Originally published in The Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age
The summer I was thirteen, the ugliest person I have ever seen walked into the lounge area of our local swimming hole, and I could not take my eyes off her. Because her chin was missing, her mouth frowned at the bottom edge of her face, and her long nose seemed to stretch over her lips. As her enormous eyes darted out at me like a fly’s, I knew I was being rude, but her face was so horrible I had to memorize it. It’s possible my mouth even gaped open. The woman grabbed an armful of Table Talk Pies from the freezer chest, paid for them, then walked over to me on the sofa. “What are you looking at?” she snarled. “You think you’re so pretty? You’d better watch out, or you’ll end up just like me.” Then she turned and stomped out, letting the door slam behind her.
I was deeply shamed because I’d hurt the woman’s feelings, but I was also frightened. Had she just cursed me? And what was I supposed to “watch out” for, anyway? Did she mean that if I wasn’t a good person—if I lied, cursed, stole things, continued to hurt people’s feelings; or if I were just not lucky, got a disease or into a near fatal accident—I would end up like her?
That sighting so long ago began a vigil practiced often in my youth—and as I got older, perhaps once every few years—of looking at my face in the mirror, wondering if it was morphing into that woman’s. I do resemble her. I have the same olive coloring, a long nose, thin face and, partly due to an over-active thyroid when I was in my teens, huge eyes. Plus, I was raised in an era of Catholicism when we were taught to believe that God couldn’t wait to catch you in a sin so he could punish you. I’d been rude, uncompassionate and arrogant to stare at that woman, and not once in the immediate aftermath did I think to thank the Lord for the good fortune of my reasonably attractive face. Therefore, it was entirely possible that not only would God punish me, but that he’d already punished the woman for something she’d done. And it had been from experience that she’d warned me to watch out.
When my first book came out, an arty photographer was hired by I think it was Glamour magazine to take my picture. The book was called Riding in Cars with Boys, and she snapped easily a hundred photos of me in various positions in a vintage Chevy her son was rehabilitating in their Queens backyard. The photographer and I chatted amiably through the hours it took her to be satisfied, found we knew some people in common, and I thought she liked me well enough—until I saw the photo. I am leaning on my forearm staring out the car window, the bottom of my face cut off by my forearm, my nose hanging down, my eyes like a fly’s. I looked so much like that woman that I might have relaxed and believed the curse had come true, whimsically, and that it was finally over. But this never occurred to me at the time. And it has only occurred to me now, nearly twenty years later, to wonder: What did it mean that I’d come to look my ugliest, and publicly, the moment I believed all my dreams were finally coming true?
The dreams began even before I could read and were all essentially the same. The first was Princess, which then evolved into starring in a sitcom, preferably my own show called Bubbles for President. This was based on a Betty Boop cartoon in which darling Betty becomes president and implements amazing changes in the world, such as roller coasters on the outsides of sky scrapers. By thirteen I was sure I’d be a Broadway star, actually I would be Natalie Wood in the movie version of West Side Story. But performing it on Broadway, so that night after night, perhaps for a whole year, I could dance and sing and make people cry as I held dying Tony in my arms.
I had a desire as painful as unrequited love to be so famous people would wish they were me. But I also wanted to be Puerto Rican like Maria, with a fire escape outside my bedroom window in New York City. By the time I was in high school and had learned in my drama class about the Stanislavsky method of acting, I was more convinced than ever of the rightness of my chosen profession. I would play many parts through my long life, and I would be each character. That way, not only would I be rich and famous, my image splashed all over movie magazines, and therefore enviable, I’d also be a housewife, a doctor, lawyer, Indian chief; I could be a nun and a whore—which one could argue I have actually accomplished in my lifetime, if only offstage.
