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Central Park jogger writes book about her life since attack

'How the hell did I survive?'

Saturday, March 29, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Nearly 14 years to the day after being brutally beaten and raped in an attack that horrified the nation, the woman known as the Central Park Jogger has written a book that reveals what many in her hometown of Upper St. Clair already know: Her name is Trisha Meili and she has made an extraordinary recovery.

But her triumph over the attack -- which Meili doesn't remember -- has been dimmed by the reopening of the case last year, which made her "relive the horror as I had not lived it before," she writes.

Meili's identity, which has been known to many in the news media, has not been published by the Post-Gazette because of its policy against naming rape victims.

But on April 8, she plans to reveal her identity in a book, "I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility," published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. The book's cover shows a photograph of Meili, now 42 years old and a fine-boned, bright-eyed woman with short blond hair and a big smile.

It is a face still remembered by some in Upper St. Clair, the affluent South Hills suburb where Meili grew up and graduated, at the top of her class, from high school 25 years ago before moving on to dazzle her professors and her bosses in academia and business.

That ascent ended violently April 19, 1989, when she was beaten into a coma while running in Central Park. Five teenagers who made incriminating videotaped statements to police about the attack were convicted of the crimes. Their families, however, strongly proclaimed their innocence during a circus-like trial in the summer of 1990, citing DNA tests that failed to connect them to the crime.

In her book, which was excerpted yesterday in the New York Daily News, she writes that she was determined to testify at the trial, even though her doctors and family advised against it. But, she said, she wanted to send a message to her attackers: "If you tried to put me down you are not getting away with it."

Last year, DNA tests instead linked the crime to Matias Reyes -- a self-described "monster" already in prison for murder and serial rape convictions. He claimed he acted alone. "I just had to have her," he told prosecutors in a surprise confession that prompted them to ask a judge to throw out the earlier convictions.

Last December, the judge complied, but over the protests of police, who defended their initial investigation and said it was still possible that the teens had participated with Reyes in the attack.

Meili's hard-earned peace was shaken by the news, "which left me too stunned to respond," she writes in her book.

"Reyes became real to me in a way the five had not. I didn't want to see him in the papers or hear him talk on the television. He had murdered a woman and raped more, forcing some at knife point to make a choice: 'Your eyes or your life.' How the hell did I survive?"

She remains uneasy about Reyes' truthfulness, and feels "helpless, not as a victim, but as someone who wants to contribute to the truth. Part of my being at peace with the events of April 19, 1989, however, is accepting that I will never know."

In earlier reports, Meili's publicists had said the decision to write a book was made before the new evidence became available. Meili decided to go ahead, said Pat Eisemann, because she thought it would help other victims overcome trauma.

The book's publication -- and Meili's impending book tour, which will bring her to the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland on April 17 -- ends years of living relatively anonymously, in a tightly controlled zone of privacy that her family and friends said was essential for her recovery.

Meili, who now lives in Stamford, Conn., is the daughter of John and the late Jean Meili of Upper St. Clair. Jean Meili died two years ago.

But even as late as last week, when Meili's plans to reveal her identity became known, people in that enclave of large homes and well-tended lawns hesitated to speak about her.

"We've all been aware of it, since the crime first happened," said Doug Watkins, the township's manager. "But it's not something commonly talked about, out of respect for her family, who are fine people."

In the years after the attack, the Meilis put up a courageous front, said Watkins. Jean Meili, a member of the community's school board, graciously deflected questions about her daughter's health, always accepting condolences but never revealing much. "Her mother was a tough, brave lady."

The youngest of three children -- brother Stephen, lives in Madison, Wis., and brother William, in Dallas -- Meili grew up on Salem Drive in Trotwood, one of Upper St. Clair's older neighborhoods, a post-war cul-de-sac of substantial stone houses and two-acre lots.

Throughout her youth, she excelled at everything she tried. She was a National Honor Society member, treasurer of student council, president of the Leader's Club and editor-in-chief of the school paper. After graduating in 1978, she headed to Wellesley College, where she earned a degree in economics, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and won a raft of prizes. At graduate school at Yale University she kept up the pace, earning a master's in business administration in finance and a master's in international relations. She also made it to the final rounds of selection as a Rhodes scholar before being eliminated, a minor setback in what was otherwise an academic career overflowing with honors.

She was curious about the world, too, working as a summer intern at the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe and at a Boston shelter for abused women. After Yale, she joined the legions of other young, ambitious people who flocked to Wall Street in the 1980s, eventually becoming a vice president at the investment banking firm Salomon Brothers.

Meili's drive to achieve had its price: In her book, she reveals she started battling anorexia when she was 15, and didn't overcome the disease until she was in her early 20s. Later, while working long, intense days on Wall Street, she would run six to seven miles every night in Central Park, ignoring its reputation as a dangerous haven for criminals. Later, in psychotherapy, she saw the connection between her "compulsive need to run" and her anorexia, she writes, but at the time, she was oblivious to it.

She also takes responsibility for her decision to run in a particularly isolated area off of the trail that loops around Central Park on the night of her attack.

"I don't blame myself for making it [the decision], though I never, ever imagined that the run would have the result it did. I understand why I was out there."

There, she was brutally raped, beaten and left for dead. She suffered skull and facial fractures and lost three-fourths of her blood. Doctors at Metropolitan Hospital expected her to die, but attributed her survival to the cold weather and the cold mud that she lay in for more than 4 1/2 hours before being discovered, which reduced internal swelling.

"I was bruised on every part of my body except for the soles of my feet," she wrote.

After coming out of a coma, she was transferred to a Connecticut hospital for a long, hard rehabilitation, struggling with amnesia, double-vision and dizziness. The recovery was watched with intense interest by people who knew her parents.

"We were concerned when it seemed like she might not recover, and elated when we learned that she would survive," said Watkins.

In the years since, Meili has been hiding in plain sight, going about her daily life without being bothered or recognized.

After leaving Salomon Brothers in 1996, where she worked as business manager after returning there in 1990, she took a job as head of The Bridge Foundation in New York, which helps people recovering from traumatic events. She's married to Jim Schwarz, a sales consultant she met seven years ago on a blind date.

While she still has a slight limp and occasionally suffers memory loss, she says she is thriving. And in the course of her recovery, she learned much about how positive thinking, prayers and family support can help.

"I have learned that healing is as much a function of the heart as it is of medicine," she writes.

Some of the book's proceeds will go to groups that helped Meili with her rehabilitation. She hopes the book will help other victims understand how important it is to stay focused on what life is like now, not on what might have been.

"I work in the present to make my reality as good as it could be," she writes. "I have the capacity to be generous and to love. Rather than take away those attributes, the attack allowed me to find them in myself. For that I am grateful."

She also has run again through Central Park. In 1995 she completed the New York Marathon, whose course moves through the park, in 4 1/2 hours. "I had reclaimed my park, I knew I would finish," she wrote.

Two years ago, Meili returned to Upper St. Clair High School to be honored as a member of its alumni hall of fame. There's a photograph of her on the school's Web site. She's wearing sunglasses, her blonde hair is tousled and she looks as though she's outdoors.

And, she's grinning.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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