It happened six years ago, on the feast of St. John the Baptist.
Don’t be surprised that author Beverly Donofrio knew June 22 was the saint’s day. She was living in Mexico, where religious processions regularly make their way through the streets, where “church bells ring so loudly they turn your head,” where her own spiritual quest seemed to be progressing nicely.
But what happened that morning was beyond terrible.
“A tug on the sheet, a sinking weight on the mattress, my body buzzes like a field of bees as my eyes fly open to the last thing I want to see. I do not look, but out of the corner of my eye, he is there, leaning on his elbow, his round face propped on his palm … ‘Don’t scream, I have a knife,’ he says.”
Donofrio, best-selling author of the book “Riding in Cars with Boys” and a teacher in the creative-writing program at Wilkes University, has described her experience of a rape, and the healing that followed, in her most recent memoir, “Astonished.”
On Wednesday at the Barnes & Noble college bookstore in downtown Wilkes-Barre, she’ll read excerpts from the new book, which is subtitled “A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace.”
“It’s not a depressing book,” the author said in a telephone interview. “It’s filled with light. That’s its purpose, to shine light on what one might perceive as darkness.”
In “Astonished,” Donofrio recounts her struggles to come to terms with the rape. “Why would God do this?” she asks a priest. “God didn’t do it,” he responds. “Then why did God allow it?” “God doesn’t cause evil. Ever. But God will use it.”
“Let me get this straight,” Donofrio writes. “Evil paid me a visit. Prayer chased it away. Either God has no power to prevent evil, or God does have the power and allows or tolerates it anyway, uses evil to draw us back.”
“I feel strange saying this,” the author said. “(The rape) kind of brought me to spiritual boot camp. I was raped, and now I am more calm, peaceful, happy, centered, grounded, in the spirit and able to receive.
“I might have gotten there in some other way,” she added.
Explaining how she embraced the idea of forgiving her attacker, Donofrio said, “There’s this Indian proverb: An old man, an elder, says to his grandchild, ‘I have good and evil in me, and they battle.’ The child asks, ‘Which one wins?’ and the grandfather says, ‘The one I feed.’ ”
But even as she writes about spiritual matters, Donofrio has not lost her sense of irreverence.
This is how she describes the way she prayed for the rapist to go away and leave her alone.
“I begin, Hail Mary, full of grace, and I am struck by a brilliant idea. I should pray in Spanish and freak the rapist out.
“Dios te salve Maria.
“You’re praying. Stop praying.” He bangs my shoulder again.
“I’m praying for you.” It’s a lie I realize should be the truth. I pray a whole Ave Maria for him, then almost finish a vehement Padre Nuestro before I realize I have never once since I woke up asked God to help me, yet I pray for help all the time. I pray for help when I have to meet someone I don’t know very well for coffee.
“Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia, please get him the hell out of my bed, el senor es contigo, please, God, Mary, Jesus, all you angels and saints, all you dead ancestors, come and get him the hell out of my house, bendita eres entre todas las mujeres, he backs out of the bed, he zips his fly, y bendita es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus. Mary, all you angels and saints, every dead relative, please make him leave, please make him leave, Santa Maria, madre de dios, get him out of my house. He sighs. ‘Okay,’ then says, ‘I’m going.’
Thirteen days later, the man is arrested. He is the town’s serial rapist; Donofrio was his fifth victim. He will spend the rest of his life in jail. She will visit monasteries and stay at one in the Ozarks for several years, a lay member working on her book.
Back in the secular world, today Donofrio lives “in the woods on a bluff overlooking the ocean” on Long Island and enjoys visits with her relatives, especially two lively young grandchildren. She says teaching creative writing at Wilkes, in a low-residency program, is an important part of her life.
“Every time I’m there, it’s like a big love-in,” she said. “Everyone is so supportive.”