Q & A #27 With Gwen Florio and “Missoula” by Jon Krakauer

Missoula CoverIf you read Missoula (and you should) you’ll run across the name Gwen Florio about as as often as the names of the victims and perpetrators and prosecutors and defense lawyers in this harrowing account of sexual assault and rape on college campuses today.

Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven) cites Florio’s work throughout this account.

Gwen Florio is a former reporter (37 years) who left the business in 2013 and now works as an adjunct professor at the very university that is one of the key entities covered in Missoula. Gwen is also a fellow fiction writer and full disclosure that we now share the same publisher (Midnight Ink). She’s visited this blog before to talk about her mystery writing, but after reading Missoula, I asked Gwen to answer a few questions for the blog about her role and thoughts about being part of the story.

A full review follows.

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Question: Did you have any idea that Jon Krakauer would be relying so heavily on your original reporting for his book? When did you find out your stories would be referenced throughout?

Gwen Florio: None whatsoever. And to be fair, the book largely relied on the same documents that I had obtained, although—props to Krakauer—he got much more. I didn’t realize that he’d very generously given me credit until the book came out.

Question: So, what did you think of Missoula?

Gwen Florio: That’s an oddly tough question. Because I was so familiar with the material, much of the book was review for me, and I’ve been curious how readers who were new to the situation might respond. (Several have contacted me and told me they found it riveting.) I very much like two things about it. First, the aforementioned reliance on documents, which make this book the polar opposite of the execrable Rolling Stone story. Second, the national, and even international (I’ve seen stories in the Canadian and British press) conversation it’s prompted on this crucial issue.

Question: The book is called “Missoula” but there have been similar issues in at the University of Colorado in Boulder and recently from college campuses all over the country. From what I know, the events in Missoula are hardly outliers. Agree? What do you think of the title and how is the book going over in…Missoula?

Gwen Florio: I was grateful to Krakauer for making exactly that point; in fact, he takes pains to inform us that Missoula’s rate of sexual assault is a little lower than average. That said, it really steams me when I hear complaints that the book unfairly singles out Missoula. So often, and especially here in Missoula, people seem far more upset about the title than the issue at hand. The argument, “We’re no worse than anywhere else,” is pretty embarrassing.

Question: Is there a way to fix this? I mean, a way to improve the training and the whole process, investigation through prosecution? How about the collaboration between a university and the city police force? Should there be more collaboration?

Gwen Florio: One of the issues the book points out, and that I also wrote about in my stories, is that in at least one of these cases, the university ignored its own agreement with the city to immediately report potential felony cases to the city police. So, yeah–more collaboration, stat. To the credit of the city police, that collaboration was strengthened, and more training mandated, even before the federal Justice Department investigation was announced.

Question: Um … college kids, drinking and hormones. Go. (What if Missoula was required reading for all college freshman? And is this situation a football star, jock issue? Or more than that?)

Gwen Florio: I think it should be mandated reading, and I think it will be a cold day in hell on the UM campus when that happens. The university has really tried to distance itself from the book, which is a shame. They could have seized the opportunity to show continued focus and leadership on the issue.

As for it being a jock issue, certainly sexual assault cuts across all categories of students and non-students alike. I think the cases involving athletes got such attention because for many years, the university so aggressively defended athletes charged in any number of alleged criminal cases. It was common, for instance, for university administrators to call the newspaper and complain about the placement of stories involving athletes in trouble, but the phones stayed silent when we reported on other students accused of running afoul of the law. There was a sense that at UM, as with many schools, athletes were a protected class. To the school’s credit, since the hiring of a new coach and athletic director, we’re no longer seeing stories on a regular basis about jocks getting in trouble.

Question: Do you think anything has changed in Missoula since you started reporting on these cases three, four years ago? Have the police and prosecutors changed anything? Has the university done anything more to improve awareness among students?

Gwen Florio: Certainly there’s more awareness. The university now mandates a sexual assault awareness online tutorial for students, which is much maligned by those same students—it involves watching some videos and taking a quiz. Likewise the city has instituted some programs that are better received, including a series of “bystander intervention” public service announcements. The police have gotten much more training, and individual officers have told me they appreciate it. The advocacy program for victims has been strengthened. And, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released this week, sexual assault reports to the Missoula Police Department are up 54 percent since 2012, likely indicating that women are more comfortable coming forward. That’s good. What’s missing?

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Gwen Florio

We don’t know yet if a higher percentage of sexual assault cases are being prosecuted, nor what the conviction rate might be. The report also found that “rape myths” remain distressingly prevalent.

Question: Without going into a great deal of it, it’s clear you took a great deal of verbal and online abuse for your reporting about these cases—how did you deal with it? Has the release of the book created another wave of anger?

