The front cover of Aspen Matis’ memoir, A Girl in the Woods, bears the lines: “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 my home. This is the story of how my recklessness became my salvation.”
On its surface, A Girl in the Woods, which will be released September 8, seems to be the kind of story that’s been told before, riddled with anecdotes describing how interactions with nature can be the ultimate healer. The events in A Girl in the Woods may at first remind readers of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and yet Matis’ experience occurred years before Strayed’s memoir was ever published. The differences don’t stop there: While both women’s books focus on the theme of self-discovery while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Matis’ story explores her feelings of depression, shame, and ultimately self-reliance and self-love as she processes a rape.
Matis writes with a rawness that refuses to hold any detail back, making it surprisingly easy to empathize and connect with her from page one. She slowly brings the reader into her story by detailing her home life and her complicated relationship with her parents, describing her father’s emotional absence compared to her mother’s overprotective care. She tells how her mother nicknamed her “Doll Girl” and physically dressed her every morning until she left for college. Matis describes how her mother’s over-nurturing nature affected her:
I grew to believe it—I needed her help. I would fail without it. I forfeited myself to this conclusion. This understanding was my greatest shame. I began to feel rage—hate for her. Desire to break from her and prove to her, and to the world, and to myself that I was my own valid person.
Although the lines on the front cover may draw many readers into her story, Matis’ rape is not the main event of the memoir. She describes how her college failed to properly handle the incident after Matis reported it to them, and how the man who raped her ended up moving into her dorm building shortly after the assault. Matis describes in detail her need for comfort when she tells her family about her rape, and the silence, subtle blame, and ignorance she receives from them instead. She talks about a conversation with a RAINN counselor that kept her afloat, and something the counselor says to her stays with her throughout the book: “No one causes rape but rapists.” Despite the depression she falls into, it’s this depression that is the catalyst for her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
Matis’ journey across all 2,650 miles of the PCT is filled with lessons that help her grow from the lost, dependent girl she felt she was when she set foot across the Mexican border. Her walk is nowhere near perfect; she learns to trust again by building shaky foundations, only to watch them crumble, and openly reveals the mistakes she made on and off the trail. I expected Matis to embark upon 2,650 miles of solitude, and admit that I presumptuously waited for a scene in which contact with her beautiful surroundings somehow solved all of her problems. But this isn’t such a simple memoir. While Matis’ miles are filled with stumbles, they are also filled with small moments of awe, and of growth, and it’s all of these personal failures and victories that kept me connected to her transformation.
Survivors of rape often discuss their feelings of shame, trust and eventual empowerment, and these are all core themes of A Girl in the Woods. In realizing that she was not responsible for her rape, Matis slowly becomes independent and empowered; she is able to forgive her family for their reactions and silence, and she is able to give love herself again. I was struck by how far she had come; not only had she made it to Canada, but she seemed years more mature than the young woman at the start of the journey. A Girl in the Woods is a touching memoir that does not hold back, but instead unleashes a clarity that allows the reader to follow along on the emotional journey of self-discovery.