Neither of my parents had graduated high school, been to a play, read books. Children of Italian immigrants, they weren’t aware of half the things they were missing, but they still knew enough to feel inferior. Inferiority was a family affair. Perhaps by way of compensation, I convinced myself that I was born for great things. Stupendous fame would be my curse because of lack of privacy. And my blessing because of the zillions of dollars the world would shower on me. I would not be selfish; I’d give money to starving kids in Asia and Africa. But I’d also own a castle fit for a princess, and a Beverly Hills mansion or two.
When I was thirty-nine, Riding in Cars with Boys, the book I’d written about my life, was optioned by the movies before it had even seen print. The Oscar-winning writer, director, producer James L. Brooks flew me to the west coast first class to meet him. A Mustang convertible awaited me at the airport, but it was my agent, Todd Harris, who drove me around Beverly Hills saying, “One day you’ll own one of these mansions. I’ve got a nose for talent. And you’ve got it. Believe me. You could own this town if you wanted.” And I believed him, even though he also said, “I will always return your calls.”
Perhaps ex-teenaged mothers are more gullible than most. Getting pregnant in high school did not encourage high self-esteem. But since I was stuck home with a kid at eighteen, the library became my university, and books saved my life. Soon, I decided to be a writer instead of an actor, because writing would not require babysitters. Then the sixties hit town, late, in 1968, and the top of my head blew off. Living vicariously suddenly seemed lame. I was going to act in my own life, live in my own book. By 1971, I was able to add wild, promiscuous hippie; hitchhiker; shoplifter; divorcee; welfare mom; and convicted felon to the ways I saw myself. And then fatso. After my name was splashed on the front page of the newspaper for being part of a drug ring—not true—I gained thirty pounds; rather than one piece of toast dripping with butter and slathered with raspberry jam, I ate four. Fat and ashamed of myself, I avoided the mirror and slept every chance I got.
Eighteen years later, driving by the Beverly Hillbilly’s mansion with my agent, I pictured myself walking the red carpet on the movie’s opening night—and at the big bash afterwards, meeting Judith Rossner, the author of Waiting for Mr. Goodbar and other best sellers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I would take a sip of my drink, look her up and down with icy bug-out eyes and say, “Judith who?” She was the famous writer who’d failed me from the MFA creative writing program at Columbia University. I had never met her but had chosen her to read my thesis—an admittedly rough draft of Riding—because I considered her a popular novelist and not literary. Which was the best I believed I could ever ask of my own writing.
If I hadn’t been bawling hysterically when I read her critique, I might have laughed at the irony when I read, “This is not literary.” She accused me of creating “cardboard, cut-out characters from a situation comedy going from one implausible situation to the next.” I’d written truly about my life and called it fiction, and she thought I’d made it all up. She was wrong about that, but she was right when she said, “It’s easy to see why Beverly Donofrio’s energy has been mistaken for talent.” I was an imposter, a poser, a dreamer with dreams way bigger than my gifts.
Fallen from the impossible heights of own grandiosity, I gave up writing and took a fulltime job for only the second time in my life—as copy editor on a magazine.
And for the first time in my life, I got real. I had vowed that as a writer I’d work only part-time jobs to leave myself time enough to write, and that I would only write literature: novels, short stories, or poetry. While I was pursuing my lofty dreams, my thirteen-year-old son and I lived on pizza and Chinese, worried every month about making the rent, tolerated toothaches until I could save enough for the dentist. I’d been forcing my son to suffer deprivations so I could pursue my dreams, which had less to do with creating great literature than with being perceived as great by others.
I worked two jobs: proofreading on Sundays at Time Inc. and copy editing at the magazine during the week. After a few months of closely reading the submissions, I was pretty sure that I could write as well as at least some of the magazine’s writers. Soon I was contributing short pieces. And then I published an essay in the Village Voice, which won me a contract to write my first book.
After my agent dropped me back at the Beverly Hilton, I looked at myself in the mirror. I was wearing a designer outfit I’d bought in Soho with part of the $100,000 I’d been advanced from the $400,000 I would eventually be paid. The advance was probably more money than I’d earned in my entire life so far, and I was nearly forty. The sweater was hand-knit, in dark charcoal and lighter gray squares. The pants were jersey, smart, flowing thirties style and elegant. My face was youthful (people regularly mistook my son, who was twenty-two, for my boyfriend). My eyes were large and dark and a little scared looking. I tried to make them soft but deserving, the eyes of a woman entitled to admiration and love.
