MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally today, we go Behind Closed Doors. That's the segment where we talk about issues that people usually keep private. Today, we're speaking with a woman who turned what often becomes a private shame into a very public campaign and ultimately, a triumph. Author Beverly Donofrio turned her experience as a struggling young mother into the best-selling memoir "Riding in Cars with Boys." That was made into a film starring Drew Barrymore in 2001.
She followed up with "Looking for Mary," a memoir about her spiritual life. But just as she was taking the next step in her spiritual life, looking to join a monastery in Mexico, she was raped at knife point in her own home. But instead of succumbing to fear and shame, she fought back in her own way. Now she shares that story and her journey of healing in a new book. It's called "Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace." And Beverly Donofrio is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
BEVERLY DONOFRIO: Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Tell us about your life before all this happened. What were you up to? I understand you were already a best-selling author and...
DONOFRIO: Yeah, well, life was good. I had moved to San Miguel de Allende in an expat community of a bunch of really kind of interesting gringos, had an interesting life. I was president of the PEN chapter down there and gave a lecture series and donated my time and continued to write and dance salsa and did yoga and continued my spiritual practices, hiked up the mountain three times a week. And then things kind of got a little flat and a little stale. You know how the Buddhists talk about beginner's mind, well, I couldn't generate that. I couldn't go to the idea that things are constantly new if you look at them that way. I just couldn't summon it.
And then my grandson was born, and I was 55 and I went there for the birth and stayed for a month to help, and felt such love and such tenderness that it sparked something in me, wonderful and horrible. And the wonderful was this love, and the horrible was this knowledge of what I didn't have in my life, what I was missing - this vitality, this interest, this possibility of a new life.
MARTIN: Well, you were kind of already kind of on your path and rethinking things, and I'm interested in how this loops back to then what happened. Is it, then what happened was you started thinking about joining a monastery, and kind of continuing on your spiritual practice, and then you woke up one night...
DONOFRIO: One night.
MARTIN: ...In the middle of the night, with this person in your bed with a knife to your throat, right?
DONOFRIO: Right. He was the serial rapist who'd been attacking women in the town for eight months, and so I knew right away who he was. I knew what he had done with the other women. The first two fought and he beat them severely, and the next two, hearing about the first two, didn't fight, and so they escaped relatively unharmed, if you can ever call being raped unharmed. But he would stay for five hours and complain about how sick he is and he doesn't know why he does this and then rape them again. So he raped me. It luckily - it was two minutes. It was as benign as it can be, if you can ever call rape benign, and then he started to talk and wanted to engage me in conversation. I thought, I'm not talking to him, I'm going to pray, I'm going to absent myself. And as I began to pray, I thought, oh, I'm going to pray the Hail Mary in Spanish out loud and maybe freak him out.
So I began, Dios te salve, Maria. And he said, you're praying, stop praying. And I said, I'm praying for you, which was a lie, and then I thought, well, it should be the truth. So then I said a Hail Mary interiorly, praying for him, that he see what he was doing, the wrong in it, and heal from whatever was making him do it, whatever I was saying. And then the next Hail Mary, I'm praying, please, Jesus, God, Mary, every angel, saint, dead relative, get this man out of my house. And he says...
MARTIN: Were you praying out loud at this point, or just...
DONOFRIO: I'm praying the Hail Mary out loud...
DONOFRIO: ...And with vehemence. Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia, and inside, I'm saying that. And he says, it's OK - pats me on the shoulder - I'm leaving, and backs out of bed, goes to the door, says don't call the police and trots down the stairs and leaves. So...
MARTIN: Can you say, even now, what gave you the presence to do that?
DONOFRIO: Well, you know, it's probably because I pray all the time. So why wouldn't I? When I wake in the night and I've had a nightmare, or I just can't go to sleep or I have anxiety, I pray. So I wake in the night, and there's a rapist in my bed and he won't leave, and so I did what I naturally do.
MARTIN: Then what happened?
