It’s unfortunate that Aspen Matis’ memoir Girl In The Woods comes at the same time, and with such a similar title, as A Walk In The Woods, the Robert Redford-Nick Nolte film based on the memoir of a writer who walked the Appalachian Trail. Then there’s the success of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild—the “young woman finding herself in nature” story is in danger of becoming cliché. But these books have little in common besides a walking woman at the center.
On her second night of college, Matis was raped. After completing a tortuous semester, she goes to the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail at the Tijuana-California border, determined to walk its full length to Canada, some 2,650 miles through deserts, woods, and mountains. And people. For Matis, the journey is both about reclaiming her body for herself and learning to trust people again, especially the men she meets as a vulnerable hiker. The initial start is full of symbolism that might seemed clichéd were it not described with the sort of painstaking honesty found in private diaries—and it seems Matis leaves nothing out. After describing her rape, she depicts the hopeless recourse offered by her college (none, basically), and unflinchingly recalls her first dramatic experience in the desert, setting off without any water through more miles than she can survive without it. Her naiveté is painful but relatable as she walks through the desert growing increasingly dehydrated and desperate, even delirious. Then she experiences her first “trail magic”: A shelf full of jugs of water, placed by an unknown local for hikers traveling through a waterless stretch of land. It’s a nice anecdote, providing a baseline for Matis to grow from.
The rest of the book doesn’t read as poignantly as these opening chapters, however. After her desperate, thirsty night, Matis carries a satellite phone, calling her mother every night to tell her she’s safe and give her GPS coordinates. So later in the book, when Matis winds up on a snowy mountain with no food, starving and freezing, the stakes don’t reach the same heights. “There was no one here to save me now,” she writes, but that’s not true. It’s one of the few times Matis seems to exaggerates her real-life experiences for the sake of a better story, robbing the narrative of its real power.
The power of Girl In The Woods doesn’t come from her survival of nature’s extremes, anyway. It comes from her slow reckoning with her rape and her halting but forward evolution on how she sees herself and understands her own abilities to survive, in the wilderness, but mostly with herself. That internal struggle is compounded by her privileged but unhappy upbringing. Matis’ childhood is as fascinating as it is downright odd: She might fit into the category of “weird rich girl,” the classmate who was picked on for her peculiar clothes and lack of social skills. The youngest sibling and only daughter, she was dressed by her mother until she was 16 years old. Matis’ mother imbued her daughter with a complete dependency on her; during Matis’ first time at sleep-away camp in the fourth grade, she didn’t change clothes or wash her hair for a month because she didn’t know how. Her mother “took this as evidence that I couldn’t be trusted to take care of myself,” writes Matis, “and immediately took over showering me once I returned home, instead of leaving me to wash my own hair.”
Abundant privilege and helicopter parents can offer these kinds of devastating results. While the latest news piece about parents too involved in their kids’ lives might make the reader scorn the parents instead of pitying their offspring, Matis’ forthright examination into her childhood is an exploration of that damage, and it’s horrifying. The stories she shares—the many ways her mother made her feel like she couldn’t do anything, and the way she responded when told her daughter got raped—are fascinating and intriguing, but Matis stops her self-interrogation short of examining her incredible privilege. At times she seems tone-deaf to the wealth that makes her trip possible—not all rape survivors have wealthy families to fund their child’s treks—and a few clumsy attempts to acknowledge her parents’ “gifts” to her don’t cut it. But when Matis narrows her focus to the effects of her mother’s damaging parenting philosophies and her own personal reckoning with them, the material is mostly engaging.
Girl In The Woods is eminently compelling, and taken as a whole is a valuable portrait of an actual human’s experience that hides in a rape statistic. It’s also a thick book that could be a lot shorter: Parts are overwritten with needless bloat, the excess detracting from the core experience Matis is writing about. Passages tend to go on long; she writes the same thing twice but with different language, sometimes experiencing the same moments of clarity or insight several times over. The sense of Matis’ external drama, with the safety net of her satellite phone and her rich parents, diminishes as the story goes on. That’s mostly okay, because the drama that gives her memoir its shape is the internal struggle, not the external one.