On her second night at Colorado College, Aspen Matis was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. What she did next, many may find unfathomable: she asked her attacker to stay the night.
Accused of fabricating the assault by both the college and her attacker, Matis dropped out and embarked on a cleansing 2,650-mile trek from Mexico to Canada, along the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone and just 19-years-old; Matis survived extreme weather, dehydration, starvation, crippling illness, all manner of dangerous animals, and abduction on the walk.
Six years later; 25-year-old Aspen Matis is a celebrated anti-rape campaigner, New York Times contributor and best-selling author, with her compelling and brutally honest memoir: Girl in the Woods.
I caught up with Aspen to discuss her book; her gruelling five month hike along the PCT and the strange disappearance of her husband, Justin Matis.
Girl in the Woods is very honest about the rape, your relationship with your parents and those on the trail: how does it feel publishing something so truthful, knowing that the people depicted may read it?
It’s an awful puzzle to write a memoir: you have to portray the people you love and how they shaped you, but you don’t want to hurt them. My relationship with my parents means so tremendously much to me; they have been truly wonderful, especially since my husband and I broke up.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how to compassionately, fairly and accurately portray my family, and I considered them often as I revised.
What were the reactions of your brother and parents upon reading the book? Do you feel it compromised your relationship with them at all?
My family hate being exposed in this way, but they’ve also been really lovely about it. I let my parents read the memoir six weeks early, because I knew they were nervous. They’re very private people, and they couldn’t have known they were raising a writer. During those weeks before the book came out, I’d remember Czeslaw Milosz, a line I once read: “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
I mailed my parents a single copy of the book in late July, about six weeks before publication. Tucked into the manuscript, I included a letter, telling them that I wanted to know their feelings about it: just not a reflex reaction. The one thing that I asked is that they read the whole thing through and sat with it for a few days, before giving me their thoughts. I told them that this is such an important and difficult time for me, I’m releasing years of very personal work and the Right Wing are already attacking me. I really needed their support and love.
After a little more than a week, my mother wrote back a very sweet note to say they’re still processing the book, discussing it on their evening walks. She wrote that she loves me and that my dad sends his love.
On publication day, my parents sent flowers; a gorgeous frosted blue and white arrangement, but as far as I know, neither of my brothers have read it.
Regrettably, your college failed to acknowledge that the rape took place: has Junior at least acknowledged it, or tried to make contact since?
No, he hasn’t.
Why did you ask for Junior to stay the night? Why do you think others may ask this of their abusers?
Immediately after I was raped, I asked the boy who had done it to please sleep over; in the months after, I felt such guilt and shame for making such a senseless request.
I wish someone had told me: my desire to normalise such a shocking trauma is actually a rational reaction. It was my desperate attempt to brush off what had happened, because actually naming what it is–rape–is to face something daunting, and devastating. When I begged him to stay, I was wishing to retroactively correct his crime, as if I could.
In the past years – since I began sharing my own story – I’ve heard stories of other women who did exactly the same thing I did; there was also a girl who wrote her rapist a love song, and a girl who tutored her attacker in chemistry.
I hope girls who regret things that they have done in the aftermath of an assault, will see that they are not alone. There is no “normal” reaction to trauma. I want them to know that they’ll survive this. My rape was not the end of everything; it was the beginning of something bigger.
Do you think inviting Junior to stay over hindered your case at all?
The whole college “justice” process occurred behind closed curtains, so I don’t really know. I don’t know why they found him to be innocent, but I suspect it had more to do with the school’s reputation and politics, than with the actual facts of our case.
Why do you think some people blame the victims of sexual assault, or act dismissively?
Many people search for something the victim must have done wrong to cause the attack, because they want to believe that the world is safe and rational, and if they don’t do the same thing as the victim, then they’ll be safe. In this way, victim blaming creates an illusion of control.
The Pacific Crest Trail is extremely dangerous – especially as a lone 19-year-old girl – did you acknowledge the dangers before you started the walk? Or did you only really consider them on arrival?
I was aware of the risks, but I didn’t truly fear them. I’m not sure if I was brave or reckless.
How do you feel the walk changed you as a person? You went from being shy and withdrawn, to strong enough to fend off a kidnapper…
On the trail I was surrounded by men – there were ten men for every one woman – so I was forced to learn how to say “no.” At the beginning of the trek I was passive, bluntness wasn’t easy for me, but I needed to replace the submissive habit I had developed long ago with conviction. I felt like I was being impolite and sometimes it was awkward, but I still committed. It was so much better to feel bad for a moment, saying no – to claim control – than to get harmed.
As women, we’re often put in the position of defending our boundaries; we’re made to feel that we need to apologise for saying “no.” We don’t. Protect your time. You don’t owe strangers anything. “No” is truly the key to our sanity and our success.
Have you spoken to Icecap or Edison since walking the trail?
Icecap and I are still friends on Facebook, and we correspond very occasionally. I think we’ve skyped twice in these six years. Edison and I haven’t spoken since the day we separated on the trail.