DONOFRIO: Well, then I thought, I don't want to go through this evening. I didn't look at the man. I have no new evidence to provide police. I don't want my son to know I was raped. I don't want to go through my life as - known as a woman who's been raped. And so that passed in about two minutes, and I thought, that's ridiculous, you have to. I'm a feminist. I couldn't look myself in the face. And so I call the police and I called my friend and said - or my friend who accompanied me, I told her, please, get on the town website, let them know he struck, let them know what happened. And then I thought, you know, I'm a writer, I can maybe do something. It's not so bad it happened to me. I'm 55 years old. I'm not 20 years old. I've certainly had sex with men I couldn't care about. I'm a child of the '60s. It isn't horrible. You can survive this and maybe you can do something.
And so I thought, I'm going to write for the town newspaper and calm everybody down. I'm going to - or try to calm everybody down. I'm going to let them know everything I knew that helped me get through the ordeal because prior to this, the only thing printed in the paper was the facts, you know. A woman was attacked at this address at this hour. And so I wrote everything I knew, and then I said, he's just one small man, one small sick man and that's all that he is. And if you should awaken to a rapist in your bed, which I hope doesn't happen, pray the Hail Mary in Spanish, and this time do it before you're raped and maybe you won't get raped.
And so they printed the article along with the Hail Mary in English and Spanish. People cut it out. They carried it in their purses. They put it beside their bed. They memorized it. They prayed it. And five days after the article appeared, he was caught.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Beverley Donofrio. She's author of the new memoir "Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace." Well, let me - I actually want to back up 'cause I was going to ask you to read an excerpt from your book. Do you have it with you?
DONOFRIO: I do.
MARTIN: You do have it with you. Do you mind? I was going to read...
MARTIN: ..The next part of the book because I think that this passage here will kind of - I think many people who will have had the experience of being raped or being otherwise violated or terrified will kind of feel this, and I was wondering if you could read that.
DONOFRIO: OK. At night, as I lie in bed, terror struck, it's not exactly the physical act of rape I think of or react to so much as everything that attended it: being under another's control, the binding of my will, the threat of more violence and humiliation, the tang of evil stinking the air like a dead skunk. I think it all adds up to this. What I am dreading is my own fear. I think how, in the garden, Christ knew that all of those horrors I just mentioned were going to happen to him the next day with the possible exception of evil stinking the air like a dead skunk. But maybe it did. When Christ was tempted in the desert by Satan, resisting all the wily one's temptations, it says in Luke, and Satan left for a time. Maybe Satan returned and was in the Garden of Gethsemane.
I'm not sure I even believe in Satan, but I believe in evil. And I believe fear bows at the feet of evil and I believe that the dark presence that wakes me and lingers in my room, the presence that causes me so much fear, is evil. I do not hold onto this because I'd rather not believe this. It's too scary. I suspect that, like the history teacher in my high school, a World War II vet who'd dive under a desk when he heard a loud noise thinking it was a bomb, I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His trigger was a loud bang, but mine, because it happened when I was sleeping at night, is probably the dark and sleep. God, I pray all the time, heal me.
MARTIN: That's perfect. Thank you.
DONOFRIO: You're welcome.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. So what about that? What then did you do?
DONOFRIO: Well, this happened for almost three years. I would awake in the night and I'd think there was an evil presence in the room. I'd be awake and I'd think there was an evil presence. And all the time - all this time, I'm reading mystics and I'm aware that if you give a fear attention, you feed it, but I couldn't control it. And two people arrived at the monastery where I was leaving, kind of crazy people who were totally taken by fear, and I saw what it was doing to them and I feared what it was doing to me. And I had a dream in which I'm outside of my house and there's this huge, dark, scary presence inside. I can see through the windows, and it's evil and I can't go in the house because there's something evil in there.
And I realize that if I keep concentrating on evil, if I keep being afraid, it's going to take up residence and I may never get it to leave. And so I began to think of when I was a child, and how I believed in the bogeyman and I believed there was a man under my bed and I would shut off the light and leap into bed, afraid that he was under my bed and would grab my foot. And one day, I got old enough or sick enough of it, and I said, I'm just not going to believe this anymore. And I basically refused to be afraid. I said, I'm just not going to do it anymore. I'm going to wake up in the night and I'm going to know I awoke from a noise and it's not an evil presence. And if it is, well, who cares? Go away. I'll laugh at you.