I believed that the plethora of affirmations I’d been repeating like a mantra for the past few years had not only paid off but been prescient: the universe honestly and truly did love me, was showering me with abundance, and I really was filled with joy. After all, since I’d begun the affirmations, I’d won the contract to write my book, had written it, and then sold it to the movies. Life had been coming up four-leaf clovers, literally. I’d found them everywhere I turned, probably a dozen in one summer. When the book actually came out, I was invited on “Good Morning America,” reviews and articles appeared in national magazines and newspapers—some accompanied by my picture, one of which was the aforementioned photo in which I looked like the ugliest woman I still have ever seen.
I think it must have been a few years after my encounter with the chinless woman, when I was fifteen, that I sat in front of the mirror and imagined an angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil on the other. I decided that if I could be either the angel or the devil, I’d choose the devil. As far back as the fifth grade I’d found suffering more interesting than kindness. I’d ridden on the train to New York City and been riveted, ogling at the tenement buildings, torn curtains wafting in the breeze, a man in a t-shirt sitting on a window ledge smoking a cigarette, dingy laundry strung across a fire escape. There had been a show on TV called The Naked City, which started with a voiceover each week, “There are ten million stories in the Naked City.” On the train I’d thought how at that very second a baby was being born dead, someone was dying all alone in an alley, someone had just been stabbed, shot, run over, stood up and was crying on her bed, a kid just fell out a window, another was being beaten by bullies.
I tried to make my face as ugly as that chinless woman’s and then as the devil’s. I was so scary I convinced myself that the devil was looking out through my own eyes. I’d invited the devil in so maybe I really had become possessed. But my mind didn’t yet know what my heart did: I was preempting God’s rejection. The God I thought I knew was selective and had to be won over by the good in your heart, the kindness of your actions, the love that you give. Attributes so hard for me to manifest, I believed them impossible. The devil, on the other hand, would take anybody. And the greater your deficit in the aforementioned attributes, the more he appreciated you. With the devil, I was in like gold.
I even moved to the Naked City after I graduated college at twenty-eight and then stayed for thirteen years, living on 12th St. and Avenue A. It was known as Alphabet City but could have easily been called Crack Depot, Junkie Haven, the Asphalt Jungle, another favorite movie. My landlady’s boyfriend was stabbed under my window and under my own eyes. People shot at each other. Students rumbled in front of the middle school across the road, which was next to a church I never entered. Once, on my way home, I passed a shooting victim, a tarp-covered corpse that had been roped off by the police. The guy’s feet, in brand new white sneakers, were sticking out. At home I wept, thinking of the guy’s mother and how she’d feel when she found out. Jeanette, the Frenchwoman who lived in the building next door, devolved from a lovely middle-aged woman with curled red hair, walking her little dog, to a ragged, make-up smeared, hair-matted woman, mumbling to herself, and without her dog.
Almost two years after my agent had driven me around Hollywood, and a mere year after my book had come out, I was feeling sad and depressed, even heartbroken. I’d expected that success would make people love me, which as far as I could tell hadn’t happened; in fact, my latest boyfriend had just dumped me. Jim Brooks, a Hollywood gorilla, had thought me talented enough to advance me money to write another book. I was supposed to be ecstatically happy, but I felt lonesome and empty. My son had graduated from college and was off on his own, which meant I was living alone without a child or lover to keep me company for the first time in my life.
