My review of "Astonished" by Beverly Donofrio
Cloistered near Crestone, stranger in a strange land, sleeping or perhaps not, Beverly Donofrio suddenly feels “a weight on the mattress, a tug at the sheet.” Then, in the words of her memoir, “The rapist hovers over my bed, and I wake myself screaming.” Her cell-size cabin at Nada, a Carmelite Catholic hermitage, is isolated. Nobody can hear. “For a while, evil remains a presence in the room as real as a gaping door you know you’ve shut.”
Her reaction, which might come as a surprise to readers of her first memoir, the bestselling “Riding In Cars With Boys,” was prayer. She prayed to her beloved Mary, and she prayed the sacred words that monks sing to open each of their “hours” in Benedictine monasteries: ”God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.” She prayed for two hours until she was blessed with sleep.
Viking Press released her book in March with a long title – “Astonished: a story of evil, blessings, grace, and solace.” It comes at a time of worldwide focus on issues in the Church including the status of women in the patriarchy. It coincides with recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of the women’s movement. But it not polemical. It is a heartfelt testimonial by a writer with the verbal sensibility of a poet and the storytelling skill of a crime novelist.
The crime is rape. It happened to her at age 55 on the feast day of St. John of the Cross in San Miguel de Allende, the picturesque Spanish colonial town in Mexico favored by artistic expatriates. Donofrio had moved to there because of the advent of Mary in her life – the Virgin of Guadalupe pervades Mexican culture. She adores her as “the feminine side of a God who is sexless. . . a kiss on the top of my head, the sun in my heart.”
After years of struggle beginning in poverty as a teenage mother in lower Manhattan in the drug-saturated sixties, Donofrio now was able to build her own house and mingle daily with friends sipping margaritas and learning to paint santos. But soon, in her words, “God began to fade like fabric in the sun.”
Her spiritual search began anew with weekend retreats at tiny Soledad monastery near San Miguel. She began searching for places in the United States where she might stay longer and “fall in love with Christ.” The night of the rape she had been on the internet, as she puts it, “looking for a monastery to join, for Christ’s sake.”
He was a barrel-like local man, a perverted serial rapist adept at breaking and entering who preyed upon women in their fifties, beating those who resisted. There had been a half dozen rapes, but the police were complacent. When Donofrio awoke in her second-story bedroom with a knife at her throat she knew it was the town’s “one-man terrorist.”
The trauma that replayed that first night at Nada several years later was another visit by, in her words, “the evil that can come in dreams, in spirit, in the night, through fear.”
But there would be salvation. The book cover’s promise of “blessings, grace, and solace” is kept, and Donofrio lived it and wrote it during a subsequent year in retreat at Nada (Spanish for “nothing,” with reference to the “Nothing but God” of San Juan de la Cruz). She confesses: “My younger, sexually active, feminist self would have been horrified to see me sequestered in a shoe-box cabin in a monastery.”
Despite her reputation as the author of a memoir that became a “chick flick” in 2001 (starring Drew Barrymore as Beverly), her new one does not fit the feminist genre. For, just as the slogan of strident feminists fifty years ago was “The personal is political,” in this heartfelt book the personal is spiritual. And for an Italian-American girl, daughter of a police detective in Connecticut, the spiritual would be the Church.
But as with many other thoughtful Catholic women, her writing pushes the boundaries. Take her impression of the encounter at the desert well where Jesus asks the woman of Samaria to bring him water (John 4: 5-42), usually viewed by (male) scholars as important because it is the first direct revelation that Jesus is the Messiah and it shows his non-discrimination. In Donofrio’s view, however, it is “a sexy scene.”
She writes: “I think of the scene with the Samaritan woman, a disreputable woman, considered unclean, who Jesus talks to all alone, I think, a bit flirtatiously. He lets her know that he knows her, that he sees who she really is.” Donofrio is not alone in this interpretation by women in the Church of a vulnerable God, the Sacred Heart of Jesus of St. Gertrude.
It’s the spiritual the makes this book more than a story of crime and punishment. It is a story of “the dark night of the soul,” in the words, again, of St. John of the Cross. “Are these nightmares symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,” she asks in her cell at a place called Nada, “or are they spiritual consolations, deepening my need for God? Is it possible for them to be both?”
Her answer to these questions is the true plot of this honest memoir.