Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace

Astonished It seems my life is meant to prove over and over again—in case I dare forget—that every curse can be a blessing, that the worst thing that happens might ultimately be exactly what you need.

One night six years ago I awoke to a rapist in my bed. “Don’t scream, I have a knife,” he said. My new memoir, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, begins this fateful night when evil paid me a visit and prayer chased it out.

It’s as though I’d lived three lives, first as a wild teenaged mother dying for an education, then as a scrappy young mother on the streets of the East Village, and later as the bestselling author of Riding in Cars with Boys. By the time the rapist arrived I thought I’d seen it all. Life in my adopted Mexican town was busy with friends, margaritas at sunset, dancing, yoga, fun. But the spiritual practices that had nourished me for years were beginning to lose their luster as the world turned grayer and grayer, and I realized how much I missed God. I was so bereft I’d even begun searching the internet for a monastery to join, which was precisely when the rapist arrived.

So begins the surprising journey of healing and love as I practice as a monk at monasteries, become a lay member of one, and four years after it all began, step back into the world a changed woman, feisty again, but maybe, I hope, a little bit wiser, a tiny bit kinder, and a big blue–sky–worth’s more peaceful. Astonished is my reverently irreverent and hopeful story of learning to love life again.


Rapes Stir up Controversy Over Justice in Mexico

I was interviewed in this report three months before I became the rapist's next victim. I had called my connections at NPR to suggest they do a story about the rapes in San Miguel de Allende. I hoped such negative publicity would put pressure on the Mexican authorities, which it did; soon after the piece aired they appointed a special task force. The night the rapist was caught on my corner, 60 undercover police from the special task force were combing the streets looking for him, two of whom were watching my house. Thank you, NPR.
Listen to the NPR interview.

Beverly Donofrio is known for her popular memoir Riding in Cars with Boys, where she wrote about her experience as a teen mom. Now she's out with a new memoir about a life-changing incident in her mid-fifties - she woke up one night to a rapist in her bed. The book is titled Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace and Solace. Beverly Donofrio joins host Michel Martin for a Behind Closed Doors conversation.
Listen to Beverly's interview with NPR's host, Michel Martin.

Reviews for Astonished

“ It wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like her—a middle–aged writer acclaimed for Riding in Cars with Boys (1990), which was made into a movie starring Drew Barrymore. Yet she was raped in her own bed in her home in Mexico. It is a chilling story, and in this compelling, spiritually fulfilling memoir, Donofrio takes the reader through that terrible night and its aftermath. But this is more than a straighforward description of a crime; it is a story of healing and even, as the title indicates, grace. Donofrio was attacked at the time she was thinking about joining a monastery, and the rape made her reconsider not only her life but also her faith. Anyone who has been the victim of a crime will appreciate Donofrio’s honesty and sympathy, but her memoir is for everyone who appreciates a story well told. It is an unsparing but also hopeful account of evil and misery and suffering as well as joy and goodness and forgiveness. ”
— June Sawyers, Booklist

“ Reading Donofrio’s memoir, Astonished is, in itself, an astonishing experience. She grapples with her faith in ways and in words that startle, move, mesmerize, wrench, enliven, and thrill the reader. It is a narrative composed of brutal honesty, tenderness, and an aching love for God. I could not put it down. ”
— Sue Monk Kidd

“ Anyone who can read Bev Donofrio's first paragraph and stop should be interdict for life from libraries and bookstores. She is one first-class human being and, to my mind, a down-and-dirty saint. I'm grateful for the privilege of being invited into her radiant soul. ”
— William J. O’Malley, S.J., author of The Fifth Week

“ To me, Beverly Donofrio is part Abigail Thomas, part Anne Lamott, part Kathleen Norris, and 100 percent original. Terrifying and, at moments, terribly funny. Candid, compelling, and, above all else, wise. Here’s Beverly Donofrio, the rebellious teenager and tough single mother from Riding in Cars with Boys, forty years later, still vulnerable, still resilient, tested and tempered by life, and finally forging her own peace. Astonished is a seeker’s and a writing woman’s spiritual journey through doubt and despair, emerging in cowboy boots, green tights, and prayer. ”
— Sara Pritchard, author of Crackpots and Help Wanted: Female

