On her second night of college, then 19-year-old Aspen Matis was raped in her dorm room. Afterwards, she asked her rapist to spend the night. Years later, she returned to the memory when writing a piece for The New York Times' Modern Love column, but she hesitated at the inclusion of this one detail. "I feared that people would say, 'She wanted him to stay—how could this be rape?'" In the end, Matis decided to include the detail because "it was true, it was part of the experience, and it showed the complexity of my reaction honestly," she tells me.
That column detailed Matis' reaction to her rape—she decided to hike from Mexico to Canada alone in hopes of overcoming her trauma—and eventually led to a book deal. It's been six years since the assault; Matis is now 25, and her memoir, called Girl in the Woods, came out last month to widespread critical acclaim. I'm meeting Matis at French Roast, a cafe in the West Village, where she wrote some of her memoir. She walks into the cafe carrying two Barnes & Noble bags loaded with three shelves' worth of books; I hope she'll make it to the table before the book corners pierce through the plastic. (Thankfully, she does.) She's also brought a pint of ice cream.
Matis seems a bit frazzled, probably due in part to lugging over $300 worth of books from Union Square to the West Village, but also due to the aftermath of releasing a new book that's doing very well. Girl in the Woods came out on September 8 and was, at the time of our interview, the number one new release in the Adventure Travel category on Amazon. She says her bookstore haul is a reaction to the chaos and to focusing all her attention on one book, her own, for the past two years. "I'm the worst," she says. "I'm just dreading returning to my email. I've got kind of an avoidant personality."
Since the release of both her New York Times essay and her memoir, Matis has heard from hundreds of girls who, like her, also asked their rapists to stay; some of these girls wrote their rapists poems and love songs. "Turns out that it's actually an incredibly common reaction to want the boy who raped you to treat you well after, as if you could retroactively correct it," she says, "because to call a rape a rape—to name it what it is—is to acknowledge that something terrible has happened, that your life is forever changed, and that's a really terrifying thing to do. It makes the most sense in the aftermath of a trauma to try to carry on as if it never happened, as if you could—and then you realize that you can't."
When Aspen finally realized that she couldn't shove her rape into a dark closet and forget about it forever, she dropped out of Colorado College and began hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT starts on the border of the US and Mexico and extends 2,663 miles north through California, Oregon, and Washington, reaching its end at the border of the U.S. and Canada. Her decision to leave came after disappointing responses from her school counselor, her brother, and even her own mother after she'd explained to each of them what had been done to her on her second night of college. On the telephone, her mother replied with silence at first, then a suggestion that she speak with a school counselor, and finally followed by a startling question: "Did you have a good dinner?"
To call a rape a rape—to name it what it is—is to acknowledge that something terrible has happened, that your life is forever changed.
What surprises me most about Matis is her capacity for forgiveness and sense of understanding. When I ask her about her family's reactions to the book, I expect an answer filled with resentment. Instead, she responds graciously. "It's really hard for my mom to acknowledge that she might've done something that hurt me because she loves me so much," she says. To this day, Matis still has not heard a word from either of her brothers regarding the book. "It must be hard for them," she says. "They feel wildly out of control of their image."
Matis explains that she was careful about any details she included regarding her family; she avoids using any of their real names. She is very clear that the goal of her memoir was not to paint her family as saints. "I'm not a PR machine for our family," she says. Her real purpose in writing the memoir, according to her, was to raise $1 million for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Five percent of Matis' earnings from Girl in the Woods will go to RAINN. She has also set up a fundraising page for the network on her website.
Matis is also very vocal about the current rape epidemic on college campuses. Last year, she was invited to speak at Colorado College, the institution she dropped out of after they not only failed to punish her rapist, but also proceeded to relocate him into her dorm. "Colleges have brands," she tells me. "They would rather have a person who's raping other people [remain] on their campus and make the students on their campus less safe than have it be known that there was a rape on their campus." However, she is optimistic about the future: She says that numerous women have reached out to her telling her that she has motivated them to report their own rapes. Because of this, Matis says, "For the first time, we're holding [colleges] accountable."
While on the PCT, Matis met the man she would later come back to the trail to marry as a 20-year-old. Two years before her memoir was released and just three years after their marriage, he woke her up with kisses before leaving for a mutual friend's funeral; Matis chose not to attend herself. He never came back, cutting ties with Matis, his own parents, and everyone else he knew. Still, she doesn't say a single negative thing about him during our conversation.
Matis' memoir is currently being made into a television series, now in production. She is as involved in that as she wants to be, which she hints is not much. She says she trusts producer Dylan Hale Lewis completely, noting her fondness of his work and "Juno-esque" style. Currently, she is more focused on her first novel, Cal Trask, about a girl who is sexually attracted to her brother. Matis says it's essentially about how "we can alter our nature by being aware of it."
Despite her obvious fondness for nature and solitude, Matis now lives in New York City, where she frequents cafes and coffee shops to write. She takes me through a list of her favorites: Third Rail Coffee is good when she needs to "lock in" because they have no Wi-Fi; Joe's is her "base camp," and French Roast is a good "wintery, midnight place." She tells me, "Manhattan is a wilderness—just a different kind of wilderness."
You're never really cured; you just have to hold yourself accountable.
My impression of Matis is that of a brave and yet still vulnerable woman. She speaks confidently, often throwing in quotes to articulate her point. In our one meeting, she pulls lines from Shakespeare and Joan Didion. Matis tells me that she's had to learn and relearn lessons. When I ask which lessons, she gives me a solid list: "That I am safe in my body, that my work will be respected, that I am strong enough to take care of myself."
The seeming contradiction between her boldness and self-doubt makes sense. At 15, her mother was still dressing her for school. Four years later, she endured extreme emotional circumstances while successfully completing one of the most challenging hikes in the country. Alone. Yet she maintains that the hike was not the be-all-end-all to her healing. "I'm not cured," she says. "You're never really cured; you just have to hold yourself accountable."