ANNA talks to Aspen Matis, author of Girl in the Woods, about the story behind the book everyone is buzzing about.
You know a book is good when a class of publishing grad students can’t put it down. The week we recieved advanced copies of Girl In the Woods, class was audibly quieter. Everyone stared intensly at their laps, seemingly captivaited by their crotches. We were, of course, reading our new favorite book.
Girl In the Woods isn’t an easy beach read. It’s not the kind of memoir that you can finish and leave behind without any emotional tug. It’s a hard book to break up with and it’s a sore loser. If you try to convince people that it’s perhaps a little too dramatic at times, just a tad too unapologetic, it reminds you that this is the beauty of the book and exactly why you can’t stop talking about it. Although you will try to find examples of why this book is flawed, you will come up with few reasons that matter. Because memoir wise, Girl in the Woods is some of the best you’ve ever had.
Aspen Matis is a new writer on the book block but she’s no newbie to the world of words. In her capable hands, her adolescent quest for redemption is funny, frustrating, sticky, and real. Matis is not afraid to peel herself raw. She harkens back to a childhood where her mother dresses her every morning until she is well into high-school. She lets us peek into the painful aftermath of her rape the second night of college and the failure of her school in the months after. In this way, it’s a commentary on the sexual assault problem known all too well at schools around the country and the twisting knife of administrative inadequacy in the face of victim-blaming. Matis grew up in a wealthy home in a picture perfect suburb of Boston, yet even she was not immune to the violence or inability to fully blame the rapist himself. As we learn, her lack of preparation for the flood of confusing feelings that follow is equally heart-breaking.
When she sets off on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone, unprepared, and unaware of the stakes she is up against, you are in awe and a little afraid of her. Matis doesn’t realize it just yet, but her naïve reluctance to accept the status quo is one of the most tantalizing parts about this tale. Her extreme journey from Mexico to Canada in search of happiness is not an easy one to join, but good luck trying to trek off the trail.
As she befriends boys, you wonder if this will be a cliche story of Prince Charming perfecting a happy ending. When love turns out to be as messy and unpredictable as anything you’ve expected, you breathe a sigh of relief. Ultimately, it is Matis herself who overcomes the trauma of her rape, her feelings of inadequacy and self-blame, and her reluctance to say no. The men she meets are only one chapter of a very complicated, very addictive story told with refreshingly unapologetic abandon.
Matis is the poster girl for independence. In the still of the wild, she finds her voice and the power to claim control. Her realization that she does not owe anyone anything is applause worthy. Girlfriend finally realizes no is an acceptable answer. It’s an important lesson we all need to learn. Matis is just as flawed as the rest of us, but her ability to articulate these moments of personal clarity provides a compelling reason for young women to tag along. And yes, Matis does feel sorry for herself, a narrative that defines much of her story and influences the overall tone itself. But can we blame her?
ANNA: What do you hope that those in similar post-traumatic situations see in your triumphant story of survival?
Immediately after I was raped, I asked the boy who had done it to please sleep over; in the months after, I felt such guilt and shame for making such a senseless request. I wish someone had told me: my desire to normalize a shocking trauma is actually such a rational reaction. It was my desperate attempt to brush off what had happened, because actually naming it what it is—rape—is to face something daunting, and devastating. When I begged him to stay, I was wishing to retroactively correct his crime, as if I could.
In the past years—since I began sharing my own story—I’ve heard stories of other women who did the exact same thing I did: a girl who wrote her rapist a love song, a girl who tutored him in chemistry…. we aren’t alone.
I hope girls who regret things that they have done in the aftermath of an assault will see that they are not alone!! There is no “normal” reaction to trauma. I hope they’ll see that they’ll survive this, and live an even richer life than they ever could have imagined. My rape was not the end of everything, it was the beginning of something bigger.
ANNA: What is something that you learned from your time on the trail that you still find yourself implementing in your daily life today?
On the trail I was surrounded by men—there were ten men for every one woman. So I was forced to learn how to say “No.” At the beginning of the hike I was passive, bluntness wasn’t easy for me. But I needed to resist the submissive habit I had developed long ago—with conviction. I had to feel like I was being impolite, and sometimes it was awkward. But still I committed. It was so much better to feel bad for a moment saying no – to claim control – than to get harmed.
On the trail, I became firm in my assertions. I learned to mark clearly, convincingly and consistently what was good for me and also what was bad–to say yes and also no, as if it were the law.
This applies sexually, but also personally. As women, we’re often put in the position of defending our boundaries. We’re made to feel that we need to apologize for saying “no.” We don’t. Protect your time. You don’t owe strangers anything. “No” is truly the key to our sanity, and our success.
ANNA: What do you hope readers ultimately take away from Girl in the Woods?
You can do anything you set your mind to. Write your book. Walk from Mexico to Canada. Leave that job you hate, the abusive relationship that’s stifling you; blossom. You absolutely can. You are strong enough. And at the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you.
Commit to work you love, living your first-choice life. You will alight with bright fire: pride in yourself. Anyone will become beautiful if they’re doing what they love.
Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis, William Morrow, $24.99
FEATURE PHOTO BY DARIA VIA EPICANTUS