campus assault

Returning to the Scene of a Campus Rape

A writer speaks about her assault and the ‘Wild’-like book it inspired at the school that failed to help her when she needed it most.

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Six years ago, Aspen Matis was raped in a dorm on her second night as a freshman at a small college in Colorado. At the time, the school failed to help her, processing her complaint but letting her rapist continue as a student. Last week Matis, a writer, returned to the school as an invited guest to read from her work, which included material about her assault and the journey it inspired, a hike she took, as she describes it, “to walk off the rape.”

“I came back the woman I wanted to be when I was 18,” says Matis, now 24. “I wanted to come back for the sake of the women at the college who have been raped and who don’t know what to do. Statistically, one in four women will be victims of sexual assault. That means there are women in the audience who have been assaulted or raped. I want them to know what to do, to not wait, to go to the police and not leave it to the college like I did.”

Matis came west to Colorado Springs from Newton, Massachusetts, to attend Colorado College in the fall of 2008. It was her dream school. “I loved the West and fell in love with the mountains from a young age when we spent summers here,” she says. “I would hike near the Garden of the Gods with my Dad and see Colorado Springs in the distance. I was so happy to be coming to CC.”

But her career at Colorado College effectively ended that fateful night on campus, when a fellow student raped her.

“I said: ‘Stop. Stop it.’ But not loud enough, maybe. I should have kicked him. I should have screamed,” Matis wrote in a New York Times essay, “A Hiker’s Guide to Healing,” in 2012, which she read at the college and which led to a book deal with HarperCollins for her memoir, Girl in the Woods.  

Later, Matis asked him if he wanted to stay. “Because I desperately wanted to think I had wanted this, to feel that everything was fine,” she wrote. “He said I was crazy to ask for that. He knew what he’d done. But he was lucky. My irrational request would later fog the clear act and help spare him from expulsion and conviction and shame.”

Two weeks later, Matis went to the college’s sexual-assault counselor, whom she said was kind but ineffective. She and the male student went before a mediator.

“I said he raped me. He said he didn’t,” Matis says. “And there was no evidence—no sperm—since it was two weeks later. I remember hearing the button pop off my shorts when he ripped them and thinking that could be evidence, but of course it’s not. A button can just fall off.”

The school moved Matis out of her on-campus dorm to housing off-campus, and moved the male student into her old dorm. Her case was over.

“When I heard this decision, I hardened my cheeks and the little muscles behind my eyes,” she wrote in a “Hiker’s Guide to Healing.” “I saw dust suspended. I could not move. I was not sure what the next move was. I didn’t think there was a next move.”

She began drinking heavily, sliding into depression.

“I would be crying on the floor of my cinderblock dorm and what saved me were the counselors I called at RAINN [Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network],” she says. They were so great and supportive. They told me over and over that no one causes rape but rapists. It wasn’t my fault.”

It was her love of the outdoors and hiking—what had brought her to Colorado—that eventually saved her.

“The rape was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says. “I had always wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—from Mexico to Canada, all 2,650 miles. I had wanted to take a gap year to do it before college. Walking it after my rape would mean that I could be alone. And leaving CC turned out to be the bravest thing I could ever do. The rape turned out to be the beginning of my life. Not the end.”

Three years before the publication of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Matis set out on her hike, where at first her goals were to raise money to benefit RAINN and to be alone.

“I wanted to be invisible,” she told the audience at Colorado College, in a large lecture hall where she said she had often sat in the back row as a student. “I wanted for people to hear me, but not see me. I wished people were blind. But what I learned was that was a nihilistic, temporary solution. Writing became for me the healing and sustainable solution.”

On the trail she kept a daily journal and met many thru-hikers who were walking for their own reasons, including one who would become her husband, with whom she found solace and healing.

She also returned to college, to the New School in New York, where she would continue to pursue her writing, which eventually led to a book deal for Girl in the Woods, which will be published by HarperCollins in September 2015.

Last June, when the Colorado College English Department invited Matis to speak at the school as part of their visiting author series, she was more than a little surprised.

It was, of course, months before the outing of a rape survivor whose story was published, then retracted, by Rolling Stone and before the recent Newsroom episode storyline that prized the innocence of an accused male student over his accuser.

But rape survivors are fighting back. One of the many women who allege that Bill Cosby raped them years ago has sued him for defamation—for calling her a liar. A writer for Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom publicly protested the airing of the episode about campus rape. And Matis felt she had to come back to the same campus where she had been raped.

“This was the one way to get me back,” she said of the college’s invitation to speak. “They were asking me to come back and speak about the thing—my rape—they had tried to hide. My speaking about it meant that what they said didn’t happen, did.

“Returning here is a way for me to be safe, and to be safe in my body, even here in Colorado Springs,” she says. “I’m glad I came back for my sake, but also for the sake of the school and any girl at CC who feels that rape is the end of her life. I want them to know that rape isn’t the end of their life; it’s the beginning. It’s not the rape that’s shameful. It’s the silence.”

Matis says that she has already received an email from a Colorado College student who came to her reading. “She was raped at our school also,” Matis said. She still hasn’t told anybody she knows. She wrote that now she’s going to.”


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