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Gary Younge
'How the hell did I survive?'

With both the name and image of the survivor protected, the Central Park Jogger was transformed from an individual tale of suffering and survival into a signifier of urban meltdown and moral collapse. Two years after the release of Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities, the case symbolised everything that was wrong with New York - sexual violence, crime, alienation and racial division. A city undermined by insecurity, underpinned by inequality and both driven and riven by greed.

Now the Central Park jogger has decided to go public. No longer frozen in the popular consciousness as an emblem of what could happen to a woman on a dark night during a dark period for New York, Trisha Meili, 42, has emerged as a woman who can describe the horrific experience but refuse to be defined by it.

"Who I am today... is a survivor named Trisha Meili who may still not be able to walk steadily or see without double vision or be able to juggle too many ideas at once in her mind," she writes in a memoir entited, I am the Central Park Jogger: A story of Hope and Possibility, which is due to be released in the US on Monday. "But 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."

Meili made a recovery described by doctors as "miraculous". Now married and living in a suburb of Connecticut, she returned to work eight months after the attack and has since run the New York City marathon, taking her back through Central park. "I had reclaimed my park, I knew I would finish," she says.

But even as she stepped forward to relive her ordeal in print, the case returned to public attention in the courts. Last September an imprisoned murderer and serial rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed that he alone attacked Meili. Tests later showed a DNA match. The five young men originally convicted of the crime were then acquitted and released in December.

The five men, aged between 14 and 16 at the time, had all completed prison terms of between seven and 12 years for crimes it appears they did not commit, sentences secured on confessions they say were extracted from them under duress. Even as Meili seeks to put the past behind her with the publication of her book, the new chapter in the long story of miscarriage of justice and racist policing at the hands of the New York police department is being written.

"We were angry and frustrated in 1989," Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and now president of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, told the New York Times. "And we're frustrated and bewildered in 2002. I think they're both bad."

Back in 1989 Meili was a vice-president at the investment banking firm, Salomon Brothers. She would run six or seven miles a night to unwind from the pressures of Wall Street. The youngest of three children who grew up in suburban Pennsylvania she had always been a high achiever with a curious edge. After finishing a degree in economics she went to Yale to get an MBA as well as a master's in international relations.

But even as she aimed for the long hours and high pay of the corporate world at the beginning of the Reagan years, she sought to develop interests away from her career - working as a summer intern in the American embassy in Zimbabwe and at a Boston shelter for abused women.

But the desire to succeed took its toll from a relatively early age. In her book she writes of the battles she had with anorexia from the age of 15 and into her mid-twenties. Later, in psychotherapy, she would acknowledge the connection between her eating disorder and her "compulsive need to run."

When Meili set off for her run on April 19, 1989 she says she was aware of Central Park's reputation as a crime hotspot. At that time the whole of New York was synonymous with crime and poverty. One in four New Yorkers classified as poor - a figure unequalled since the Depression. The growth in wealth and number of a super-rich elite alongside them began to unpick the very social fabric of the city. The subway was covered in graffiti. Times Square, one of the main thoroughfares, had become a red light district. It was a meltdown best exemplified by the phenomenon of "wilding" - in which gangs of young men would stalk the streets harrassing people at will and whim.

Wherever the spectre of crime lurked, issues of race were never far behind. It was the year when black Democrat David Dinkins won the mayoralty against Rudolph Giuliani with the narrowest victory in city history. It was an election that was split crudely down racial lines. Dinkin's manifesto was "Safe Streets, Safe City: Cops and Kids."

Meili's run took her into an isolated area of the park that night. "I don't blame myself for making [the decision], though I never, ever imagined that the run would have the result that it did. I understand why I was out there," she says.

What she could not have known was that Matias Reyes was midway through a year-long rampage against women of the Upper East Side that night when he saw her. Reyes, who has described himself as "a monster", said he was in the park because he had "that feeling".

"I just had to have her," he has said. Meili was listening to music on her personal stereo when she veered left by 102nd Street and Reyes pounced. He asked for her address so that he could rob her apartment. When she refused he struck her several times with a rock and raped her. Meili suffered fractures to her skull and her face and lost three quarters of her blood. Doctors at the Metropolitan hospital said she was probably kept alive by the fact that she lay in cold mud for four and a half hours before being discovered, thus reducing internal swelling. She lay in a coma for 12 days, waking to find flowers from, among others, Frank Sinatra - her first notion that what had happened to her had made big news.

"I was bruised on every part of my body except for the soles of my feet," she writes in her book. News of the crime made a huge and immediate impact on the city. News that six black and Hispanic teenagers had been caught and had confessed - one was later released - drove the racial wedge even deeper.

"People who called themselves friends were reluctant to engage in conversation about the jogger in mixed company for fear that their white friends would associate them with the monsters of Central Park," wrote Wilbert Tatum in New York's black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, in October.

With the young men convicted Meili got on with her life as best she could. She still has a slight limp and occasionally suffers memory loss as a result of the attack. She left Salomon Brothers in 1996 and became head of the Bridge Foundation in New York, which helps people recovering from traumatic events. She later married Jim Schwarz, a sales consultant whom she met on a blind date.

Meanwhile, New York changed. While the poverty and racial divisions remain, much of the evidence of it was either priced out or physically moved out of Manhattan. As crime across the country dropped so it did in New York. Giuliani stood for mayor again a few years later and won, introducing zero tolerance of petty crimes, forcing beggars and sex workers out of Times Square and declaring war on squeegee merchants. Crime in the city fell by 63% but in Central Park it plummeted by 74% under his tenure.

Meili had already agreed to abandon her anonymity and write the book when Reyes' confession was made public last year. When the convictions of the five alleged rapists were quashed it became clear that while much in New York had changed, the rancour surrounding the case remains.

"They were convicted because the newspapers and media outlets saw blood," writes Tatum. "They saw young black men who had not reached their majority...and without evidence and with forced testimony of children, convinced white New York that some unruly black boys had done this terrible deed: They had beaten a white woman nearly to death. In addition to that, they had raped her."

In her book, Meili says she recalls nothing of the night she was attacked. Not remembering, she says, "makes me feel helpless not as a victim but as someone who wants to contribute to the truth". News of Reyes' confession, however, has chilled her. "Reyes became real to me in a way the five had not," she writes. "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?"

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