When I was a student in Wilkes University’s Creative Writing MFA program, I had the great pleasure of working with Beverly Donofrio ( , ). As a mentor and a person, Bev is smart, insightful, unwaveringly honest, and spiritually generous. As a writer, she tends to exhibit these same qualities–and they have never been more apparent than in her latest work, the memoir Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace (Viking Penguin, 2013).
Astonished begins with Beverly’s own rape, at the age of fifty-five, as a serial rapist holds a knife to her face. She is living in Mexico at the time, a successful writer, a first-time homeowner, and grandmother to a beautiful baby boy. In the months leading up to the rape, however, she has been feeling a troubling lack of spirituality in her life. A practicing Catholic and a woman who cherishes her faith, Bev had already decided to take steps to reignite her relationship with God. In fact, she had been researching monasteries to visit just hours before the rapist crawled through her window and into her bed:
“…I, along with the entire town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal; and even though this little round–faced pervert with a big–billed baseball cap woke me in the middle of the night in the middle of a deep sleep in my own bed with a knife inches from my face, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me. This was not supposed to happen; I was supposed to have escaped: I had hot flashes and liver spots and was finally in the final stretch. I’d survived all these decades without experiencing this thing I dreaded as much as death—and had just been looking for a monastery to join, for Christ’s sake.”
– Beverly Donofrio, Astonished
What follows is not the story of a victim. Rather, it is a remarkably open, forthcoming exploration of a woman’s developing faith in both God and humanity. It is a story of living. “I want to be different,” Beverly writes at the beginning of her journey, “to peel off masks, my make-believes, lipstick, to stop making things bigger, more and better, telling white lies improving on, giving an impression.” It is with this attitude that she lays out her experience, leaving it bare for the reader to examine and dissect as we follow her to monasteries, chapels, cabins in the woods, and the sometimes-hard-to-navigate intersection where spirituality meets the secular world.
It is difficult to read this memoir without finding yourself, along with the author, pondering the complexities of faith, considering good and evil and what they each entail. Bev’s candid descriptions of her growing connection with God offer a rare, raw glimpse into the process of personal growth. And she offers it graciously, without judging others, in the matter-of-fact style that is characteristic of her writing. With its blunt discussion of evil, rape, religion, God, and self-discovery, this is a thought-provoking book–and, in light of current events, a timely opportunity for dialogue about topics often considered taboo.
Astonished is a memoir that resonates, and Beverly Donofrio’s story is an inspiration. It will stay with you long after the final page.