish I could say that that was my plan, but I’m sort of like an idiot savant. I know what I find interesting and I’ve learned what to leave in and what to leave out but it’s not like I went into it with that concept.

The parallels also underline the communal element of these crimes. The football players were allowed to get away with anything. Usually, if there’s one perpetrator, people can convince themselves that a rape accusation is a matter between two people, one of whom is the bad guy. One thing that makes gang rape so shocking is that it’s an indictment of the whole community, of the society that could produce such men, as opposed to just one bad apple. Your book is about how all of these rapes point to a serious social problem in this particular town, although not just in this town, obviously.

Without a doubt. Before doing the research for this book, I was unfamiliar with Judith Lewis Herman. I use a couple of quotes from her book, “Trauma and Recovery,” as epigraphs. I love the quote that says you have to pick sides in this debate. You can’t just say, “ I don’t know.” Either the accuser or the accused is going to be severely damaged by this and you have to make up your mind who deserves your sympathy. It’s much easier to believe the perpetrator. He doesn’t ask anything. He keeps his silence. I think that was the problem in Missoula. It was just too easy to remain in denial. When [Johnson’s] dad testified, he’s such a likable guy and he’s so sincere. I thought, that guy’s going to be acquitted just from that if nothing else. And that makes me mad. I really believe Jordan Johnson is guilty. I believe he got away with it. I understand why the jury didn’t find that beyond reasonable doubt, but…

But it wasn’t a slam dunk for that jury at all.

No, but still it only took two and half hours of deliberation for such a long and complex trial. [Johnson’s attorney] was spinning all this bullshit about how Johnson couldn’t get a fair trial in Missoula. But the jury member I interviewed told me that everyone who talked to her said, “I know I’m not supposed to talk to you, but I just want you to know that Jordan Johnson is innocent. That bitch is lying.” It was going to be a tough case for anyone to win in any town but in Missoula it was virtually impossible for the prosecution to get a conviction.

It’s almost become a joke at this point that high school and college athletes feel they have a license to do this sort of thing.

They really do. They feel entitled to do this. They get away with it. Katie Baker talked to people there who told her, “The quarterback doesn't have to rape to get fucked.” But all that says is that he thinks he’s entitled to have sex with anyone he wants.

I don’t claim to be unbiased, obviously, but when I heard that verdict read, I was so angry. There were tears in my eyes and it was not just the verdict but the eruption of cheers and the tweeting afterwards. And the football players. That culture of the football team. “He’s a teammate. We support him no matter what.” That I find really distasteful. If you want to stop this problem, coaches should have zero tolerance and teammates should be instructed that if any of their teammates have assaulted someone, there’s no support and they don’t deserve it. But it’s the opposite. The whole thing is a really discouraging subject. I feel pretty ground up and wrung out.


I’ve written about difficult things before. “Into Thin Air” was really hard because I was part of the problem and I had survivor’s guilt and my own PTSD, but this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.

I didn’t go into it feeling sure Jordan Johnson was guilty, but after studying the trial transcript, I thought, wow. This woman within seconds or minutes of the rape is texting to her best friend to say “I think I was just raped.” I thought that is pretty compelling evidence. Kirsten Pabst [a county attorney who left office to become a defense attorney, defending Johnson, then went on to be elected to head the County Attorney’s office], when she blogged about it after they got the acquittal, wrote, “I hope the prosecutor’s office learns never to prosecute cases like this again.” But if that text message is not probable cause, then what is? People should go back and read that blog post and think this is someone we just voted to be our head prosecutor.

The DOJ report said that the County Attorney’s office declined to prosecute cases in which the rapist actually admitted to it! But the actual evidence seems to have very little effect on people’s beliefs. Some Missoula residents insisted that Beau was innocent even though he’d been recorded admitting that he’d done it.

