"They implied that I had hallucinated a rape": Aspen Matis on campus sexual assault, her new memoir "Girl in the Woods" and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Salon talks with the author about compassion for survivors and learning strength through independence

Published September 5, 2015 9:30PM (EDT)

Aspen Matis  (Corrina Gramma)
Aspen Matis (Corrina Gramma)

“On my second night of college, I was raped. Shattered and alone, I fled to the Mexican border and headed north through 2,650 miles of desert and mountains to Canada, walking the height of America in search of home,” reads the cover of Aspen Matis’s "Girl in the Woods" (out Tuesday from William Morrow). But as I read Matis’s memoir and the Modern Love column from which it was born, it became clear that she healed from far more than her assault with her time on the Pacific Crest Trail. She also overcame 19 years of learning that she was helpless.

During Matis’s sheltered childhood in Newtown, Massachusetts, her mother bathed and dressed her and forbid her from walking alone. She scribbled lists titled “Things I Can’t Do,” including “ride a bike” and “swallow a pill. Not even a Tic-Tac!!” But, completing one of the most demanding physical feats possible, Matis showed herself her mother had been wrong: She could do everything necessary to take care of herself.

By learning to love and trust her body, Matis also shed the shame of her assault and at last internalized the message she had received from a Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) counselor before the hike: “No one causes rape but rapists.” To support the recovery of other victims, Matis is donating 5 percent of the personal profits from her book to RAINN. She is also trying to raise an additional $10,000 to fund RAINN's hotline, a goal of her hike that she did not complete while on the trail.

I spoke with Matis about setting boundaries, sexual assault on college campuses, and how we can show greater compassion for survivors. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

While your rape at Colorado College was the event that spurred your hike, your book made it clear that you were also walking to disprove the belief cultivated during your childhood that you were helpless. Do you think this is a message that other women receive about themselves?

I certainly don’t think I’m the only one who was disempowered as a child and told she couldn’t do things she was absolutely capable of. It’s definitely a problem to tell any child, male or female, that they’re not capable of doing something for themselves that they can do. It makes them feel out of control of their own lives and powerless. It’s really the story of every child: to become the person they most want to be, to live their first-choice life, and to discover what it is they want and commit to getting it, not making excuses as to why they can’t do it but trusting that they can. So I don’t think it’s a specifically female issue, and it’s certainly not specific to me, but it’s absolutely what my walk was about. It was about discovering my autonomy and finding my personal strength and learning how to trust myself and being brave and doing the scary things and doing all the things people told me I couldn’t do — and discovering that they were wrong and I was capable of anything that I committed to. At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you.

The version of you at the end of the book, when you threaten a kidnapper into letting you go and driving you back to the trail, is very different from you at the beginning, when you are afraid to tell your rapist to leave your room. How did you arrive at that point?

The thing to know is that you owe no one an apology or an explanation for not wanting to be touched or not wanting to go somewhere. Say “no” freely and openly and unapologetically. People will to push you a thousand times a day in a thousand different directions that serve them, and the only way to protect your time and your body and your space and your life and your work is to say “no” when you want to say “no,” without apology. You owe no one an explanation when you don’t want to be used for their purposes. You have to trust that you’re worth your own autonomy. You should be your first priority, always. Your safety is nothing to apologize for protecting. If you value your life and your time and your work, you will say “no” unapologetically when you know something’s wrong for you.

After the scene where you were almost kidnapped, you wrote, “I I hadn’t asserted myself with [my rapist] the way I asserted myself with that kidnapper.” How did you learn to better defend your boundaries without holding yourself responsible for their violation?   

I couldn’t be then what I am now because I hadn’t lived these years and had these experiences. Even though I would not have been alone with my rapist for a thousand reasons now, and it wouldn’t have happened now, it’s because I am different, not because there was something I could have done differently then, being who I was. I just simply didn’t know.

How can we raise children who are more confident gaining independence and setting boundaries?

Rather than telling your child what they should like and what they should do, and rather than wanting for your child what you wanted for yourself, it is your responsibility as a parent to recognize what your child wants and to empower them to do it as long as it’s not destructive or self-destructive — that’s one exception, but it usually isn’t! Trust that your child knows what they love and don’t tell them what they love, and really listen. Give them space to fail and let them try things and discover for themselves what works because it’s empowering to find your own ability and not feel dependent. To feel dependent is the worst thing a child can learn from a parent. It’s a learned helplessness that can disempower them for their whole life. It is not the job of a mother to want for her daughter what she wanted for herself. It’s the job of a mother to observe what her child wants and to empower them and give them space and encouragement and guidance where they see fit — but a light touch, not a heavy hand. Not pulling and dragging and redirecting, but giving a boost where they can.

What changes would you like to see in colleges’ sexual assault policies? 

Across America, colleges are revising their policies, because for so long, colleges in America were devoted to obscuring the truth to protect their brand. Colleges put a lot of money into the creation of their brand, and no college wants to have a rape conviction, so it is not in their best interest for the truth to come out. They would rather have a man who rapes women stay on their campus — and likely assault more women there and make their campus less safe — than admit that something bad happened at their school and purge the school of the source of that crime.