Your memoir is exceptionally descriptive; from how you felt in any particular moment, to the weather, scents and scenery: how did you remember everything so vividly? Did you keep a journal?
I took pictures intermittently and I kept a journal intermittently, but really the scenes I wrote about, were the things I couldn’t possibly forget.
To remember the landscape and weather, I looked at Google Earth and photographs of the places I’d passed through. I also referenced my journal, maps and guidebooks.
Whilst on the trail, you met Justin Matis (Dash) who you went on to marry soon after, but on 3rd November 2013, he disappeared without a trace. What happened there?
When I sold the book on-proposal on Valentine’s Day, not yet written, Justin and I were still married. After 3 years of marriage, my husband went to a mutual friend’s funeral in New Hampshire, and he didn’t return. According to the book proposal, the memoir was supposed to end with our wedding. Soon, it couldn’t.
That must have been devastating. Have you spoken to him since?
No. I haven’t. As far as I know, it’s been nearly two years since Justin contacted his mother, his dad, his big brother, or anyone who knew him in his life before he disappeared. We don’t know where he is, or how he is.
How did you feel about having to change the ending to your story?
Justin and I had met when we were both hiking the entire length of the trail, and we were married a year later in those same mountains. I thought the story would end with our wedding. It was absolutely surreal; writing about discovering Justin, whilst missing him.
The last time I ever saw him – he woke me up with a kiss at 5am to say goodbye, before he drove up to the funeral of our mutual friend, Michael (Mystic), the man who’d introduced us. Michael’s girlfriend had left him and he’d hanged himself. I didn’t want to go to the funeral because it was too sad, and I didn’t think I could handle it. I hadn’t known Justin wasn’t coming back.
I hadn’t seen or even spoken to him since then. I was so worried he’d killed himself also, but after 43 days of not knowing where he was or if he was coming back, he sent me a two-line email telling me to send some of his things to Colorado.
The reason he never came back, is of course incredibly complicated, but when Justin and I broke up, the story shifted and my vision of it changed. In the final revision, the book ends where the trail ends, but I’m the hero of my story now, not him. As it should be, as it should have been all along.
Did this bring you closer to his family at all, going through the loss together?
It did. Missing Justin – unbeknownst to him – I actually flew back to California, and showed up at his parents’ house. That early morning when he left me in New York, it turned out he’d completely cut off everyone who knew him. At that point, it had been about nine months. Living with his parents, grieving together, we bonded fiercely. I remember Mary, his mother, said, “I feel like I lost a son and gained a daughter.” I lived with my ex-husband’s family, loving them; whilst finishing my love story about their son, who had left us all.
How easy do you find returning to the past, when writing?
In order to write about a memory powerfully, I have to fully submerge in it – remember the brightness of the sunlight, or the smell of the man’s skin close to my face. I have to let myself go there.
When I first sit down to start writing something I haven’t let myself think about for a long time, it always feels really far away, separated from me by years, cities and new stories which feel more relevant in my life now. It’s like walking back to a childhood bedroom; finding the walls that look familiar, the place, the smell, but everything’s opaque. It’s a writer’s job to stay in the past.
Writing about falling in love with Justin in his absence, mourning him and our marriage, was the single most painful task I’ve ever been given. But I did it because I’d come too far and worked too long, to give up because I missed something I’d once had.
Do you think you will ever hike the Pacific Crest Trail again, or do you have another trek in mind?
I don’t think I’d ever voluntarily walk across a 700-mile desert again, but I’d absolutely return to the PCT in Washington. And, oh yes! I’d definitely hike a new trail. Maybe the Camino across Spain – it looks enchanting. Or maybe the length of Switzerland, following the spine of the Alps.
Finally, what’s next for Aspen Matis? Are you working on any new material?
I write to figure out the things I truly wonder and want to know. What I didn’t expect, was that writing a book would clarify, not only my vision for the future, but also my perspective on my past. I thought my past stories were over, but now I see them newly; I can’t see myself as a victim any longer. In a way, I grew up writing Girl in the Woods.
Fiction requires a different kind of trust in myself than non-fiction does. I begin in the same place – writing the stories that are burning in me, the ones that excite me, that I just have to capture. But it’s the sentences that direct me; thoughts trigger thoughts, character’s actions lead to reactions that I didn’t expect, but reactions that make sense in the moment. It’s the characters that drive the story – and it’s scary. To commit myself to fiction, is to give up my control and indulge my fantasies.
I’m now working on a novel called Cal Trask; it’s about a woman whose nature is evil, but she has tremendous self-awareness. She desperately wants to be good.
Girl in the Woods is out now via Harper Collins and is available to buy on Amazon, and in all good book stores. Five-percent of all proceeds are donated to RAINN (Rape and Incest National Network.)
If you are based in the UK and have been affected by the issues in this article, please contact http://rapecrisis.org.uk