People have this very proprietary feeling about her. The makeup artist at the "Today" show says how wonderful it is to see her looking so well. Al Roker, passing in the hallway, enfolds her in a sudden hug. A crew member sees her walk by, clasps her hand and says, "God bless you." She's never met any of them before, yet they all feel they know her, that they helped urge her on and are therefore allowed to cheer her victory even though, until now, they didn't know her name.
Her name is Trisha Meili. Simply to print those words, to hear them on television and see them on the cover of her new book, is a seismic thing. If she'd died after being attacked, as her doctors warned she very well might, her name would have appeared in every newspaper and newscast. But because she'd been not only beaten into a coma, but also raped, the press preserved her anonymity, as it typically does for victims of sexual assault. For 14 years, through her arduous recovery from grave injuries, her testimony at two trials, her return to work and retreat from the media spotlight, she was simply called the Central Park jogger.
The people close to her, so long accustomed to guarding her privacy, feel an odd twinge when they hear her identified. And there was "some hand-wringing," a friend says, by family members who wondered why she'd want to go public now, at age 42. Didn't she want to live a normal life?
Meili herself is braced for the possibility that some unpleasantness could materialize. "What if someone comes up who doesn't have that loving concern?" she wonders. "Someone who says, 'What the hell are you doing? You're just trying to get publicity! What were you doing running in the park at night anyway?' " She's trying to prepare herself.
But so far, it's been a lovefest, long delayed. "There's something about this story that has touched people in a very personal way," Meili says. "They'll stop me and say, 'I just want you to know I prayed for you.' 'I'm glad to see you doing well.' It's such a heartwarming thing for me." And it persuades her that she's made the right decision, that finally reclaiming her name and telling her story might help other people with severe brain injuries, other women who were raped.
"It's been a wonderful progression to watch," Linda Fairstein, former chief of the Manhattan district attorney's sex crimes unit, says of Meili's progress and her growing openness. Fairstein oversaw the prosecution of Meili's alleged assailants in 1990 and has since worked with her in a local program for sexual assault victims.
"I've seen thousands of women recover from this trauma, but what I say means nothing compared to hearing it from Trisha," Fairstein says. "When I see her running again, I'm a tough old prosecutor, but it brings tears to my eyes."
A Good Face on Things Meili does look terrific, even with more makeup slathered on her thin face than she prefers, courtesy of NBC. Feathery streaked-blond hair hides nearly all the scars from her multiple skull fractures; her enormous eyes betray no hint of the surgical skill required to reconstruct the once-shattered socket on the left. A slight indentation remains on that cheek, but most of her remaining deficits (a word she dislikes: "Why is everybody worried about what I can't do?") are invisible. She's lost her sense of smell, for instance, and, when she's fatigued, experiences double vision in one eye; trouble with balance sometimes throws her gait off.
Her style is cheery, relentlessly upbeat, but she's conscious of working hard to focus her thoughts, to sharpen her memory; before her "Today" interview with Katie Couric, she sat alone with a sheaf of notes, prepping. Her husband, Jim Schwarz, accompanying her on her promotional rounds, sits in on this interview in her publisher's office after the show, and not only to lend moral support. She sometimes has to fumble for a fact or word, though the effort is more evident to her than to a listener, and "he remembers things."
Some memories, however, can't be retrieved. Meili (pronounced MY-lee) has never been able to recall what happened on the night of April 19, 1989, or indeed for weeks thereafter, and her medical team tells her she never will.
Plenty of other people remember, though. The attacks on Meili and on seven other people in Central Park that night followed a series of high-profile crimes in 1980s New York, several with sickening racial elements. The city itself felt divided and besieged, and this latest horror, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo said, brought "the ultimate shriek of alarm."
