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Breaking taboo

Author of ‘Riding In Cars With Boys’ shares midlife experience of rape and recovery

Why would a celebrated author write a book about having been raped?

Beverly Donofrio, whose 1992 memoir “Riding In Cars With Boys” became a top-grossing Hollywood film, was 55 when she woke in the middle of the night to find her town’s serial rapist in her bed.

Afterward, she briefly considered not reporting the attack.

“My first response was, I didn’t want to go around for the rest of my life as ‘the woman who had been raped,’ ” she said. “But by the next day, I thought, ‘I didn’t do anything to be ashamed of. The rapist did.’ ”

What happened after that is the subject of her new memoir, “Astonished: A Story Of Healing And Finding Grace.” In the book, Donofrio details the many choices that followed the rape – whether to try to forgive her attacker, how to protect herself, what she could do to recover her sense of self.

All this while dealing with the profound shame that so often accompanies sexual violation.

“It’s a ridiculous taboo,” Donofrio said. “One in three women will be raped in the world before they die. But nobody talked about it!”

While sharing drafts of her book, six of the seven women in her New York City writers’ circle revealed that they, too, had experienced rape.

“Because I’m a writer,” Donofrio said, “it was kind of a mandate to bring it forward and tell about it, to bring it out of the closet. We need to heal ourselves and each other.”

Conflicting feelings

Donofrio’s memoir has a stream-of-consciousness feel, its chronology woven with forays into memories of a wild youth and young adulthood, glimpses of how things will go in Donofrio’s future as she pursues a monastic spiritual path, and raw commentaries on the pain of clutching to faith in the face of evil.

Those who have suffered an assault or a traumatic crime will recognize the long months of emotional turmoil Donofrio describes – the moment-by-moment shifts between courage and terror, grief and rage, isolation and a desperate longing for the comforts of connection.

After the rapist was caught, Donofrio writes, police tell her he was crying in his cell, and singing a “Guadalupana” song:

“First response: He got that from me.”

“Second response: Let him suffer.”

“Third response: Poor guy. He probably couldn’t help himself.”

“I send the rapist the rosary beads I’ve prayed on for the past seven years. I got them in Medjugorje; they glow in the dark and were on my altar by my bed, next to (his) knife. I say, ‘Tell him to pray. Tell him to ask God for help.’ “

“Then because every one of my therapists would say, ‘Feel your anger,’ I imagine bashing in his head with a cast-iron frying pan.”

‘There’s healing in telling’

Healing began almost immediately for Donofrio, she said, because of a combination of logic and spirit.

“When you write about trauma,” she said, “you have to relive it, but then transform it with craft and logic and structure. And that takes it out of the emotional side of the brain. There’s healing in telling – in bringing it out into the light and giving it air.”

Meanwhile, Donofrio was already on a spiritual path. A few hours before the assault, she had been online, researching monasteries she could attend as part of a six-month spiritual retreat.

“(The rape) brought me way deeper,” she said. “I basically retreated into silence. I did a lot of self care – a daily yoga practice, a daily meditation practice – and I communed with nature.

“I really went to the heart of the matter for me, which was: How can there be a presence of love in the universe (what I call God), and the presence of such evil and pain in the world? It’s a question that everyone has asked since the dawn of time. Delving into that, reading philosophy, reading mystics, looking at the underbelly of things – like poets do, our present-day mystics – I came to peace with what had happened to me and with the world.”

Her conclusion?

“There is pain inherent in life, and loss and grief and tragedy and surprise and joy, the whole bundle,” Donofrio said. “It’s all part of me. It’s part of the world I live in, part of everyone, part of nature.”

Common experiences

After deciding to chronicle her journey, Donofrio reached out to the publisher of her previous books.

“In the proposal, I said, not everyone is raped, but everyone has trauma and tragedy and loss in their life, and hopefully, this book will connect with people beyond those who have been raped.”

Penguin Books agreed, and the bet has paid off. Since “Astonished” was published, Donofrio has been flooded with grateful emails and confessional conversations after book readings.

“I get a lot of ‘this happened to me,’ and ‘this is enlightening.’ I had an 80-year-old woman tell me she was raped when she was 20, and she had never told anybody. I was at a dinner party the other night, and a man came up to me and told me he had been raped and never told anybody.

“I get a lot of ‘you’re so brave,’ but I can’t really take that in. It doesn’t take courage if it’s easy, and it’s not that hard for me to reveal secrets that other people find hard to reveal. But it fuels my writing to feel like I might be helping someone.”

Donofrio said the rape she experienced was “not as severe as some would be,” but the elements of healing seem to be the same for all survivors of attacks.

“I think, in order to heal, we are all called to do basically the same thing, which is to let it go, and the way to do that is to forgive,” she said. “Otherwise, it keeps happening over and over again, and you’re doing it to yourself.”

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