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April 28, 2019
By Matia Burnett
A survivor finds empowerment through writing and self-publishing.

Jennifer Asbenson developed survival skills early on in her life. She says that growing up in rural Southern California, her family had no water or electricity. “We lived on a lonesome mountain away from civilization.” She describes living with a mother who was “physically and emotionally abusive,” adding, “I was ashamed and embarrassed about that.” As a result of her circumstances, she relied on her imagination for sustenance and escape: “Rain became ‘shower time.’ Storytelling replaced TV. Daydreaming often shielded me from reality.”

Asbenson didn’t know then that her practiced self-reliance and resilience would end up saving her life. In 1992, when she was 19 years old, she accepted a ride from a stranger who appeared friendly but who quickly became violent and aggressive. The attacker drove from Desert Hot Springs, Calif., to the nearby desert, where he pulled a gun, bound and gagged Asbenson, and attempted to rape her. After he tortured her and put her in the trunk of the car, she managed to escape, flagging down help from a vehicle passing on the road.

The horror of that day pressed on, as many in law enforcement, and even people Asbenson knew didn’t believe her about the attack. But, five years later, her captor, Andrew Urdiales, was arrested. He confessed to attacking Asbenson and to murdering eight other women. In 2018, Urdiales hung himself in his cell while awaiting the death penalty.

Years after the experience, still navigating her trauma, Asbenson decided to tell her story in writing, finding solace in the protective space of her furnished split-level tree house in her backyard. For years, Asbenson had thought about writing a book, though she imagined that she would need a ghostwriter. But the desire to recount her experiences intensified: “I realized if I did not trust myself enough to write it, it would never be written.”

Asbenson’s outpouring of thoughts and emotions became her memoir, The Girl in the Treehouse. Though her escape from Urdiales is a central piece of the story, she reflects on other formative events—notably her turbulent upbringing and the psychological impacts of her childhood on her adult life.

"Every writer is different. I lived in the tree house for one year to write my book. Before I wrote each day, I’d light candles and incense. I’d pour wine or smoke a little marijuana."
The book is also a meditation on the process of writing through trauma. Asbenson says she followed a very particular routine to ensure that her creative space felt safe enough for her to expose her wounds: “Every writer is different. I lived in the tree house for one year to write my book. Before I wrote each day, I’d light candles and incense. I’d pour wine or smoke a little marijuana.” She adds that as difficult as it was to persevere through the pain of recounting her day of horror, “I am my most creative when I am enveloped in emotional turmoil.”

As Asbenson worked on the book, she shared sample chapters on social media, receiving encouragement and feedback from beta readers. “A new chapter was published each Friday, and I developed a small following,” she recalls. “The chapters were saturated with errors, but nobody really minded.” She notes that when it came time to revise and edit, she hired an expert: “I cannot stress the importance of hiring professionals.”

Asbenson says that as terrifying as that day in the desert was, she would not change the circumstances that have led her to where she is today. “I learned a lot from the experience; I gained empathy and sympathy for other survivors. If I had not gotten in that car and survived, I would not try to empower other survivors; I would not be a voice for them; I would not inspire them and tell them there is hope.”

Asbenson continues her advocacy for victims, making appearances in a number of media outlets—most recently on the Dr. Phil show. As someone who has found solace through the creative process, she encourages other survivors of trauma to do the same.

First, Asbenson advises writers to be prepared for the resurgence of sometimes overwhelming emotions—“have a therapist on speed dial.” But, she says, once secure in an isolated space, “lose your pride and bleed freely.” She adds, “If you do not suffer in the process, you should not be telling your story.”