I’d read books on Buddhism and knew about craving and how insatiable desire is, how even if you get what you think you want, it will never make you happy because you’ll only want more, and then more, and bigger, and better. I theorized that the only thing that could fill the hole of longing that had opened up in me was love, and I slowly came to interpret love as God, whom I decided I wanted to believe in. It was a journey for sure, which began with a devotion to the Virgin Mary. It took five years, thousands of prayers, buckets of tears while fighting for my life against an army of guilt, but I did come to faith in God. The God of my adulthood has no gender and loves you unconditionally; my God can’t help but love you, because he/she/it is love, pure, simple, and glorious. My God doesn’t love you because you are good, but loves you so you can be good. My God wants to fill you up with love so you overflow. But it will never happen unless you allow it. Even invite it.
At the beginning of this spiritual journey, years after the book had first been optioned, I moved out to Los Angeles because it looked like the movie was finally nearing production. At a party I met a woman screenwriter who had won an academy award. I was writing my second memoir, Looking for Mary, and working on it daily. I asked the screenwriter if she wrote every day, too. And she said, “Honey, if I wrote every day, I’d own this town.” And something snapped. “Who would want to?” popped into my head.
I’d been given an office on the Sony Pictures lot across the road from St. Augustine’s. When I’d hear the bell at ten minutes before noon, I’d dart out of the building and hurry across Washington Boulevard for mass. As often as not, I’d join a pick-up team of prayers, gathered in a few pews after mass, to say a rosary.
I consulted on many of the twenty-five drafts of the script, and then when the movie was green-lighted, I went to dinner with Drew Barrymore, who was to play me. We met in New York at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where the happy-hour crowd parted like the Red Sea.
Drew, a star since childhood, had just starred in “Charlie’s Angels,” which she also produced. Drew was who I had wanted to be.
The crowd calling out, “We love you, Drew,” felt like love. But it wasn’t love, it was adulation. How confusing would that be? I’m not proud to say, I felt proud to be seen with her. I caught myself, and soon after, I bowed out, left town and even the country. No telling how long before I’d start lusting after fame again.
Christ said, “You have to lose your life to gain it.” He meant we have to lose our own judgments, our cultural baggage, our warped values, even our youthful dreams, which might have fueled good changes in their time, to be able to grow beyond them and have a new life, a life of the spirit.
It is now seven years after the movie was released. For the past year I have lived as a lay member of a Carmelite community in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Colorado. Every morning and most evenings I invite God in and bare my heart, fears, and feelings. I try to keep love present in every moment and action of my days, which includes washing the dishes and the toilet. I am never successful, but I do usually remember once or twice or ten times a day to try. I meditate, which for me is a form of prayer. And sometimes in my prayer, I feel, more than actually remember, a very early time, a time before I came to believe I was not good enough. Perhaps the time lasted only until the age of two. Back then, the moon and the sun and the stars were inside of me, so were birdsong and the tree so majestically tall in my yard. I loved them all and they loved me, but it wasn’t like that. They were me and I was them.
This rare feeling, when it comes, is fleeting, but it makes me think we were all born feeling whole, not even feeling part of everything, but that we are everything. That the sky is not a ceiling. There are no heights to reach or rock bottom on which to fall.
I hadn’t remembered the chinless woman for a few years, until I began thinking about writing this essay. Now I thank her for being a part of my life. And I offer her this prayer: I hope that every person who may have loved you despite your deformity has come to love you because of it. I hope the years have filled you with so much love that when a rude girl stares at you, you might get furious but then let it pass, and toss her your own blessing: May you see the beauty inside of yourself, so you can see the beauty inside of me.
And this made me look at my own face, the one that used to belong to the girl my mother called a pip and a pill. Who used to line her eyes like Cleopatra, wear fishnet stockings under skirts that barely covered my wazoo. The one who could dance until the sun came up and give a look so contemptuous it would wilt you. The one who Drew Barrymore does not look like. The selfish mother who would lay down her life for her son. The grandmother who looks like an old shoe because she’s ready to drop from chasing around her three-year-old pip of a grandson. The hermit who sometimes can feel on her face the same expression she had when she was two—of wonder and joy, and the miracle in a breeze. We’re all here—there in the mirror—the woman with no chin on her face, too.