“ As beautiful as it is authentic, Astonished is one of the most compelling, appealing, and instructive spiritual autobiographies I have read in many a year. ”
— Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

“ In her third autobiographical work (after Looking for Mary) Donofrio wrestles spiritually with the concept of evil after being raped at knifepoint in her Mexico home. Having finally found her way as a writer midlife, become a pious Catholic, and settled in the old colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in a house she built herself, Donofrio was 55 and a new grandmother when she was attacked by the town’s serial rapist in her own bedroom one night in June. Her testimony and work with the police soon after helped bring the man to justice, but Donofrio was shaken in her Christian faith, angry at God for allowing such senseless evil, and plunged into a spiritual crisis involving an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and shame. Finding refuge in a monastery seemed the only way to feel truly safe, and the bulk of her thoughtfully circuitous narrative dwells on her six–month pilgrimage to various monasteries, among the Trappists at St. Benedict’s in Snowmass, Colo., the Carmelites at Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colo., and at her midwife friend Estrella’s Holy Land retreat in the Missouri Ozarks, among other places. Donofrio searched for a deeper relationship to Jesus by immersing herself in prayer, meditation, and writings by the church fathers, saints, and mystics, which she lists in a last chapter; and she even contemplated becoming a nun. Yet the simple act of asking questions proved a salve, as she depicts in this insightful, candidly unfolding, soul–bearing journey to grace. ”
Publishers Weekly

“ Donofrio (Looking for Mary, 2000, etc.) recounts her survival from rape at age 55 and subsequent spiritual journey.

Best known for Riding in Cars with Boys (1990), her first memoir about her teenage pregnancy and single motherhood, the author was raised Catholic. As an adult, following years without religious practice, Donofrio developed a deep love for and affinity with the Virgin Mary and returned to Catholicism. In 2006, while living peacefully as an expat in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Donofrio awoke to find herself held at knife point by the town's serial rapist. ‘I did not want to believe in a God that would let this happen,’ she writes at the book’s beginning. After the man was caught weeks later, Donofrio remained unsettled, wrestling with feelings of having been violated and spiritual questions concerning good and evil. In search of stillness and safety, she planned to leave for six months to visit five places, most of which were monasteries. The bulk of the narrative follows this pilgrimage, which included stays with the Trappists at St. Benedict and the Carmelites at Nada Hermitage, both in Colorado, and at a friend's Missouri retreat center. Donofrio devoted her days to prayer and meditation, as well as the study of spiritual writings, which she lists in the narrative. Her story is one of reconciliation; she felt herself grow closer to Jesus while shedding some of her decades-old protective holding patterns and bitterness toward men. She considered, then decided against, becoming a nun. The conclusion of her journey, following her torrent of questions for and about divine power, lies in her realization that her faith is unshakeable and her attack, ultimately, showed her the heart of God.
Honest, engaging and cathartic. ”
Kirkus Review

Astonished  Makes Pick of the Week at
The Daily Beast

The Daily Beast Review
“At the age of 53, on the very same day that Beverly Donofrio had researched which monastery she should join in order to sort out her complicated relationship with God, a man used a rope ladder to break into her home in Mexico and raped her in her own bed. This unthinkably evil act comes at the very start of Astonished, the third memoir from the writer of Riding in Cars With Boys, but this book is far from an exercise in victimhood. This is the story of a woman who had already seen more than her share of hardship before the rape, on a solo odyssey of the spirit in the wake of not only a traumatic event but also an entire life spent struggling with matters of grace. What’s most compelling, besides Donofrio’s simultaneously warm and tough–as–nails voice, is the openness of her heart toward good old–fashioned faith, and her willingness to accept God into her life, if she could only figure Him out. Of course, it’s the impossibility of it that drives the narrative here, such as the frustration Donofrio feels at the maxim delivered to her by a priest: “God doesn’t cause evil. Ever. But he will use it.” And although such arguments can sometimes offend, the fact that she was able to take such ugliness and transform it into the beauty of this book is a stunning accomplishment.”