There's this old Native American saying, and I'm going to really truncate it, and it's an old grandfather talking to his grandson and he says to his grandson, I have a battle inside of me, good is fighting evil, kindness is fighting cruelty, love is fighting hate. And the grandson said, well, who's winning? And the old man said, whichever one I feed. And so, I just refused to feed it.
MARTIN: How long did it take before you felt healed and do you feel healed now?
DONOFRIO: It took a while. It took probably four years before this happened. And I do feel healed and I'm convinced that one of the things that healed me was prayer and the spiritual journey I went on, but also writing. To write about it, I had to recall it. I had to call it up. I had to relive it, get it on the page. But then to make it into something anyone else would want to read, I had to be logical about it and use all my skills and my editing and the left side of my brain. And I really think it diffused it.
MARTIN: I think there are many people who will say, well, of course, I stay prayed up. But there are other people who will be listening to our conversation who'll say, well, I just don't believe any of that. Do you have some hope for me? What would you say to people who say, well, I don't believe what you believe, but I am still in need of - I am in need of healing. Do you have some word of wisdom for them?
DONOFRIO: You can change your chemistry by getting calm and getting still and it doesn't have to be prayer. It doesn't have to be like talking to a god, but being in silence and stillness and in awe and wonder and, you know, just kind of spiritualizing the world can help. The trick is to live joyfully in an unfair world, and how are we going to do that? I don't know any way to do that, but to look for the blessings. Look for the good. Look for the shimmer on the rose, you know.
MARTIN: How about the question of forgiveness? I mean, many, many, many people feel that what this man did to you is unforgivable.
DONOFRIO: Well, you know, when you can't forgive - and I couldn't for a long time - it hurts you. It doesn't hurt the person or anyone else. It's you that it's hurting, keeping negative, angry feelings alive. I mean, I couldn't help those feelings. I was angry, but I did have the will. I knew that I wanted to forgive because I wanted to just let it go and get on.
MARTIN: Well, what does it mean, though, to forgive in your view? Do you mean - 'cause, for some people - think - people - some people think forgiving means, like, forget about it, or it's OK or it didn't happen. What does it mean to you?
DONOFRIO: Maybe forgetting is forgiving. I don't know. I just did not want to have those feelings, and not having those feelings of anger is, to me, forgiving. And, you know, and I tried lots of things. I tried thinking that, you know, he can't help himself, probably. I thought of things that I had done in my life that were unkind and cruel, and could I have helped it at the time? I don't know. I really tried to look at why there is evil in the world and I - what's evil and what's good? You know, I don't even know anymore. It's like that Buddhist saying about good luck, bad luck, who knows - do you know that? Should I say it?
DONOFRIO: It might be a little...
DONOFRIO: OK, so a farmer is given a horse and all his friends say, oh, you are so lucky, good luck, you got a horse. And he says, good luck, bad luck, who knows? So then his son is riding on the horse and breaks his leg and his friends say, oh, such bad luck. And the farmer says, well, good luck, bad luck, who knows? Then the soldiers come through conscripting soldiers and the kid has a broken leg, so he doesn't have to go and the neighbors say, oh, such good luck. And the farmer says, good luck, bad luck, who knows? I don't know.
I was at my father's house and he had a bin for washing dishes and it was empty and there was a spider in it. And so I took the bin and I walked outside and I dumped the spider onto the grass and watched it fall and it just landed in the grass and took off. And I thought, whoa, what would that be like to be stuck in this bin, born in a house, probably lived all its little short spider life there, and suddenly be out in the grass? And in a way, that's what can happen when really scary things happen to you. You are lifted out of your life to another life, and, you know, what are you going to make of it? Something good, I hope, if you can.
MARTIN: Beverly Donofrio is author of the new memoir "Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace." I wanted to ask you, why "Astonished," by the way?
DONOFRIO: It's kind of like the spider, you know, astonished into a whole new thing. It was, like, shook out of my life. It was the most transformative thing that ever happened. The most scary, most horrible and the - in a way, filled-with-wonder thing. It was just astonishing.
MARTIN: Beverly Donofrio, thank you so much for speaking with us.
DONOFRIO: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.