Posts Tagged ‘Beverly Donofrio’

Mother Mary as in a Dream, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by
ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Last Wednesday afternoon I found myself in one of the best spots I could imagine, with my parents and oldest sister, and in the company of my beloved grandparents and best-ever uncle. We were in the cemetery in Raton, New Mexico, where Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Pat are buried.

I get my love of cemeteries from Mom. I didn’t know how much she loved them until this visit. I usually go to cemeteries with my dad; each Memorial Day we make the trek to Costilla, the place where his parents are buried. But on this particular trip Mom asked if we could stop in Raton to see her parents and brother. “I love cemeteries,” she told me as we left our relatives’ headstones and began exploring the grounds.

We walked all over the cemetery. The dry grass crackled under our feet. Most of the headstones were small and unassuming.

“Oh, there’s Joe Gourley,” Mom said. Joe was the son of a rich man in Raton, who Mom still calls “Mr. Gourley.” Joe Gourley, the son, went to war. When he came back he shot himself. Mom did the math in her head to make sure this was the right Joe Gourley, the one she knew who killed himself. “Yep, that would be about right.”

The June day my grandmother was buried here, we attended a funeral mass. According to my imperfect memory, it was a High Mass with incense and big drops of Holy water splashed in our faces. The priest, dressed in white robes and a white cap, bellowed a sermon of doom. I don’t know why this particular service seemed so gloomy to me — it was held in 1985, when I was 24 and gloomy myself — but I remember it plucked the chords of the guilt side of our Catholic faith. I felt resentful and confused. Was he talking about my grandmother or were his messages intended for us?

My relationship with Catholicism is complex, influenced, I think, by Mom’s own complex relationship with the Church. She rebelled against Dad’s absolute piety, and she strained against the rigidity — the intolerance — with which some Catholic priests ruled their parishes in those days.

If pressed, she might be apt to say something like, “I don’t believe in God.” Yet she was a believer. She was just unwilling to concede the fact.

At the rosary held for Grandma the night before her burial, Mom sat in the front right-hand side of the church. A benevolent Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white robes stood silently in the nicho of a wall facing Mom and her youngest sister, Connie. My grandmother’s death was a blow for my mother. Mom called my grandmother “Mama” up until the day she died — she still does. They were close, talking for hours each week. Mom cried and cried through the Our Fathers and Hail Marys. At one point, she peered through her veil of tears and saw that the Virgin Mary was crying, too.

“Tears came down her cheeks, we saw them!” Mom pleaded afterwards. Both she and Connie saw the tears. Later on, before the funeral mass the next day, we went to see if the Virgin Mary statue had raised porcelain tears on her cheeks. There were none. Still, I believed.


Beverly Donofrio in her book Looking for Mary says that when the spirit of the Virgin Mary is nearby, so too is the smell of roses. I remember Mom used to like everything — lotion, perfume, candles — that smelled of roses. Old lady smell, I always thought, even though for years of birthdays and Mother’s Days, I gave her rose-fragranced-anything-I-could-find.

I can’t recall now the last time I thought to give Mom anything having to do with roses. It’s only today that I remember how much she loved that unmistakable fragrance.

One of the photos I took on Wednesday caught my eye as I pored through the shots from that day in the cemetery. It is a small statue of Mary. She sits on the ground, a short distance from the marble headstone of the person she graces. All around the Mary statue are needles and small branches from a nearby pine. I have picked her only because of who she is, not because I know the person buried there. I have to almost lie on the grave myself to get down low enough to photograph the statue.

In the photo of her I notice a shaft of light, thin and almost imperceptible, coming down over her right eye. She is completely white, but there on that right eye is a speck of dirt exactly where her iris would be.

It is not earth-shattering. It is not the stuff that draws throngs of believers. It’s dirt and a small ray of light. It could be nothing. It’s easy to miss.

I call Mom and tell her about the photo. “Oh, really?” she says. She sounds intrigued. A lot has happened in the 23 years since her mother died. Over the years and through various family crises, my mother has turned to her imperfect faith and made it something all of us can hold on to. She prays a rosary every day. Her rebellious self has changed. You can still see remnants of it but she no longer rebels just for the sake of rebelling.