I know, and Jordan Johnson is much more appealing than Beau. He is. Pastors and other character witnesses testified that he can keep his composure under pressure. In my mind, he decided: “I’m not going to prison. I’m going to have to lie, and once I do that, I’m going to just do it.” And oh, he was so upset. He had tears in court. I’m sure his parents mortgaged their house so I bet he has some reason to cry. And everyone says [his accuser] lied because she was jilted — but wait a minute: He’s the one with a reason to lie. He’s looking at prison. Why would any woman in her right mind do that? She could have bailed. If she’d made up a story, there were ample opportunities for her to bow out and say it’s too much.

Instead of becoming the villain of the whole town.

The abuse she suffered online -- I felt so bad for her.

What was your approach to reporting this? It’s a difficult, delicate issue. I understand you didn’t interview absolutely everyone.

There’s obvious people I didn’t talk to. It’s not going to do me any good to talk to attorneys or prosecutors who are bound by law or professional ethics, with the exception of Kirsten Pabst, who I talked to late in the game. They can’t answer the questions I want to ask. I wanted a paper trail. I wanted documents. I wanted hard evidence. I have all these audio recordings of university investigations and police interviews. I’m not supposed to have this stuff, and I can’t say how I got it, and it’s so much more valuable. I certainly interviewed victims and the assailants who’d talk to me. I tried to convince [Donaldson’s lawyer] to let me talk to Beau Donaldson and never heard back. I tried to talk to [another accused man] and his attorneys, and at first I had a lot of back and forth over weeks and months, but eventually they wouldn’t talk.

I never interviewed Jordan Johnson or Cecelia Washburn, as I call the woman who accused him. I thought about pushing both and I actually talked to Cecelia Washburn’s attorney, but I didn’t push it because of the transcript. By the end of the trial, each of them had given their side of the story four, five, or six times so I had what I needed.

I understand there’s been some grumbling in the Missoula papers.

I’ve never been more meticulous or more careful about corroborating stuff. What people don’t realize and is I’ve got stuff that I’m 95 percent sure is true that I didn’t report because I wasn’t 110 percent. I couldn’t find that third person to corroborate it. Some of that, when I finally decided to interview Kirsten Pabst, it was stuff I didn’t put in the book. I read in the newspaper that she’s saying I didn’t talk to anyone and didn’t do any reporting or that I was never in Missoula, I was like, “What?” I immediately emailed her and said, “I read in the paper that you were eager to help me write an accurate book. Thank you. Here’s how you can help. You can tell me the answer to these three questions.” And those three questions so freaked her out that she wouldn’t even talk to me. She said have your lawyer call me, and then she sent my lawyer this very thinly veiled threat to sue me for libel.

And so I had my lawyer ask her these questions and she said, “I categorically deny the allegations.” Well, they’re questions. They’re not allegations. And why won’t you answer? She just wouldn’t do it.

What are some of the challenges peculiar to reporting about rape?

Part of it, at least in my case for this story, is that I’m not unbiased. I went into it wanting to believe that what these victims said was true. That’s when you need to be extra careful not to let your judgement be clouded, and to let them know that I’m going to be fact-checking this very carefully. That’s awkward, but you’ve got to do it. Also, confidentiality is really problematic. In all cases except Washburn, the victims were willing to use their real names. It was their idea to use their real names, but I had to protect the perpetrators for libel reasons. That’s weird, but it’s what I had to do.

Another thing I still worry about is that the trauma some of these victims, all of them, are still dealing with is profound. I worry that this book and the backlash and pushback is going to exacerbate their trauma. That really worries me. That they’re going to be attacked. Threatened. They already, all of them, have endured that. There are responsibilities here that I’ve never had to worry about before — or I worried about them but not so much. When I wrote “Into Thin Air,” I certainly was angry. I didn’t worry about hurting people’s feelings and I would do the same thing again, but I did hurt people’s feelings. They were pissed, and I heard about it. But that was like hmm, this is kind of ugly. Now it’s different. There’s more at stake.

