ABOVE: ASPEN MATIS. PHOTO COURTESY OF CORRINA GRAMMA
At only 25, Aspen Matis has been published in The New York Times and has a blurb from Lena Dunham on her debut memoir, Girl in the Woods. However, her journey from small town Massachusetts to a major publishing deal is not one she can recommend. Matis was raped on her second night at Colorado College. A few months later she dropped out and sought solace in her childhood passion, hiking, embarking on a grueling 2650 mile trek from Mexico to Canada, known as the Pacific Crest Trail. Seven years later, as she completes her degree at New York’s New School, her compelling and intense memoir, out this Tuesday via Harper Collin’s imprint William Morrow, should be essential reading in dorm rooms across the country.
JEFF VASISHTA: This memoir is brutally honest, both in detailing your rape and your relationship with your parents. How hard was it writing it knowing that everyone would be privy to the most intimate details about your life?
ASPEN MATIS: It’s an awful puzzle to write a memoir. You have to show the people you love, and how they shaped you, but you don’t want to hurt them. My relationship with my parents means so much to me. I considered them often as I revised. I also wrote this book because after I was raped, I asked the boy who did it to please sleep over. After, I felt ashamed, as if my irrational request mitigated the fault of his felony. There are a thousand similar stories of this misplaced guilt and the shame.
My true hope for this book is that it will give RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network), to whom I’m donating 5 percent of the profits from my book, one million dollars—funding the free anonymous hotline for weeks—potentially changing and saving lives.
VASISHTA: What has been your parents’ reaction?
MATIS: I mailed them 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 everything they think and feel, just not a reflex reaction. The one thing that I asked is that they read the whole thing through, and then sit with it for a few days after, before giving me their thoughts. I told them that this is such an important and difficult time for me and I really need 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 she loves me. She said, “Dad sends love.” I’m releasing years of very personal work. The Right Wing bloggers are attacking me already, saying that I’m pretending I was raped. I really need my parents’ support and love.
VASISHTA: Has your accused rapist, Junior, made any acknowledgement of what happened?
MATIS: He has not.
VASISHTA: Your rape was not acknowledged by your college in Colorado, but when you went back their stance seemed to have softened, perhaps in lieu of your memoir being published? Have they finally acknowledged that you were raped?
MATIS: I reported the rape to the college about two weeks after it happened. We went through the college’s “conflict mediation” process, as if rape could be mediated like a playground fight. I testified, and so did the boy. The college found the case inconclusive and implied that I’d hallucinated it, because we’d smoked weed that night. A few months later, I dropped out.
That was seven years ago. Recently Colorado College heard about my book and extended an invitation to return—to speak publicly about the rape they had denied happened. I went back to speak.
VASISHTA: What was the vibe like?
MATIS: Really warm and kind. The college put me in a lovely hotel and paid me a generous stipend to come back. The lecture hall I spoke in was filled and the students and faculty were attentive. I truly did feel heard.
VASISHTA: Your journey on the PCT is one any parent would fret about their 19-year-old daughter undertaking. Your trail name was “Wild Child,” and you certainly were in some really dangerous situations—almost starving and potentially being abducted when you hitchhiked. How do you look back on those experiences now?
MATIS: With gratitude that I survived and tremendous admiration for my parents. They supported me 100 percent. They sent me boxes of food to remote outposts; paid off the credit card they had given me for college, as I spent their money on hiking gear and small-town motel rooms. I was wild and I was reckless in a thousand ways. But still they supported me. And I don’t regret it, and you’d have to ask them, but I don’t think they regret it. Looking back their support enabled my healing.
VASISHTA: You pack in a lot of detail into the description of the trail—the vegetation, weather, landscape etc. Were you taking pictures and journaling as you went to remember so much?
MATIS: 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.
VASISHTA: You married Justin, whom you met on the trail after a bad experience with Icecap. Before that, you had obviously been through the rape and then the smothering attention from your mom. In retrospect, do you think your decision to marry so young was a reaction to all of that?
MATIS: My relationship with Icecap was by no means “bad”—he was a wonderful guy, and he treated me very well. He was just wrong for me; I didn’t love him. Rape is devastating, of course, and yes I cherished the safety I felt with Justin, but I don’t think I got married because I felt unsafe unmarried. By the end of the trail, I felt very strong. I married Justin simply because I loved him. My parents married young, and they have a wonderful relationship to this day, they adore each other, and I thought getting married is just what you do when you fall in love.
VASISHTA: How hard was this memoir for you to put together? Somehow you manage to weave a narrative arc into it all so it’s not all, “This happened and that happened.” What was your process?
MATIS: I sold this book on proposal on February 14th, 2013—it was Valentine’s Day. And I finished the final edits on the final draft in late June, 2015. So, writing this book took about two-and-a-half years. My process is simply to show up every day, and to forgive myself for “bad” days when nothing much happens. My only job is to commit to showing up with all of my intelligence. One external thing complicated the process. I sold the book that Valentine’s Day “on-proposal,” 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 never returned. According to the book proposal, the memoir was supposed to end with our wedding.
VASISHTA: That must have been devastating. What happened?
MATIS: The last time I ever saw him he woke me up with kisses at five am to say goodbye before he drove up to the funeral of our mutual friend, Michael, 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 haven’t seen or even talked with him since then. It was November 3, 2013. He disappeared. 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. When Justin and I broke up, the story shifted, and my vision of it. 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.
Missing Justin—unbeknownst to him—I flew back to California, and showed up at his parents’ house. They also hadn’t heard from him. 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 him 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, finishing writing my love story with their son, who had left us all.
I haven’t seen or spoken with my husband in almost two years. I eventually learned that he walked from Mexico to Canada again, this time on the Continental Divide Trail.
VASISHTA: Lena Dunham blurbs this memoir and it was recently purchased by producer Dylan Hale Lewis. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, Rolling Stone rock critic Greil Marcus, Mad Men actress Caity Lotz, and Ben Folds all offered their endorsements for your book. You seem to have connections many writers would dream about.
MATIS: Most of my connections are people I’ve met at coffee shops when I’ve been writing. My apartment is a shoebox, and I like to work in cafés with a communal vibe. I met John Cameron Mitchell at a local West Village coffee shop. It turned out he was working on the show Girls. He read my New York Times Modern Love column, and sent it to Lena. Lena had also experienced a sexual assault in college, which she wrote about in her beautiful book, Not That Kind of Girl. She wrote me that it was brave of me to speak about my rape.
I met Ben Folds at a bar in Brooklyn in February, 2014, and we loved each other’s work and became friends.
VASISHTA: Have you now started to plan for what’s next?
MATIS: I’m working on a novel called Cal Trask, about a woman who’s nature is evil, but she has tremendous self-awareness. She desperately wants to be good.
GIRL IN THE WOODS IS OUT THIS TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, VIA WILLIAM MORROW.