The location itself helped fuel international attention; the same incidents, had they taken place in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, wouldn't have carried such resonance. So did all the subsequent discussion of "wilding," a coinage used to described throngs of teenagers descending on random passersby, beating up and ripping off cyclists and dog-walkers and workers, apparently mostly for excitement and group validation. The class and racial undertones were evident: The jogger was 28, a white Salomon Bros. investment banker with degrees from Wellesley and Yale; those accused of attacking her were black high school kids from Harlem who seemed, in videotaped confessions, not remorseful but matter-of-fact, sometimes even jocular.
The brutality of the attack also contributed to the city's collective shudder. The jogger had not only been raped but cut and beaten so severely that she lost 75 to 80 percent of the blood in her body. Her head, smashed with a brick or pipe, swelled until she was nearly unrecognizable to friends arriving at Metropolitan Hospital to identify her. The damage to her brain seemed to preclude a return to normal cognitive functioning. "This neuro specialist was called in and told her family it would be better if Trisha died, because if she lived she'd be a vegetable," recalls Ardith Eicher, a close friend since they were freshmen at Wellesley. "It was very grim."
Beyond the hospital where Meili lay comatose for 12 days, she was both heralded as a scrappy heroine who refused to die, and criticized for taking a foolhardy risk. The police were praised for quick arrests and also condemned for racism. Ugly charges and countercharges continued for weeks, picked up again during two trials the following year that convicted five teenagers in the attack, and then abated as they were sent to prison and the jogger went about her long process of recovery.
Suddenly last year, as Meili was working on "I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility" (it appeared in bookstores last week), the dreadful case erupted all over again. Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist serving a long prison sentence, claimed he alone had raped and beaten the jogger, and DNA tests showed that his was the previously unidentified semen found on her clothing and in her body. "I was a monster," Reyes said.
After months of investigation, the district attorney asked a court to overturn the five men's convictions. Now 28 to 30 years old, having already served terms ranging from seven to 13 years, they've had their names cleared -- and their lawyers recently announced that they will each sue prosecutors and the police department for $50 million.
There are times when Meili wishes she could bring some clarity to all this. "I want to be able to say, look, this is what happened," she says. That she can't produces "a feeling of helplessness."
On the one hand, Reyes says he acted alone; on the other, her doctors are convinced that her extensive injuries resulted from multiple assailants. And yes, the judge vacated five men's convictions because the new evidence would have affected their trials, but no, he didn't say they were innocent. A panel commissioned by the city police concluded in January that "the most likely scenario" was that the five had indeed participated in her attack. If the young men were innocent, then their convictions only add to the tragedy that night, she believes.
"It's very, very murky and I don't know what the truth is; I'm never going to know," Meili says. "I have to be able to be at peace with that."
But she also thinks that not knowing, "having no memory of that trauma . . . is a blessing." Through her work with sexual assault victims, she's spoken with many other women who were raped and remember it all too vividly. "I see how devastating that is," she says. "I can't imagine what it would be like to have gone through that and to constantly have it on your mind." Unlike many survivors, "I don't have nightmares," she says. "I don't have flashbacks."
Which left her free to concentrate, when she left the hospital after nearly two months for a rehab center in Connecticut, on getting better. She calls the process "a rebirth" because, like a small child, she had to learn all over again to walk, to button a shirt, to add and subtract.
Things That Matter The same competitive drive that had propelled her through elite schools and to high-powered Salomon Bros. proved critical at Gaylord Hospital. She arrived in a wheelchair, able to hold a lucid conversation but not able to remember what she'd read in a book as soon as she turned to the next page. But she was fiercely focused.
"I don't know how or why, but I never said, 'Why did I go running? Why did that happen to me? If only.' I didn't do that to myself," she says. She concentrated on minor milestones, like being able to use tweezers to move metal pegs from one part of a drilled wooden board to another -- and moving more pegs than she had two days before. "You go in such small stages," she acknowledges. "But I'd see progress and for me that was very therapeutic."
A bad day was being told to draw the face of a clock and not remembering whether it was the long hand or the short one that indicated the hour. A good day was the first time she could apply mascara, a sign of improved manual dexterity.