If you cause any damage it’s to people who are already really—

Really, really damaged.

You’ve also said that until you started telling people you were working on this story, you were not aware of how prevalent rape is. It’s one one of those experiences people don’t talk about.

Well before I came along, in the past three years to five years, it seems there’s been a tipping point. Women more and more have started to come out and say, “I’m not going to be ashamed. I have nothing to be ashamed about.” It’s really clear that that emboldens other women. Allison didn’t report her rape for fifteen months and I’m convinced that what finally convinced her to do it was was the thought, “What if Beau rapes somebody else? I can’t live with that.”

She also delayed because she wanted to believe that he could reform. He had a substance abuse problem which is not uncommon in football players, either. He was a childhood friend of hers and she wanted, like everyone else in the town, to believe that he wasn’t irredeemable.

She was really torn. I can’t overstate how much he was a brother figure to her. She felt he would protect her. When it’s someone you trust that much, to have them betray you in that way … That just destroyed her sense of safety everywhere. She talks about having to look under the bed over and over again. And the nightmares. That was just heartbreaking.

When she first went to the police and Detective Baker said “I’m going to call him up and we’ve got to record this”, that was the hardest thing she’d ever done. [In that recorded conversation, Donaldson admitted to having intercourse with Hughet while she was unconscious.] Afterwards, she was just weeping. “Oh my god. I’ve sealed his fate.” Even at his sentencing review hearing — which he had promised in his plea deal not to put her through — when Beau’s mom testified and said “I miss Beau and I don’t like having an empty plate at the table,” Allison started weeping on the stand. She still on some level cares about him, but man. He’s a really troubled guy. The fact that after these taped confessions, he’s still telling all his friends -- he’s still telling the psychologists who are evaluating him -- “No, I didn’t do it. It was consensual.”

He consistently described it as “taking advantage” of her. He never used the word for what it really was, so it’s possible he’s never really admitted it to himself.

Allison got notice in the past month that in May, he’s going to have his parole hearing. He could be out in July.

Do you have any thoughts on the catastrophe of the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus”?

First, I have to say Rolling Stone has a lot to answer for. The reporter, the editors -- Will Dana was an editor of mine at Outside Magazine. Jann Wenner: I used to write for Jann Wenner. But I was appalled that the debate has all turned to ethics, the ethics of journalism, which is serious, but it’s not enough. Talk about the damage this has done to the notion that women don’t in fact lie all the time. I was so discouraged and shocked. The blunders they made. They had so many chances to stop it before disaster struck. They had so many times when they should have said, “Wait a minute. She’s not responding to us.” We have doubts, but let’s go with it anyway? What were you smoking? That is unbelievable.

These are experienced editors. The fact checkers seemed like they were on top of it, actually. It’s baffling. It was a really powerful story, but a false story. I can see that’s tough to walk away from but it’s not like there’s a lack of stories out there.

Not only are there plenty of legitimate case of campus rape, but that campus even has a substantiated gang rape in its history!

Now it’s sort of like the [Duke lacrosse case, in which several athletes were falsely accused of raping a dancer], which was another travesty. That was a terrible thing. You take these schools that have genuine problems — Duke and UVA — and now it’s just like, “See, we’re fine. We’re blameless.” I’m really glad with my book that I chose to rely on this paper trail. I emailed my editor and said “Don’t worry. We don’t have a Rolling Stone thing here.” But we both also said, “This is so terrible for victims. It’s going to reverberate forever.” I saw some tweets this morning saying “I hope someone investigates ‘Missoula’ like the Washington Post investigated Rolling Stone. This is clearly another cooked up story.” So there you go.

Once the book was announced, one of the shocking things was all these people, including women in my own family, who said, “Yeah, I was raped.” I have a 70-year-old close friend who I met in college, who I’ve known ever since I was 18. She’s someone I show all my manuscripts to. She said, “This is really disturbing and powerful and really hard to read. You know, I was raped when I was a virgin my freshman year at a big city university in the West.” I was at a dinner just recently and another guest said she was, too. Just over and over again. It’s all anecdotal…

But the notion of that it’s not very common is also anecdotal. People think rape is rare because the friends and family members it’s happened to just haven’t told them about it.

