Last summer, checking my email, I was surprised to find a message from Colorado College, a bold line in my inbox. I’d dropped out of that school six years earlier, after I had been raped on campus. I couldn’t imagine what they would have to say to me now. I hoped for a second it was a message of apology, saying that they finally believed me.
Instead, Colorado College wanted me to return — and to speak publicly about the assault they had denied when it first happened.
On the second day of my freshman year, before classes began and even before I’d removed my yellow and blue construction paper nametag from my door, I invited three other freshmen to my room. A fawn-eyed girl I’d met that day and two new boys. I was 18. It was a warm late August evening. We all watched The Breakfast Club. A boy rolled a joint, I put it in my lips. The movie ended and two of the kids left. I was wearing pale pink linen shorts. I felt quite pretty. When the boy who remained in the room turned to me, I’d smiled at his red hair; I happily kissed him. He seemed easygoing, poised. But then he gripped my thigh. My voice wavered as I said “bye.” Suddenly frightened, I didn’t want him to stay, but he became deaf. The slice of sky in my cracked window glowed black, dense as a bomb.
When I woke alone six hours later, the sky was a sheer flawless blue. Two red-black stains of blood marked my white cotton underwear. The bright sky defied the violence of the past night. In its glaring emptiness, I lay still.
Two dim weeks passed before I finally mustered the strength to cross a lawn to the office of the college’s sexual assault counselor. She offered me a blue lollipop and said, “Sit, hun.” By then, all physical evidence of my attack was gone. I had waited for too long, the counselor told me. She gave me peach-colored tissues for my tears. Together we decided to officially pursue the matter at the college instead of with police. The counselor typed up my account of the night and filed the papers for me.
We entered mediation, an internal Colorado College hearing at a long folding plastic table in the Student Center. No lawyer, no friends or parents present. My assailant and I testified separately, never together. In a beige conference room, I was questioned by two polite college-appointed mediators, submitting my memory. As if rape could be mediated like a playground fight. The mediator sat next to the mediator-in-training, who was cheery. She was “observing.”
On the final day of proceedings, the mediator confirmed with me, “You smoked dope with him.” Her voice was wary; she asked me, “No one else saw it?”
I verified that we were alone after the marijuana, when the rape happened. There were no witnesses in the room, I told her. I had no evidence; her statement was true. “We smoked a little,” I said. “But I tried not to inhale.”
She wrote something down. She held her eyes firm on the pad. “Marijuana is a hallucinogen,” she said softly. The tacit implication: I had hallucinated a rape.
Right there in the room, the mediator asked me if I would like to see my rapist’s testimony. The sexual assault counselor placed it in front of me: a single sheet of computer paper. It simply said that he and I had not had sex. I probably wanted to, the boy wrote, but he’d felt nothing.
The mediator said that by her judgment of the events of that night, what exactly had happened was “inconclusive.” The college found my rapist innocent. Therefore, I was guilty of lying.
One bright morning I learned the administration had moved the boy from his room across campus into my dormitory, the floor above me. When I called Campus Housing and asked to be farther away from him, they moved me into the stained cinderblock motel dorm beyond the edge of campus, in the shadowed lot behind the Conoco gas station. My dim room had a sewage leak. I felt exiled.
The only comfort I found was in planning to disappear. Maple leaves rusted, summer ending, the old order undisrupted. I made myself hot chocolate. I missed my mother. She begged me not to tell my grandma Florence, though Grandma was my only family living near campus. In fact, childhood summers with her were my reason for choosing Colorado College. Ever since I was 5, I would send her crayon drawings of the Colorado mountains where she lived. Now my mom believed hearing of my rape would devastate her mother. At dusk Monument Creek shimmered though the black trees, long and winding, a blue vein of water. I packed a backpack full of trail mix, and a tent.
With four weeks left of my freshman year, I dropped out — and flew west. I walked alone into the Sonoran Desert mountains, 300 miles south of California’s Mojave desert. A rust-brown corrugated metal fence rippled along the Mexican border as far as I could see. Three years before Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir that led to her movie Wild, I’d discovered the Pacific Crest Trail. I decided to walk from Mexico, northward toward Canada on the 2,650-mile footpath. I would hike the height of America. I would walk off the rape.