Maybe the best day was a summer Saturday when she joined members of the Achilles Track Club, an organization for disabled runners, in the Gaylord parking lot. "One man was in a wheelchair. One had spina bifida and was on crutches. . . . I remember thinking, if they can do this with their challenges, I can do it, too." So she ran -- just a quarter-mile loop around the lot, unsteadily and at a pace that made her wonder if what she was doing was more like fast walking -- but she completed the loop. "Look what I can do and how good it feels," she remembers exulting. "I had the sense 'It's going to get better.' "
Can anybody so devastated really be this ceaselessly positive? The only anger Meili seems to allow herself is aimed, first, at a defense attorney whose cross-examination seemed to brand her as promiscuous, and second, at people who still ask why she was running at night in the park. (Her book discloses that she'd had anorexia since high school, and links her running to the compulsion to control her weight. But she's also quick to point out that rape happens at all places and times.)
Even close friends say that yes, this is a person who insists on seeing a half-full glass. "I never saw a time where she was angry or why-me," says Ardith Eicher. If Meili ever yielded to despair or rage, "it was in very, very private moments."
The bulk of her recovery, a continuing process, took place in five months. She left Gaylord and returned to work at Salomon, though in administrative jobs that left her somewhat restive.
She testified twice at trials where courtroom artists sketched a woman in a purple suit and a blurred-out face. "It takes tremendous guts to do it," says Fairstein. But prosecutors "felt it critical that the jury see and hear from Trisha." As a witness, Meili was "enormously intelligent, very measured, no hysterics," Fairstein says. "People empathized with her."
Two years after her attack, she visited friends in southern New Jersey, and went for a run. "She went off like she'd never been injured," her startled host Bob Herber recalls. A couple of years later, she ran the New York City Marathon in a very respectable 4 1/2 hours.
And she married Jim Schwarz, a sales consultant whom she met through Eicher, on a Connecticut beach on a glorious fall afternoon in 1996, a joyful day.
Yet as the years passed, Meili says, she began to feel unfulfilled at Salomon Bros., overwhelmed at a subsequent job heading a nonprofit housing group, more inclined toward using her own experiences. A few tentative speaking engagements before sympathetic groups, sometimes still without using her name, had touched her listeners.
Along with the thousands of letters and gifts and prayerful messages the Central Park jogger had received during her years of nameless fame, she'd gotten a stack of offers from publishers. Perhaps it was time to respond. "She said she'd been thinking for a long time, three or four years, that she wanted to tell people, and New Yorkers in particular, that she'd survived and survived very well," says Joni Evans, the literary agent Meili met. "She thought she owed an accounting, and a thank-you."
When Evans began talking to publishers, some offered to buy a book whose author remained anonymous. Meili "thought, 'No, it's time to stand up,' " her agent reports. "She was sort of ready to come out. She was hidden for so many years."
The Long Run This is a different Trisha Meili from the driven young woman who went for her nightly run in 1989, and not only because, as she writes in her book, "mentally, I will never be the same as I was before." She's also more inclined to follow her own inclinations. Sharing her saga, traveling to promote the book (she comes to Olsson's at 12th and F streets in Northwest Washington on Tuesday), putting her name and face before the public despite her family's trepidations, "this was Trisha listening to herself," Eicher says.
Other audiences might want to hear her speak, Meili thinks. She could talk to people in rehab and their families, to doctors and therapists. She could talk to rape survivors and their counselors, perhaps to college students and corporations. She has a gospel of sorts to spread, about the effect the mind can have on even a broken body.
"I watched my body transformed, and I thought, 'There's something else going on, some other force, some other power,' " she explains. Not a religious person, she doesn't invoke God, but she does have faith and thinks she may be able to inspire faith in others. They tell her so. They say that seeing her walk into an auditorium makes them think that maybe they can abandon their wheelchairs, too; that hearing about how she recovered from a sexual assault means that they can also survive and one day tell their own stories.
"Now that I've gained more confidence in myself, let me tell you about me," she wants to say to people. "This journey, this process of healing, I don't think it's unique. Other people can do it, too."