How a Night Can Go Wrong

Photos and Story by Eric Oravsky

The heart of Missoula is seven city blocks held by a ribcage of railroad tracks and river bridges. The heart supports 30 bars, three liquor stores, two breweries, and a distillery, all within 15-minute walking distance. With a campus of nearly 15,000 students across the river and many residents working low-paying jobs just to stay in town, the drinking scene isn’t struggling.

Jennifer Ness, 20, fell off the backside of the Rhino and Montana Club building into the alley after a night of drinking and died in 2010. The same year, Brian Beaver, 23, was run over by a drunk driver. In 2011, during the week- end-long “River City Roots Festival,” Paul Busch, 24, drowned in the Clark Fork River. None of these tragedies speak to the violence drinking inspires away from the public eye. At least half of all campus rapes occur when the assailant, the victim, or both have used alcohol, a 2001 overview of peer-re- viewed studies found.

Kelly McGuire, who is the Healthy Relationships Project coordinator at the Crime Victim’s Advocate Office in Missoula, was meeting with professionals at the James Bar when she noticed a highly intoxicated woman at the bar. Two men started talking about the woman, then one of them walked over and struck up a conversation. McGuire said the man was clearly aware that the woman was too drunk to make coherent decisions. “Luckily she left with her friends, but it doesn’t always happen that way,” McGuire said. For her, the episode represented a sexual assault waiting to happen. “I think we have this culture where a lot of very unsettling events are normal,” she said.

Nine victims of sexual assault agreed to talk about their experiences, one male and eight female. They reported a strong sense of separation after a lot of drinking, separation from people they trusted, only to be taken in by their assailant. They struggled. Often, they’d call back after an interview, seeking reassurance that their identity wouldn’t be shared or simply to talk more about dealing with depression. Many were afraid to tell anyone about what had happened to them because they worried about what people might think and felt justice was unlikely. Perpetrators serve prison time in only 3 percent of rape cases.

“There is a lot of research on what causes sexual violence,” McGuire said, “but there aren’t a lot of answers.”

The Missoula drinking scene frequently starts at events like “Thirsty Thursday,” where already cheap mixed drinks are two for one. The crowd then flows into other venues like the “Dead Hipster Dance Party” at the Badlander or Stockman’s, two bars where a crowd of 20-somethings oscillates to hip hop, pop, and electronic hits. With standing room only from the entrance to the dance floor, there is no choice but to rub shoulders and attempt to hold a drink out of harm’s way. Abandoned drinks and cups top every flat surface including the floor; bottles of cheap liquor are passed around while people dance. Fridays and Saturdays often start with house parties that migrate down- town. Lines stretch around the block for music events that often reach maximum capacity by 10 p.m.

This is how all the victims inter- viewed for this story started their night. Many ended at a stranger’s house — some in a car, one in his own room. The photos intend to show the events these victims said turned their night on the town into a night they try to forget. These images aren’t staged, nor do they include known victims, but aim to convey the culture and events that some remember as a terrible turning point to a night gone wrong.