It’s a sickness, and it’s pervasive throughout all colleges and universities in America. I’ve heard the statistic that one in four college women will be raped in America now, which is horrifying. One, two, three, raped. One, two, three, raped. And I think people got fed up finally, and many schools are implementing better, more transparent policies. What other violent felony is punished through mediation? As if rape could be mediated like a playground fight. It’s absurd. New York just signed the “Enough is Enough” bill, which requires active consent and much more transparency, into law, which is extremely encouraging.

How do you wish Colorado College had handled your rape, instead of merely holding a meeting with a mediator and declaring the evidence inconclusive?

I waited two weeks before I reported it to the college, so it was too late for a rape kit to be done. I would encourage colleges to educate girls and boys so that they know, for 72 hours after a rape in most states, you can get a rape kit done. You can go to the hospital and get biological evidence that will convict him, and he will not be able to do it again. And I know that’s probably the last thing in the world that you want to do when you’re devastated and traumatized. But I kind of wish I had, and I would encourage women to do that.

The college was just insensitive and cruel in many ways. They implied that I had hallucinated a rape because we had been smoking marijuana, which was absurd. They were looking for any reason to dismiss the truth and obscure justice. I would say, don’t obscure justice and try to be kind and compassionate and fair. Rape cannot be mediated. Yes, people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but when no biological evidence exists, it’s impossible to prove someone guilty, so the worst you can do is make the victim of a violent crime question themselves and feel ashamed for telling the truth. Because justice will not be served anyway, you can at least protect them and offer support and care and expel any boy who is found guilty even through this ridiculous kind of college administrative system. Less than one in three boys who are found guilty by the college are expelled. Stop treating violent crimes against women like they’re less serious than carrying marijuana. Our priorities are all screwed up.

Why do you think people blame victims or react dismissively, the way your mom did when you told her about your assault?

I think it’s different for each person, but it could be one of many reasons. It could be that the fact that this happened is so upsetting and traumatic to them that they have to deny it. My mom spent her life being a good, caring, protective mother. She spent her whole life protecting me, and then the minute I left home, in her eyes, the worst thing that could have happened happened, and and so she couldn’t face it. She couldn’t be there for me.

And in our culture, often we want to feel that we’re safe, and we want to think that this couldn’t possibly happen to us, so when it happens to someone else, we try to look for a reason why they brought it on themselves. It creates the illusion of safety: “This will never happen to me because I’m better than them.” You want to convince yourself that you’re safe in the world and your body. It’s a dangerous defense mechanism that prevents you from facing the reality of statistics, and it blocks you from compassion, as well, when you make the victim the “other” instead of admitting that they could be you and you could be them and you’re both human and they did nothing wrong and yet bad things happened. It’s a scary, scary fact to face.

What do you think is the biggest misconception our culture holds about sexual assault?

The biggest misconception people have is that rape is most often perpetrated by a stranger. That’s not the case. It’s most often perpetrated by someone you know and trust enough to be alone with — someone who takes advantage of your kindness and your trust, someone who violates your trust, literally violates you. A boyfriend can rape a girlfriend. A husband can rape a wife. But it’s very rare for it to be a total stranger. That’s the vast minority of cases. It’s so confusing often for the victim when someone they liked before and had been warm to before rapes them because then they’re like, “Is there something wrong with me that I couldn’t tell? Or did I cause this? Did I want it? Is my judgment bad?”

You question yourself so much, and it becomes even more shameful, especially when it’s someone you really trusted and liked. It causes you to reevaluate yourself and your judgment and your history. It forces a revisionist history that’s quite upsetting and disturbing. You wonder who else is capable of hurting you if they’re given the chance.

Was there any “A-ha” moment that helped you recover from your assault?

Yes, and it sounds so simple that it’s absurd, but: It was not my fault. I didn’t cause it. Rapists cause rape. No one causes rape but rapists. That was the revelation. It wasn’t a shame on me. It was a shame on him, and the shame I was feeling was misplaced shame.

Silence has the rusty taste of shame, and secrets become lies and they consume you, and rape is a secret too large to hold inside your body. It’s like a dark pearl that will cramp, and it will take all of your energy to tolerate the pain of it. Speaking it, naming it, calling it what it is — rape — makes it something separate from yourself and outside of yourself, so you are not the pain and the disgustingness and the hurt and the shame. Rape is that. Rape is causing that. Naming it shrinks it. Speaking openly and freely about something that has happened to you puts it in its place and makes it small and frees you from the weight of it. When you call it what it is, you can examine it from the outside and know that it is not you.

If you could tell sexual assault survivors one thing, what would it be?

It was not your fault. This doesn’t change a thing. You are loved. You are worthy of love. Anyone who reacts without compassion to learning of your rape is wrong to do so. No one will think you’re damaged when you’re raped, and if they do, they’re not worthy of your time. As Dr. Seuss says, “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

And I would say what Cheryl Strayed says, which is so beautiful: “Whatever happens to you belongs to you … Feed it to yourself.” Tell your story. Let it fuel you. Let it fuel your art, your work, your public service, whatever it is. No one else owns your story, and it’s so exciting that no two people have the same story. And I would also say, rape is not the end of your life. For me, it was the beginning of something bigger.

What would you tell those who love someone who has been assaulted?  

I would tell them to say just exactly that. To be there for them, to listen, to respect them. If they say “Don’t tell so and so,” it’s not your place to tell. Just be emotionally supportive. Tell them that you love them. Tell them that you’re there. Tell them, “It was not your fault. This doesn’t change a thing. I love you.”

By Suzannah Weiss

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