No one knows for sure because so much rape is never reported, but I have no doubt that it’s way more prevalent than most people think. They say one in four? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s higher than that. And the figure is sort of unimportant. All I know is that it’s a huge problem. It’s prevalent. It’s hugely underreported.

You often hear, “Oh god, we’ve got to be so careful because if you falsely accuse a man of rape you stigmatize him and ruin his life.” Everyone forgets that if a woman is raped and she’s disbelieved, that is at least as devastating for her. That’s a point I really want to make in this book, and the latter happens so much more than the former, by an order of magnitude. Literally, by an order of magnitude. People don’t want to hear that. They’re not going to believe it, but it’s true. That to me is what I’m left with and it’s really disturbing. I can’t imagine being a parent of a young woman who is in her late teens. You see why people become helicopter moms.

When a case becomes public, there’s typically so much discussion of the victim and the character of the victim. A great thing about this book is that because it’s such a detailed account of these two trials, it shows us how much of that process is about the accused. They bring in all these character witnesses…

Talking about how Jordan Johnson would go to Bible study!

As if the Bible is not full of horrible, violent acts, including rape. But were you ever really able to talk to a perpetrator?

Just one. And that was one of the most discouraging days of my life because both he and his parents were so clueless about what he had done. They were utterly convinced he did nothing wrong. Kaitlynn Kelley invited him up to her room. A deal’s a deal. He was 18 or 19. This was a guy whose whole understanding of women and women’s sexuality was from Internet porn, and what he did was so brutal.

Her bedsheets, mattress and walls were bloody afterwards.

And he thought or claimed to think that she was enjoying it. How could someone be that callow? Even though he was totally shit-faced drunk, that is really scary and disturbing. And then that his parents would defend it! I shouldn’t have done this, but it was emotional and they were saying how wronged he was and political correctness blah blah blah. Interestingly, they also resented Jordan Johnson because of his lawyer. The university spared no effort to acquit him. So I said “Well, if [your son] had been the star quarterback…” and they resented that.

They were really pissed at me for my political correctness and being a liberal. I said, you call this a a travesty of justice but if you saw Kaitlynn and how traumatized she still is all this time later, you might understand. Their response is, “Calvin is traumatized, too. He’s afraid to ask women out now. How will he know if they’re trying — like this woman -- to entrap him!” That’s their reaction. Literally. Our son can’t get laid because now he’s worried that this next one might “entrap” him. What do you say to that? But that’s the level of … ignorance. I don’t know what the word is. How someone can be so out of touch?

There’s all these arguments about consent now. Do we need to have to say yes to each step? Well, it’s kind of supposed to be like that anyway! It’s such a radical notion that you’ve got to ask and you’ve got to say yes? When you have guys like Calvin and Jordan Johnson, they don’t want to hear it. They’re entitled. We’re at this point where these issues have to be explained and made policy. In Montana, the law is not only do you have to have said no for it be rape, but the alleged rapist also has to have understood you when you said no, which is -- how do you even prove that?

I think a big issue with this is that these men, almost all of them, were really wasted when they committed these crimes and it —

That’s still no excuse.

Agreed. But it does seems to be an integral part of the problem, at least on campuses.

There’s good research to the effect that if you remove alcohol from the equation, the rate of rape would go down little if at all. It bothers me that in Montana, if he’s too drunk to understand you when you say no, it’s not rape. If you were driving drunk and a young woman who was also drunk got in the car and you crashed and you killed her, you would go to fucking jail for manslaughter. It wouldn’t matter that she was drunk too. “She shouldn’t have gotten into the car! She should’ve known I was drunk!” I’ve never heard that argument.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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