Gwen Florio: Oh, for sure. Most of the recent vitriol is focused on Krakauer, although they’ve regurgitated their old complaints about me, too—and, far more graphically and disturbingly, the women who came forward to report these cases. During the height of the controversy over these sexual assault cases, especially when UM’s quarterback was on trial for rape—he was acquitted—things got really ugly. Lots of abuse of a sexual nature, some of it violent, and references to where I live, etc. Important point: Simply ignoring it, which is the most common advice, doesn’t work. I took to posting screen shots of the most egregious stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and after some initial wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth among those writing this sort of crap, it quieted down to some extent. But for three or four years now, I’ve gotten anonymous letters in the mail (the address typed, cut out, and taped to the envelope; very old-school) from someone who has also contacted my book publisher, a local bookseller, my then-supervisors, and even judges, among others. The most offensive thing about those is the grammar; for example, “Your a dumb ass.” The incorrect your is bad enough. But everyone knows ‘dumbass’ is one word.

Question: Other than the fact your protagonist is a reporter, how has reporting informed your fiction writing?

Gwen Florio: Completely. Reporting forces you to observe how people look and act and, at least as important, how they talk. It throws you into fascinating situations, many of which never make it into newspaper stories but later provide fine fodder for fiction. Oddly enough, despite having spent a few years watching the mesmerizing, if frequently disillusioning, workings of our justice system, I haven’t written any court-based stories or even scenes. That probably needs to change.

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Gwen Florio’s Books

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Review:

I don’t know if it made any difference, but I listened to this in fairly intense fashion–the vast majority of it during an 800-mile road trip.

I have little doubt, however, that reading Missoula at a less frenetic pace would not lessen the cumulative jolt of being taken inside these powerful cases of college campus acquaintance rape and watching the very dramatic human fallout that results.

The themes in Missoula are manifold. Star systems for prized gladiators a.k.a., football players. Dual systems of justice with the university procedures and bureaucracy on one hand, the “outside” world’s laws and judicial bureaucracy on the other. Politics and subjectivity. Training and bias for investigators and prosecutors. Sex, drinking, rights of passage, entitlements, expectations, fitting in. And, in both the college-track prosecution and the criminal justice system itself, escape-hatch appeal opportunities that make a joke out of all the “process” that went before it.

Beyond the procedures of prosecuting date rape, Missoula captures the heavy, draining emotional training on all involved, particularly, of course, the women.

We have all read about how difficult it is for women to step forward following a rape, but Missoula makes it palpable and then shows us the agony involved, blow by blow and step by step. Why would there be confidence in the system when it’s this messed up? Krakauer makes a convincing case that the systems are not prepared, college campus and alcohol issues or not, to handle these cases. The vast majority of reported rapes are not prosecuted successfully.

Missoula dives deep into a spate of high-profile rapes on the campus of the University of Montana between 2008 and 2012. The attackers were football stars in a town that is nutty for the sport. Krakauer unspools the series of decisions that are behind the formal processes at the college and city level. The college comes across looking like a swift, decisive organization, no doubt with some quirky elements to its system. The consequences of the university’s decisions are plenty severe, especially for athletes in the limelight. When it comes time to describe how the criminal trial proceeds, Krakauer points out (and doesn’t have to point too hard) that trial rules these days and courtroom behavior make it easy for a defense attorney to mislead and confuse and jury. You read this thinking, can’t we make this a bit more fair? A bit?

One case involved a football player who linebacker named Beau Donaldson who pled guilty to having raped a young woman who he had known since grade school. She was sound asleep when she woke to find him mid-assault. (Missoula is quite graphic.) The other involved Jordan Johnson, the star quarterback who maintains throughout long negotiations and trial that the sex was consensual.

Missoula stresses the “acquaintance” or “non-stranger” elements here that make matters confusing–the nature of the relationship leading up to the assault, brief moments that might have been misinterpreted before the attack and how the women in each instance chose to handle the moment, particularly in their decisions to not shout out or being more forceful. However, “decisions” might not be the right word; more like “reactions.’ The football players, of course, had the size and strength advantages. In Jordan’s case, the woman involved had a male roommate not too far away on the other side of a closed door.

I won’t give away here how the prosecutions of Donaldson and Johnson ended up, but clearly claims of having a good character, no matter ample evidence that otherwise decent people have committed rape, does play a role in minimizing the penalty for one of the two.

Is the system capable of changing? I know Krakauer must think so. I’d like to think so. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Missoula to Vanderbilt University, there are certainly ample opportunities to show that new training and new approaches might yield better responses to how police and prosecutors engage with a crime, or any encounter on the street, from the very first moment.

I completely agree with the New Yorker review, by Margaret Talbot, that “Krakauer’s timely book is also a reminder of a crucial point that a subset of students evidently need to learn: a person who is too drunk to stand or walk properly, who is vomiting or passed out, cannot consent to sex.”

This is gripping, must-read book.