I couldn't borrow enough money to finish on time, so I extended my credits and loans into an extra semester. I completed my thesis and chose as my reader a famous author of popular novels. I submitted an early draft of what would later become my first memoir. The famous author accused me of creating cardboard, cartoon characters from a TV sitcom and failed me.

A mountain of dreams collapsed on my heart. Who was I kidding: a teen mom, a girl from the projects with a smart mouth and no smarts. I cried for weeks, then gave up writing and found a full-time job as a copy editor for a national magazine. After a few months of close reading, I thought, "I can write as well as at least some of these writers," and soon I began publishing short pieces there. The editor-in-chief was a woman my age who seemed to hire only good-looking young male writers from Princeton. She flirted in the halls, had the last say in everything, and barely acknowledged my existence. But when I contributed a piece to another magazine, she fired me.

By this time, I had rejection chops, I had disappointment chops, I had experience enough to realize that this was not the end of the world. Which is not to say I didn't cry, a lot, but I was soon on the phone hunting down freelance copyediting work. I met people. I made connections. About a year later, when I published my first essay in The Village Voice, my mentor from graduate school, Richard Price, called to say, "You can get a book contract with this. Call my agent's office." I did, and soon landed a deal to write Riding in Cars with Boys.

To recount: I got pregnant in high school, became a convicted felon, almost killed myself and ended up in college. I graduated from college, was hit by a car, then went to graduate school. My thesis was flunked, so I quit writing, found a full-time job and was finally published. Fired from the job, I got a book contract.

Again and again, pain and disappointment launched me in a different direction, opened doors, seasoned me.

Yet, at age 55, even though I knew all of this, even though I'd been on a spiritual path for a while, and I knew that good can come from bad; even though I'd learned that the important question is not "Why me?" but "What now?"; even though the attacker was a serial rapist in the Mexican town I'd moved to seven years earlier, targeting gringo women between 50 and 60; and even though I, along with the entire population of my adopted town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me.

The Virgin Mary icons I'd painted as a form of prayer stood vigil on the wall behind the bed where, in the middle of the night, the rapist woke me up. "Don't scream. I have a knife," he said. I'd heard from his other victims that he liked to have a conversation after the attack to kill time before he got it up for another round. So I refused to talk to him and instead said Hail Marys aloud, which, miraculously, made him leave. By the next afternoon, I already was thinking: "If he had to attack somebody, I'm glad it was me."

I'd been evicted, twice; fired from jobs, twice; I'd been so broke once, I'd considered becoming a prostitute to pay for a dentist; I'd been a single mother since my kid learned to walk; I'd been a convicted felon. All those mistakes, missteps, hard knocks had made me tough, tough enough to survive this latest blow.

I wrote about the ordeal in the local paper, which included the words to the Hail Mary. People cut the prayer out, they memorized it, they prayed it and five days after the article appeared, the rapist was caught.

For the next six months, I retreated to monasteries to be silent and still and to heal. Then I remained in a Carmelite hermitage in Colorado as a lay member of the community for three and a half years. All this time, I kept asking what I was to learn from being raped, and wondering what, if any, good would come from the horror.

I meditated and prayed, read Scripture, studied mystics, took hikes 12,000 feet up the mountain to a pristine alpine lake, watched an ermine play in my birdbath, saw a bobcat pounce on a baby bunny and a hawk lift a rabbit into the air by its shoulders and then lay it on a patch of snow and tear at its flesh. I understood that in this world I'd come to believe was made and sustained by a creative force of love, beauty, and violence, good and bad were inextricably bound, as were peace and terror.

There's no denying that when tragic things happen, they rob us of the life we would have lived and of the person we might have been. One of my greatest fears when I was raped was that it would ruin me, that I'd never again be the same woman who'd gone innocently to sleep that night. Then one morning, years later, I was struck by a lightning bolt of insight: Why on Earth wouldn't I want to be changed by a powerful experience?

Is there ever change without loss? Is there ever not pain before recovery? I find life infinitely more interesting—and tolerable—when I believe I may find some gift in tragedy. As theologian Richard Rohr says, "Faith is not for overcoming obstacles; it is for experiencing them." Pain may provide the greatest incentive to grow, and perhaps picking ourselves up, moving on and learning is what we're called to do with our lives.

Beverly Donofrio is the author of the best-selling memoir Riding in Cars with Boys (Penguin). Her latest, Astonished (Viking), released in March, continues her story.

More from Beverly Donofrio


Next Story