“How Does One Move On From Sexual Assault To Community Leadership?” A Conversation with Aspen Matis
“To victims of sexual assault, or any violence: You didn’t cause it; you can truly forgive yourself.”
How does one move on from sexual assault to community leadership? To answer that, I interviewed author Aspen Matis who hiked 2,650 miles along the mountainous Pacific Crest Trail, alone, after being raped her second day in college. At 18, she walked 1,000 miles in continuous footsteps, also solo. She captured her travels in an internationally bestselling memoir, “Girl in the Woods.” Today, she’s leading nonprofits and community projects with other celebrities. After personal violation and so much restlessness, she shares how a training program was her key to finding peace.
What is your “backstory?”
I was born in Boston to two loving and happily married Harvard-educated lawyers who both fed and feared my adventurous tendencies. I began solo-backpacking when I was still small, craving the dangerous beauty of our national forests, the exhilaration of complete solitude. At 17, I hiked 220 miles through the wilderness, alone, tracing the course of the famous John Muir Trail, transfixed by beauty. The next year I walked 1,000 miles in continuous footsteps, solo-exploring my country at the precise rate of my pacing.
Afterwards I enrolled in college in Colorado, 2,000 miles from my quaint Massachusetts town, seeking to blossom in my newfound freedom. But on my second night on campus, all those hopes were obliterated when I was raped by a fellow student, a boy I had met that day. I stumbled through my first semester feeling alone and devastated. My loving and supportive parents could not erase the attack, of course, and my university’s “conflict mediation” process for handling sexual assaults was callous and ineffectual. I dropped out and sought healing in the freedom of the wild, on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. A 19-year-old girl alone and adrift, I summited desolate mountain passes and met rattlesnakes, bears, and fellow pilgrims. Among the snowcaps and the forests of America’s West, I found the confidence that had eluded me all my life.
Inspired by the beauty and turmoil enveloping me on the trail, I wrote poems, personal accounts, and dispatches from my tent. I was always writing. I began publishing my essays and ideas in the national media, first The New York Times. After a thousand miles of solitude, I met a man who helped me learn to love, trust, and heal — I would marry him.
After moving to New York, I published an account of my experiences for the sake of all girls and all people who might use it as a map.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
It has to be the story of meeting Ronald Teasdale — who became The Human Network’s co-founder. We met by chance, both cross-legged on a hardwood floor at the house of a mutual friend, out in Los Angeles. He was about to leave the country — and society, literally — to live in distant places with Buddhist monks and shamans. I told him about a community project I was creating called The Human Network. Astonished — he’d had the identical project vision, it had been his long-term plan — he dropped his disappearance trip, and stayed. And we’ve been merging all we can into the project ever since.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Are you working on any meaningful nonprofit projects?
My nonprofit work became serious after I participated in The Landmark Forum, a training program of the global personal and professional development company Landmark. A few months ago, I started Landmark’s Self Expression and Leadership Program. We were given the task of creating a community service project to benefit a population we cared about. This assignment was the impetus for creating The Human Network. A charitable and educational non-profit organization, the Network shares knowledge and resources, for all humanity. Whether it’s providing immediate housing, food, and medical care for victims of natural disasters, removing plastic waste from our oceans, teaching kindergarten students to read, creating self-sustaining gardens and farms in previously vacant lots — the network of humans is a mechanism of generating humanism, with digital speed.
On Sept. 27, I appeared on The Young Turks Network with global philosopher Deepak Chopra to share the news of The Human Network’s creation. I had never met Deepak Chopra before that day, but he was so impressed by the work we were doing that he set up another meeting with our team. On Oct. 18, Deepak had us on his Facebook Live, where he announced live on the air, to all his fans, that he was giving The Human Network a channel on his new wellbeing network, Jiyo. Obviously, we were thrilled. Later, his chief technologist announced that Deepak’s team was giving us their 150 web developers to help code The Human Network — for free. It was the greatest gift, still unbelievable.
Aspen Matis with Deepak Chopra
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
The Human Network’s projects are humanism in practice. For example, “In One Minute” creates digital identities of the planet’s displaced, restoring the humanity and dignity of refugees, 1.1 billion Invisibles. The “Black Men in America Project” is a viral dance film project that creates opportunities for black men to design their own initiatives of self-expression to experience their great creative power. “Next Best Step” teaches inmates computer programming as a vocation.
The Human Network’s greater structure, the social network, is not live yet. Once active, our homepage will display an interactive map of our planet. When someone arrives at the page, they will have the power to edit the map. In doing so, they literally alter the world. For example, maybe there is a need for housing in your community. You create your own small spec of light, and now the whole world can see it. Zoom into different areas to see their needs; search suggested roles you can take on to help. Using The Human Map will be fun — an interactive way to scan the planet, to see where you can change it.
Do you have a role model who is a mentor, someone who deserves your recognition?
I do, and it is no secret. She is the reason I was first published when I was 22, the reason I know what I am doing in New York city, daily. Her name is Susan Shapiro, and her “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long School of Journalism” is how I found my place in the universe, and got my start.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
1. To a journalist who is just starting out, I’d say: Writing spawns writing. Ideas trigger ideas. Thus, one day off truly is two days lost. My process is simply to show up every day, with all of my intelligence. I write every single day, unless I’m sick. My other advice is to follow the thread of your fascination, no matter how faint.
2. To victims of sexual assault, or any violence: Your rape was not your fault. In other words: Short-shorts don’t cause rape; mascara doesn’t cause rape. Alcohol doesn’t even cause rape. The only thing that causes a rape is a rapist. It is really that simple. You didn’t cause it; you can truly forgive yourself.
3. To any scientist, artist, or thinker, I’d advise to follow your mind’s particular thread: Ask the questions you truly wonder, and need to know. The admission of not knowing is the necessary precondition of all discovery.
4. To everyone on planet Earth: No less than once a week, zoom out. Ask yourself: What am I committed to, beyond myself? And, next: Is the greatest bulk of the substance of my life powerfully aligned with this commitment — consistent with my principles and values? (By the way, I went to The Landmark Forum to inquire into this, a profound opportunity.)
5. Your “competitors” are actually your collaborators. Everyone is your team. Your team is actually the world, if you’ll only accept it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Yes! Lorde. I think she’s beautiful and brilliant, a rhythmic poet and underdog star. And I’d love to actually know her.