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Astonished: An Interview With Beverly Donofrio

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Beverly Donofrio has published three memoirs: her first, the New York Times bestseller, Riding in Cars with Boys, was made into a popular movie; her second, Looking for Mary was chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Book; and her latest, Astonished, is still collecting accolades. She has published three children's books; her latest, Where's Mommy? was released this year. Her essays have appeared in many anthologies and periodicals, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Spirituality and Health, Oprah magazine, The Huffington Post and Slate. Her NPR documentaries can be heard through Sound Portraits. She has taught creative nonfiction workshops across the United States and is currently on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Wilkes University. Donofrio lives in Woodstock, NY, where she is writing the libretto to a musical based on Astonished.

Loren Kleinman (LK): "I can be nothing but grateful for the tragedy," you write in your latest memoir Astonished, which discusses your experience with rape at a later stage in life. Talk about being grateful for even the most destructive moments in our lives. How does tragedy change us? Are we someone different years later? Is the difference a result of grief?

Beverly Donofrio (BD): I had a gym teacher in junior high, which is now called middle school, who said as we groaned about having to run around the track again or do a dozen squat-thrusts, "No pain, no gain." I groaned louder and rolled my eyes but I now recognize the wisdom in the cliche. I can look back at every lousy, painful, traumatic event in my life -- pregnant in high school, husband becomes a junkie, arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to sell, eviction notice tacked to my door, hit by a car, fired from two jobs, raped in my own bed at 56 years old -- as doors closing on one way of being or time of life and opening onto another, sending me in a different direction. I say in Astonished that the important question isn't why something "bad" happens but what you're going to do once it has. "Bad" or difficult things happen all the time. As Hamlet said, "Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

You can choose the way you think of the upsets; you can look for ways the pain can help you grow.

I can't make a sweeping statement about how tragedy changes us, because it depends on the individual and how that individual processes what has happened. One thing I can make a sweeping statement about is that tragedy does change us.

Your question: Are we someone different years later? is one I've been grappling with in a play I'm writing. In the play there are two characters, both me -- at age 30 and 58. The 58-year-old believes she's changed and the 30-year-old is convinced her older self is deluded: She's still as angry and depressed as ever, only with a fake, sunny facade. I've come to the conclusion that Young Bev is wrong. I am definitely less depressed, angry, insecure than I was at 30 -- in other words, I'm different. I don't know that all people become so and I don't think it is only grief that has changed me. I've a friend who is a very wise woman, a Cherokee Indian, a hermit nun in an order of one and a nurse midwife. She surrounds herself with women in her work and her life and has made a study of us. She says that women reach a point in midlife where they go one way or another, either towards bitterness and resentment or to acceptance and grace. Jung said if you imagine your life like a sun rising and setting, you can imagine how different your life looks on the way back down. One hopes that experience gives you at least a tiny bit of wisdom. It seems sort of the point of it all: To learn and to grow, which means to change. Terry Tempest Williams says many wise things in her book, When Women Were Birds, but the line I love most is "I wish someone told me when I was young that it was not happiness I could count on but change."

LK: Writing as a therapy helps reunite us with the center of our trauma, and is a powerful healing tool that reinstates identity from its shattered face. Frances Driscoll, author of The Rape Poems talked about writing after her own experience with rape as a way to heal. She says, "these poems are not at their core about rape: They are about living." Do you consider Astonished a book about living?

BD: In Astonished I take a spiritual view of pain. I look at the Christ myth: dying and resurrection. When we speak of being born again, in its truest sense, we are speaking of dying to the ego and being born to a new way of seeing. The tragedy of rape was an opportunity to let some ways of being and seeing and doing fall away, to strip away my image, and return to who I really am, and maybe to finally learn how to be happy. Mystics talk about the liminal space that opens up after events of great joy or great grief. Time slows and the world around you comes into sharper almost shimmering focus. What's really important becomes obvious. This happened to me immediately after the rape.

Six months later, I moved to a monastery, where I lived for three and a half years. One weekend a Jungian therapist and a priest, Father Bill, came to help in our garden. He was coupled with a young man who'd served in Afghanistan and was suffering from a severe case of PTSD. He barely bathed and could not hold a conversation except to repeat over and over how he'd lost his wife, his home, his life. Bill told him that there was a therapy that could help him, called EMDR, and invited him to come to his center for two weeks of free therapy. Bill explained to a group of us at Sunday brunch that it's not known exactly how EMDR works but it uses rapid eye movements or tapping to move the trauma from the right, emotional, side of the brain to the left, logical, side. It occurred to me that this is exactly what I'd been doing with my writing. In order to write well about something, you have to revisit it, relive it as much as you're able by re-entering the emotions. But then to transform it into something anyone else would want to read, you must apply craft and logic, in other words move it to the left side of the brain. Bill enthusiastically agreed. Increasingly writing is being prescribed as therapy for PTSD.

LK: Who are you now after you've written the book and shared your story?

BD: I'm eight years older, only a year and a half from 65, when I can take the bus to New York City for half price. I have more energy and appetite for life than I ever had because I wrote myself out of a general rage at life, and into forgiving life for being life, i.e., unjust and painful. But I am also a woman more enraged than ever: At the fact that there are 30 million slaves in the world, the majority of them girls and women, kidnapped and sold for sex, while almost all governments, including ours, refuse to punish the men who buy the sex. Without the demand there would be no need for the "supply." Oh, and I almost forgot: The Equal Rights Amendment has not been ratified by three-quarters of the States. This means that under the law of this country, women are not equal to men. Why is that?

LK: I understand you enjoy poetry. I'd like to end with your response to this stanza from the poem "The Class" by Alicia Ostriker: "Climb the tree, /Be the tree,/ Burn like that

BD: Prosaically: Action/Being/Passion