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Trisha Meili: Going the Distance

Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine

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Going the Distance
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On the 20th anniversary of her attack, Trisha Meili — known in the media as the Central Park Jogger — continues sharing her personal best.

 

Trisha Meili remembers the first time she ran after her attack. Only two weeks out of a wheelchair and just 120 days after being raped, bludgeoned, and left unconscious in New York’s Central Park, she focused all her energy on moving forward, one step, then another and another.

The park
In the spring of 1989, New York City was a mess of violent statistics and raw nerves. This was pre-Guiliani when Times Square was more crack house than Disneyland. Perhaps as a backlash to this roiling social climate, thousands of people came out of the woodwork from across the country and the world to express their support for this young woman who was beaten so badly she was only identifiable by a ring she always wore — a circle of fine gold tied at the top in a gentle knot.

Trisha Meili was a 28-year-old overachiever working her way up the ladder as an investment banker at the financial firm Salomon Brothers. She had graduated with honors from Wellesley College and had two master’s degrees from Yale University. She says she was not a naturally gifted student, but in whatever she did, and for as long as she could remember, she pushed herself to be the best. She was also anorexic and an avid runner. After logging long hours at the firm, she never missed her nightly run through the park. It was her time to unwind, to let the day settle into perspective. And she found peace running in Central Park. In her New York Times bestselling memoir, I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility, she writes, "I remember running by myself, relishing the solitude and a feeling of ownership — it was my park. I belonged in the city spread out before me — it was my city. I had conquered challenges at work and made my body strong. I could run and run and nothing and no one could harm me."

She couldn't have known that the night of April 19, a group of more than 30 teenage boys would set off on a night of "wilding" — of random, gratuitous, hateful violence. And that a serial rapist was also roaming the park that night.

Past midnight, she was found tied up in the woods — her shirt knotted in her mouth and again around her hands in prayer position. She had a crack on the side of her head, deep lacerations on her scalp, and her eye had exploded from its socket. She was soaked in blood, unconscious, and her limbs were thrashing and jerking — the aftereffects of massive brain damage. The EMTs and the doctors at Metropolitan Hospital did not think she would live more than a few hours. The only part of her body that was not bruised were the soles of her feet.

Support and love
While Trisha lay in a coma, love and support for her mounted. Her parents and brothers — who found out about the attack the morning after from one of her co-workers who had identified her by her ring — kept vigil by her bed. Her colleagues visited often and extended generous financial support for her ongoing care. And from across the world, messages of shock and encouragement poured in for this nameless woman. Amidst the cascade of heartfelt letters and prayers, there was a banner from a running club in Alaska, a three-foot card from kids at Public School 27 in the Bronx, roses from Frank Sinatra, and running sneakers from marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson. For months and years, the letters continued and with some of these kind strangers Trisha later formed lifelong bonds. One such stranger, now a friend, read a passage from The Prophet at her 1996 wedding.

When Trisha was still in acute care, having emerged from her 12-day coma, she gave her doctor a high-five. To everyone who knew her, she was back. One of her friends later told her that the weak but definite slap from Trisha’s hand had sent a powerful message to her doctors. A person's most salient characteristic often rises to the surface during recovery, her doctor explained; Trisha's was undoubtedly determination.

"I've always been a very determined person, but I cannot emphasize enough the power of all the support I got from people who knew and loved me and from all those strangers," she says. She also underscored the fact that her medical care was as good as it can get. It was immediate and uninterrupted for the whole continuum of her care, which, she says, was a key to her successful recovery.

Media frenzy
During those first weeks — when Trisha went from having last rites administered to starting to communicate with "yes" and "no" cards — the media was like a pack of wolves that had to be restrained with ongoing effort. While they had dubbed her "the Central Park Jogger," the judicial system was already working on indicting the five teenagers who confessed to the brutal attack. [In 1989, the five juvenile males who were suspected of the assault were tried and convicted for the crime. In 2002, the convictions were vacated when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence for other crimes, claimed to have committed the crime alone. The DNA evidence confirmed his claim.]

Trisha has no recollection of the attack. In fact, she has a memory void of five-and-a-half weeks. Her doctor explained to her that full memory loss is universal with severe brain injuries. In his words from her memoir, Dr. Robert Kurtz says, "Each memory is implanted, initially as a result of an electrical phenomenon, and then after a few days it gets chemically imprinted on the brain cells, the latter being the more permanent memory storage, the electrical one being transient. Brain traumas — blows, then subsequent poor oxygenation of the brain — result in the wiping out of the recorded electrical impulses...the electrical moment never made it to the brain cells."

Part of her wishes she could remember what happened that night. She could not remember during the 1990 trials of the Central Park Five at which she testified, nor in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted serial rapist, claimed that he alone attacked her. DNA evidence put him at the crime scene. And until recently,  questions lingered. Did Reyes act alone? Were the Central Park Five involved? Were they coerced by police into confessing?

Most of the time, however, Trisha is grateful for her inability to remember what happened. It has spared her flashbacks, nightmares, and PTSD. "My memory of that night is like film that’s been overexposed, the pictures will never manifest," she says.

To comment or to share your story, contact Victoria Tilney McDonough at vmcdonough@weta.org.

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