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The Astonishing Beverly Donofrio 

Riding in Cars with God

ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel

Beverly Donofrio is butting heads with herself. Young Bev and Older Bev are characters in a play the bestselling memoirist is writing, and they don't agree on much.

Young Bev, a smart-girl rebel who'd probably deck you if you called her feisty, first hit the spotlight in Riding in Cars with Boys (William Morrow, 1990); a film version starred Drew Barrymore as the small-town cop's daughter who becomes a teen mother.

Older Bev hasn't been onscreen yet, but she stars in two subsequent memoirs. In Looking for Mary (Viking, 2000), 40-year-old Donofrio starts filling her house with yard sale images of the Blessed Mother. This kitschy obsession leads the lapsed Catholic, with her journalist hat at a skeptical angle, to Bosnian pilgrimage site Medjugorge, where miracles can—and do—happen.

Astonished (Viking, 2013) continues Donofrio's spiritual quest, in the wake of a rape that shakes her to the core. It opens:

"Even though I do know the important question is not why this happened to me but what I'm going to do now; and even though I was 55 and the attacker was a serial rapist in a small town, raping gringo women between 50 and 60; and even though 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."

Early readers told Donofrio not to open with the rape, but she shrugged them off. "I'm so direct. It's my strength and my flaw," she says. "It was very much going to be 'I got raped, and this is what happened.' It's the inciting incident."

Donofrio recently moved into a rambling house on a Woodstock mountainside. Spring has begun to unfurl from a long brutal winter, and songbirds trill amid quince and forsythia as she bustles around her art-filled kitchen, pouring coffee and plating homemade ginger scones. Yoga-thin, with intense dark eyes and black-and-white hair twisted into a tiny ponytail, she bristles with nervous energy, worrying that the scones will be doughy inside (they're delicious) and hovering over her sweet-faced rescue dog, Charlotte. The knotty pine walls are layered with hand-painted icons and tribal weavings, a holiday garland from India. There's a neat desk flanked by bookshelves, but Donofrio rarely sits there. ("I have ADD," she explains. "If it isn't working, I move.")

At last she settles on the porch to talk about writing a life story with a compelling, improbable arc, from designated bad girl (her parents gave her the initials B.A.D.) to lay Carmelite nun.

If you like your conversion stories salty with a dash of hot sauce, Donofrio is for you. If you don't like conversion stories at all, she may still be for you. Armed with a healthy disdain for dogmatic rigidity, Donofrio gives great phrase, doesn't stint on unflattering truths, and is funny as hell. It's hard to resist a seeker who's disappointed that the Trappist monk who ferries her to a retreat wears "cowboy boots and one of those jackets that looks like it's made from a horse blanket. I'd been looking forward to the white alb with the black scapular—the long bib, front and back—the thick belt slung low, and I'm trying not to mind that the first monk on my monastery tour resembles a rancher. I resist the urge to blurt, 'So how come you're not in your outfit?'"

Whatever Young Bev and Older Bev may think, this is unmistakably the voice of the girl who chose Mr. Wrong at 15: "Raymond was a high school dropout, his brother was a thief in jail, and his father was a Bowery bum. He needed me," Donofrio writes in Riding in Cars. "He was lying on top of me. It was probably too late to turn back now: I had a hood for a boyfriend."

She told Ray she was pregnant at a drive-in screening of The Wild Angels. Abortion was still illegal, and he was eager to marry. But even with a son in diapers, they were teenagers, celebrating the Summer of Love in clouds of pot. When Ray became a junkie, Bev took their son Jason and left, enrolling in community college and transferring to Wesleyan University on a scholarship program. After graduating at 27, she moved to the Lower East Side with 12-year-old Jason. He played pool in corner bars after school and she went out after work, drinking Stoli and picking up men.

"That poor kid," she says now, shaking her head. "I knew from the get-go: if I'm miserable, he'll be miserable, too. If I'm happy, at least he has a shot. So I did what I wanted." This parenting style took a toll on them both. "He's resentful," Donofrio says bluntly. "I was a nut. I cracked an egg on his head."

At 30, she crossed a street without looking both ways and was hit by a car. "I could have died. I had a teenager," she says. It was a wake-up call for a wannabe writer who wasn't writing. Still working a Wall Street typing job, she entered Columbia's MFA program, where she met "a community of writers, my pack," including mentor/hero Richard Price. When she published a Village Voice essay "about being an Italian-American feminist hippie whose father was a cop," Price sent her to agent Gail Hochman, who gave invaluable advice on writing a book proposal ("Imagine you have five minutes to tell a garden party why they should be interested in the story of your life."). Editor Jim Landis bought it.

Riding in Cars With Boys was a breakout success, and producer James L. Brooks (Big) snapped up film rights. Donofrio dreamed of being played by Cher; director Penny Marshall favored Marisa Tomei. But after the script languished in development for 11 years, the younger Drew Barrymore landed the role.

"I'm very grateful it was made. One hundred thousand people bought the book," Donofrio says, acknowledging they're very different animals. "But you know, it's kind of a cult movie. Online, you see girls enacting the scene with Brittany Murphy where Drew practices telling her mother she's pregnant. There's a lot of truth in that movie. They took some risks. I'm happy it exists."

Young Bev was becoming Older Bev. The rift with her adult son, which haunts her in Searching for Mary, starts to heal in Astonished, as Donofrio becomes a doting grandmother to Jason's son Zach. She's now living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; after combing the internet for monastery retreats, she goes to bed, and is awakened at knifepoint.

Donofrio doesn't dwell on the rapist's capture and trial. But with chilling empathy, she recalls the "lustful" feelings of power she got as a child tormenting a younger boy, concluding, "Exerting our will over others makes us feel powerful. Could the rapist have resisted the urge? Could I have?"

The retreat becomes urgent, a place to pray in silence or tell her story compulsively, to learn how to heal. She visits five monasteries before choosing the Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado. After telling a priest she has issues with the conservative Church, she's moved by a line in the psalm he gives her: "'The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.' I choke up: this is how God feels to me. And this is how I want to be."

Instead, she's "as organized as pebbles dumped on a driveway," with a selfish streak and snappish temper. In other words, she's us, flawed but hopeful, and blessedly frank: "If transformation were a job, I'd be fired. I am so self-involved, I embarrass myself."

Donofrio finished writing Astonished while living with one of its most endearing characters, a wildly eccentric renegade nun named Estrella. "I never knew how I was going to come to peace with this thing that had happened," she says. "Writing helps you make sense of it. Before I wrote Riding in Cars With Boys, I always had this wariness around people: I'm not who you think I am—I was a teen mom, my dad was a cop. After I wrote it, I didn't have to tell anybody anything. It's done, it's all out there. And now I don't need to keep telling people about the rape anymore."

Before moving to Mexico, Donofrio had 24 rental addresses; her grandson told her she was "born on a vagrant breeze." Now she was rootless again, house-sitting friends' off-season beach houses. Offered yet another house-sit, she thought, "No. I have to commit to someplace and have furniture again." That someplace was Woodstock.

It seems like a perfect fit. Everything delights her: the Woodstock Writers Festival, hiking the Catskills, the eclectic spiritual community. She recently joined Clark Strand's rosary group; "They're all Buddhists," she marvels.

Toward the end of Astonished, Donofrio writes, "Lately, I get pleasure out of not knowing. Lately, God, who is an "it" to me, seems pure abundance; a beneficent energy, whirling, penetrating, moving everything everywhere; a wind chiming through the trees. All is well, all is well, all is well. Even when it doesn't seem so God is lavishing us with love that's up to us to allow." Amen.

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