Beverly Donofrio’s Astonishing Journey: An Interview

By the time Beverly Donofrio had reached her fifties, she thought she had seen it all. She had already lived two lives, first as a scrappy young mother on the streets of the East Village and later as the bestselling author of memoirs, including Riding in Cars with Boys, which had been translated into sixteen languages and made into a popular motion picture. Now, she was living in a vibrant, picturesque Mexican town, in a home she had built herself, where she practiced yoga, drank margaritas on her terrace, danced salsa. Still, the religious practices that had nourished her for several years had faded and she felt lost. She missed God. Then, one night, she woke to find a serial rapist holding a knife in her bed. So begins Astonished: A Story of Healing and Finding Grace (Viking), an astonishing memoir that charts Donofrio’s journey–through denial, mourning, and anger to acceptance and peace. She retreats to five very different monasteries, questioning, often humorously, herself, her life, her faith., As Publishers Weekly writes in its review, ” . . . the simple act of asking questions proved a salve, as she depicts in this insightful, candidly unfolding, soul-bearing journey to grace.”

Beverly Donofrio

Beverly Donofrio was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

At the time you were raped, you had come to a point in your life in which you had started to question your faith. Do you think the rape accelerated your spiritual quest or did it fundamentally change its trajectory?

I belong to the school that says, Shit happens, so you may as well turn it to gold. Actually I may be the one who made that up. I am certain, though, that I heard this one in a sermon once: “Turn those potholes to stepping stones.” Even while in shock after the rape, I knew from a life filled with knockdowns that this experience was going to bring me to places I’d never imagined. I’ve been a seeker my whole life, wanting to grow, change, see things with different eyes. The quest turned spiritual in my forties, and it intensified and sped up when this thing I’d dreaded all of my life happened to me. The rape was an opportunity. Painful, yes, horrible, certainly. Would I change anything? No. It lit a fire under my ass. And I’m grateful for where I’ve landed.

Was there a moment when you realized that Astonished was a book-length memoir, as opposed to an essay or an article, or was that realization a gradual process?

Seems I need something traumatic to happen before I’ve the material and the drive to write a book-length memoir. For maybe a few months after the rape, I was in an altered state, wide open, with a hundred ideas flooding in, or out. One was for a children’s book in which this huge, monstrous-looking woodstove comes to life and does mean, menacing things. Most of my ideas were scary. It seemed to me that when I woke up to a rapist in my bed, evil had come to me, because to take away another’s will is evil. The terror didn’t leave me for a few years. I suffered from PTSD and would awake from nightmares certain there was in evil presence in the room.

In Astonished I try to come to some understanding of the presence of evil in a world I’d experienced as infused with and sustained by love. I hoped that this journey that brought me into the wilderness, where I read the mystics, meditated, reflected, prayed and was silent, so silent, would bring me to peace and understanding, and if it did, then it would take the classic form of the hero’s journey, of transformation, from darkness to light, a journey worthy of a full-length memoir. Yet I was open to the possibility of never writing about any of it if somehow for some reason the writing influenced or diminished the mystical experiences I was having and so longed to have.

I wrote an essay, by the way, almost immediately after I was raped, which appeared in O Magazine. It serves as a lesson in how not to write memoir. It was simply the facts, ma’am, just the facts–undigested. But it had a message I was absolutely passionate about spreading. When you are raped, you should stand up and tell people, because you have done nothing to be ashamed of, the rapist has. And it’s in the telling and the talking about it that the trauma loses its power. But writing, more than talking, is the surest way I know to heal, and I had to heal big time from this trauma. I give memoir-writing workshops around the country and a weekly workshop in my house, for which people are charged a fee. I’ve heard from participants, “This is better than therapy. And it’s cheaper.”

Sorry, I kind of ranged wide from the subject. But sometimes that’s the most fun in writing, sometimes that’s where you find your subject.

Your three children’s books, Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary; Where’s Mommy?; and Thank You Lucky Stars have been highly praised. Other than the obvious concerns of language and content, what’s the biggest difference between writing for adults and writing for children?

To write for children, I had to try to think like a child–to remember what it’s like to be a child–so I could write what would titillate and engage.

One theme that runs through your writing, including your children’s books, seems to be the struggle of the outsider to find a place in the world. Do you consciously explore this theme, or does it reveal itself to you?

That’s so interesting. I’ve never been aware of writing about the struggle to find a place in the world, although now that you mention it, I can see that it’s so. Especially in Mary and the Mouse and Thank You Lucky Stars. What I am conscious of writing about is what Hamlet said more eloquently than I ever could, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

What’s next for you?

I’ve moved a lot, and eventually, thankfully, I make a best friend each time I do. I’ve written a few of the stories of those friendships and am planning to write more, but I’m not a big fan of collections. I prefer reading sustained narratives, and it seems to me I should write what I like to read. So I want to figure out a way to stitch them into a seamless whole with a narrative arc. So far, I’ve only a vague idea of how I’ll do that. There’s actually more to this imagined book, but I’m forcing myself not to talk about it because I’m afraid to squander too much steam from the writing. Mystery creates interest and energy, not only for the reader but the writer too.

Boy, do I sound like a blowhard or do I sound like a blowhard? I think I’ve been teaching too much!

 

Trackbacks

  1. […] the time Beverly Donofrio had reached her fifties, she thought she had seen it all. She had already lived two lives, first as […]

  2. […] with Paul D. Brazil, Philippe Diederich, Beverly Donofrio, K.A. Laity, and Ben Parzabok. Visual Art by Francis Denis, Sarah Katharina Kay, Claudio Parentela, […]

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