Over eight years ago, Aspen Matis was a Colorado College student. On her third day as a freshman, she was raped by a male student from her own dorm room. She instantly pleaded for justice against the perpetrator. Much to her dismay, the school dismissed the rape as a simple “hallucination.” Matis dropped out of Colorado College and pursued hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to recover her own body. The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2650-mile trail that spans from the deserts of Mexico, to the mountains and tundras of Canada. Though she faced challenges ranging from starvation and thirst to the extreme weather conditions posed by the variety of climates traversed, Matis completed the journey and reclaimed her body and identity that were dehumanized by her rape and the campus administration’s treatment of her crime. Soon after, now best-selling author Matis published “Girl in the Woods,” a memoir that vividly describes her terrifying yet empowering experience of dealing with the sexual assault that plagued her first days at Colorado College, and with the challenges and dangers that emerged while hiking the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail with only a backpack. I’ve had the pleasure to interview Matis and delve into her ideas about the book, explore her attitude that being raped is not the end of the world, and that one can regain one’s strength and happiness after being objectified in one of the most inhumane ways.
Maylin Cardoso Fuentes: What was your main purpose in writing this memoir? Did you intend on simply documenting a memoir of your experiences or did you attempt to write something that could inspire many women who went through similar experiences to yours?
Aspen Matis: I think more the latter. My hope was that this book will be a map for women, I mean not exclusively for women, for who were in my position who were violated and felt lost and ashamed and stuck in their sadness or in their shame. It’s just a map to reveal the path out of trauma.
MCF: What would you say the major takeaways are from your book?
AM: The major takeaways are whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right; you are so much stronger than you really think you are. The only way to change is to change and understand what follows … You are brave enough and strong enough. You can leave that situation. … You deserve to be happy and your happiness is your responsibility. You’ll figure out for yourself what makes you happy and commit to the work that makes you happy. Be the director of your own life. Don’t be passive.
MCF: How do you think your story and novel impacts Colorado College students, especially those who are currently experiencing similar situations to the one you did?
AM: This is an epidemic and it’s happening across the country and all over the world. On American college campuses, there is a very disturbing trend. It’s less [prevalent] at Colorado College, but it’s still there. It’s this culture that glorifies a lack of empathy; that it’s cool not to care about the consequences of your actions. And what I wanted to say to anyone, not just college students, is that what you do matters. As obvious as it may sound to me and you, it could destroy someone’s life and there’s no excuse to do damage in the world. You don’t have the right or the claim to anyone else’s body. It is your responsibility not to do damage. What you do matters. That’s what I would say to any college student, not just Colorado College. The culture is probably better at Colorado College than at many other schools, but it’s still bad. It recently came out that approximately one in four women will be sexually assaulted during their undergraduate education in the United States and that’s horrifying. I remember it blew my mind that this college would even need a rape response coordinator, like it wouldn’t be a job that was necessary. But it is necessary, and in a way it is even more horrifying.
MCF: I also wanted to address the point of what students could do because often when college women come out and say that this person raped her, she is often immediately victim blamed.
AM: Right. For students I would say, act with compassion and empathy. Imagine this was your mom or your sister or you or your best friend. Cruel judgment reveals more about the person judging than the person being judged. Act with compassion. Speak with compassion. Be a friend to anyone who needs support after a trauma. Tell them “I love you” or “I’m here for you. It’s not your fault. This doesn’t change a thing.” Short-shorts don’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape. … This culture that it’s cool not to give a shit needs to be revolutionized. It needs to be obliterated by acting with kindness and integrity. I think that’s happening. Social media is really holding these people more accountable, but the administration especially can’t lie behind closed doors because we can expose the truth. Real stories will catch the attention of people.
MCF: I think this is especially true in regards to social media because people think these things can’t happen to them.
AM: That’s the story people tell themselves for their own peace of mind. People think A“Oh, it couldn’t possibly happen to me. I want to believe I am safe here. Because this has never happened to me, she must have done something.” This dehumanizes her and makes her at fault so you don’t have to live in fear and that’s such a dangerous mentality for so many reasons. That should be obliterated. Stories speak so much louder to people. It’s our responsibility to not just ourselves but to our culture and future to tell the truth so that other people won’t think they’re alone in their stories. … Telling your story is creating a pathway to walk and to find each other.
MCF: How has your experience of travelling the Pacific Crest Trail allowed you to reach salvation with your body and your mind and allow you to heal?
AM: … a few things. One, I wanted to so badly prove to myself that I was safe in the world and in body I had to live in. I escaped the world of college in one of the only places in the America where men multiply men and women divide. There are about nine men to every one woman on the Pacific Crest Trail. [The trail] was a very sensitive form of immersion therapy. I had to repeatedly … set my boundaries. And … people respected that and I heard that my voice was audible and that it did mean something and that it had power. It was tremendously empowering and exciting and comforting. It opened up a whole new sense of possibility for me in terms of ambition and security … It was also the trail itself in terms of lack of water, lack of food, hail, snow, extreme coldness, rattlesnakes, river crossings, bears, and again and again and again I had to rise to the occasion and be strong and take care of myself. That was incredibly empowering to discover my strength and see that I could walk a literal marathon every day with a backpack on over mountains and be okay, be happy, and be healthy. I literally physically reclaimed my body on this walk.
MCF: What advice would you give to other women who are dealing with the same things that you did and still are six years later to grow off of them?
AM: I’d say after a terrible trauma, you have two choices: you can stay where you are and wallow and curl up in atrophy and essentially die or you can stand up and decide that you’re going to save yourself. No one else can save you. You have to save yourself. You have to make a change. You have to leave that place and do what you feel. Everyone is different. Not everyone should walk from Mexico to Canada. That was just what I did. You need to figure out for yourself what you need to do for yourself to save yourself. You are strong enough, you can save yourself. You are able, you are capable to survive. It won’t be easy but it will get easier and it’s worth it. It’s your responsibility to stand up and to keep living. When not standing up becomes more unbearable than standing up, you stand up if that makes sense.