For spiritual seeker and standout writer Beverly Donofrio (author of the memoir Riding in Cars With Boys) the pursuit of faith led to life in a small Mexican town replete with margaritas at sunset, yoga and plenty of time for writing. Yet Donofrio, a Catholic, felt herself drifting from God. Committed to rededicating herself, she planned an ambitious tour of monasteries around the country. Then a man broke into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. In her new book, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, Donofrio ponders the significance of the timing. What does the rape reveal about God? How do trials figure into God’s plan for our lives? What does it mean to heal and grow? Donofrio spends much of the next year completing her monastery tour and offering tentative answers to these questions and more. A nontraditional thinker who accepts parts of the “Jesus myth” and rejects other parts, Donofrio’s journey around the country and into her inner life is compelling material beautifully written. Perpetually humble, searching, honest and wry, Donofrio is a fine companion for a spiritual journey.

The day after a man breaks into her house while she is sleeping and rapes her at knifepoint, Beverly Donofrio’s first instinct is to move on. After all, she is 55 and the author of the highly acclaimed “Riding in Cars With Boys,” a memoir about her experiences as a teenage mother. She had been through hard times before and survived. Even her description of the rape is pointedly anticlimactic.

“I keep my arms crossed over my chest. He does not kiss or touch. He smells of sour sweat and beer. His penis is the size of a woman’s thumb. He finishes in two minutes.”

Before long, however, Donofrio realizes that while she can compartmentalize the physical rape, all that it represents has paralyzed her — “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.” More than anything, it has tested her faith in God.

To come to terms with this, she decides to leave her home in Mexico to live in a series of monasteries, where she hopes to find peace and quiet, and possibly even become a nun herself.

“Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace” is the product of this spiritual journey. It’s a smart, funny memoir about a woman seeking answers to some very hard questions, among them: How can God allow such evil to happen? And what does he want me to learn from it?

In less skilled hands, questions like these might leave a secular reader a little queasy. But Donofrio is no saint. She bumbles along as we all do, only with perhaps more humor: “I do understand that calling Mary God is a heresy,” she confesses. “But that’s how I think of her, so disembowel me.”

She is also aware that these soul–searching “woe is me” questions are not exactly new, nor are the answers to them. The fact is—or so she concludes—“Faith is not logical and God cannot be explained.” Suffering and fear are sometimes inevitable. Security is mostly a fallacy. At some point, we all learn these truisms. And so, “if you’ve heard it before,” Donofrio writes, “feel free to skip to the next paragraph.”

Readers are highly unlikely to do this. These are life’s lessons, after all—not so dissimilar from a child’s being told to wash his hands. Everyone of all ages needs reminding sometimes. And Donofrio’s intelligent and down–to–earth delivery gives the recap a meditative feel. For her, “bringing God into the picture makes me pay closer attention.”

Her writing does the same thing for us. Her bravery helps. She holds nothing back—her anxiety, vulnerability and the challenges ahead of her. “If I keep thinking about, focusing on evil, it’ll take up house, and be impossible to get rid of.”

Sacred spoiler alert: In the end, she decides against becoming a nun. While the life of a hermit has its merits, she feels happiest taking the solace and solitude of her retreats on the road. She decides to leave Mexico and move within a day’s drive of those she loves most, including her son and his two children.

On being greeted/tackled by her 5–year–old grandson on a recent visit, she writes, “I am…going to get over being frightened and rescue this longed–for moment, enjoy every second of this boy’s presence.” Her grandson no doubt approves, and her readers will too.

— Ashley Nelson, San Francisco Chronicle

What I’ve always loved about Donofrio’s work is her brutal honesty, it’s what her readers have come to expect, and she does not disappoint. Read the complete review on Brevity

— Amye Archer

Donofrio is quirky, street–smart, ironic and witty, and she also reveals embarrassing and petty failures of character. “If transformation was a job,” she says, “I’d be fired.” I laughed throughout the book despite the tragic occasion of its premise. Read the complete review on The Christian Century

— Suzanne Guthrie