Over the next five months, I stepped high over basking rattlesnakes, trudged through heat, haunted. I relived my worst night, the way I’d happily let him stay. The way I’d told him to leave now, very softly. The way the boy who remained pressed his hand down on my leg. “Bye,” I had said to him. I’d smiled. I’d been very awkward, unsure in my speech.
Before the boy raped me, I’d wanted him to want to kiss me. This made me ashamed, as if my wanting to be kissed mitigated the fault of his sudden deafness. I was blaming my flirting for his felony. I screamed into sharp mountains to hear my voice echoing, there was no one to hear.
I passed quietly by black bears with their cubs. For a thousand miles I reimagined my passivity that night, sleeping nights in my tent’s shelter, a girl alone. I forded frigid and remote rivers as deep as I was tall and felt terror. I walked through the desert and into the woods. After months of quiet stepping, I crossed into Canada. I never returned to my college.
Instead I moved to New York and published essays about what happened that led to a memoir. Now this summer, six years later, the school that had silenced me not only acknowledged my rape — they wanted to pay $1,000 plus airfare and two nights in a fancy hotel, for me to come back to speak to current students about what happened.
In my tiny Greenwich Village bedroom, I considered their offer. My upcoming hardcover was listed in catalogues they must have seen. Were they star-chasers only interested because a publisher had validated me after similar stories in the news had caught fire? I fantasized that my old school would publically acknowledge their mistake. Cross-legged on crisp white bedsheets, I painted my nails red. I felt emboldened. I could speak publicly about my rape at the place where it occurred. I would do it, I wrote back. Yes.
A week later Grandma Florence mailed me a clipping from the Colorado Springs Gazette. The College called me a “New York Times correspondent” — an error. I was embarrassed. I had published only one essay in the Times, no reportage. The College didn’t mention I’d been raped there. Instead, they ambiguously called it, “a horrific trauma.” Instead of a dropout, I was now a successful “alumna” enhancing the prestige of their institution — not myself: a girl who had been raped on campus, who fled. They were obscuring me again.
I asked for corrections of the misinformation — explaining that I was not a graduate. The shocking vague “trauma,” was actually sexual assault. I told them I felt misrepresented by the incorrect information. They said they’d fix their mistakes. Yet posters with the original errors were printed and up all over campus. Online they changed “alumna” to “former CC student” and New York Times “correspondent” to “contributor” — but they left “a horrific trauma.” Still no rape.
Back at my old school, I stood before 100 people at the podium in a classroom lecture hall where I used to slump in the back row. The last time I was there I’d worn sweatpants and a backpack and sneakers. Now dressed in flowing red silk, my grandmother’s golden locket and heels, I felt larger and vivid, ready to be seen. I looked forward. I said it four times: Rape rape rape, rape. I told them that was what it was.
Halfway through speaking, I looked up in the room and saw Grandmother Florence, 91 — she’d surprised me by showing up. I smiled at her and she waved.
I spoke without interruption for a half hour, they listened. I read my story about what happened on my second night here at college; I cried for a breath – with my shoulders back, eyes open. When I exhaled, I looked out and kept going. A woman in the audience was crying.
I felt strong. I felt the power of the truth.
During the Q & A session, I answered everything all the female co-eds, and boys, and men and women in the audience asked me. I wished my 18-year-old self could have seen me back here, at 24, reading — speaking unapologetically. My grandma raised her hand; the host called on her. “I want everyone to know my granddaughter is also a great artist,” she announced. The room laughed. She smiled at me with pride.
The next day, a girl who must have been in the audience found me on Facebook and confided that she had also been raped at our school. She still hadn’t told anybody. She wrote that now she would.
The bravest thing I ever did was leave there. The next bravest thing I did was come back, to make myself heard.
Aspen Matis is the author of Girl in the Woods: A Memoir.