“What do you think,” she asks, “is it a little miracle?” I tell her I’m not sure but that I’ll bring by my computer so that she can see for herself. “I believe in miracles, you know,” she tells me.

I do know. I’ve never doubted that about my mom. That’s one of the gifts she gave to me and all my siblings.

Shaft of Light, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by ybonesy.
All rights reserved.

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What do James Frey — author of A Million Little Pieces — and Margaret Seltzer (who last week published a book under pseudonym Margaret B. Jones) have in common? Both wrote acclaimed memoirs that turned out to be fabrications.

Today The New York Times article “Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction” detailed how Seltzer, who is white and grew up in a well-to-do community in Los Angeles, portrayed herself in her memoir Love and Consequences as a half-white, half-Native American foster child involved with gang-bangers and drug dealers in South-Central LA.

It was like déjà vu all over again, reading about publisher Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Books USA, recalling all copies of the book and canceling Seltzer’s book tour. I was reminded of the ruckus triggered when The Smoking Gun exposed Frey’s greatly exaggerated account of his years as a drug abuser. Some of you might remember Frey’s appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and how she admonished him and his publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday, for duping readers (including Oprah).

Last week, the 1997 memoir Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, also turned up fraudulent. It told the incredible story of a Jewish girl from Brussels who by herself walked from Belgium to Ukraine over a period of almost four years, during which she survived alone in forests, encountered wolves, and stabbed a rapist.


What strikes me most about these cases is the extraordinary, almost over-the-top nature of each memoirist’s life. (Fabricated life, that is.)

These writers don masks, presenting themselves as individuals much more exciting than they really are. What happened to the notion that great writers can tell great stories, even if those stories are about ordinary lives?

In some respects, I can understand the appeal of an out-of-the-ordinary life. Looking back at the memoirs I’ve gravitated towards, more than a few detail highly unusual life experiences.

Consider this soundbite from Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors:

…the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus…The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of…where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull, an electroshock-therapy machine could provide entertainment.

While Running with Scissors did not make my all-time favorite list, I found it engaging enough to buy the sequel Dry. Both books became national bestsellers.

One memoir I enjoyed immensely was Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. At the age of three, Fuller moved with her family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The opening scene sets the tone for the almost insane adventure Fuller’s family had undertaken — staking a claim as whites in this turbulent, war-torn region of Africa:

Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”

They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”

“Why not?”

“We might shoot you.”


“By mistake.”

“Okay.” As it is, there seems good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight did make my all-time favorites, primarily for writing that would make even the dullest of lives seem magical.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr is another best-selling memoir that described a childhood on the edge. What stands out most to me from this book is the scene where the author’s drunken mother starts a bonfire in her front yard, burning up every article of clothing and piece of furniture owned.

Critics characterized Karr’s childhood as “God-awful,” “calamitous,” and “crazy,” yet, again, it was the dazzle of her words that pulled me in and landed this book on my list of favorite memoirs.


I have to wonder, though, if the success of childhood accounts like Running with Scissors, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and The Liars’ Club has created pressure for memoirists to one-up the drama. To come up with life experiences that are almost so wild-and-woolly that publishers can’t pass them up.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m simplifying.

What I do know is that these fradulent memoirs have cast doubt on the genre as a whole. Lee Gutkind, often described as the godfather of creative nonfiction (of which memoir is a subset), dedicated a special issue of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction to countering damage caused by A Million Little Pieces and helping shed light on the oft-misunderstood genre of creative nonfiction.

In the process of explaining what went wrong with Frey’s book, Gutkind talks about the “Five R’s” — or basic tenets — of creative nonfiction:

  • The Real Life aspect of writing
  • Reflection of the writers feelings and responses about a subject
  • Research about a person, place, idea, or situation
  • Reading the work of masters in their profession
  • Riting

This issue is a must-read for anyone interested in writing or reading memoir. If that happens to be you, I would also encourage you to read two more books from my all-time favorites list.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel was almost extraordinary for the boring, small-town life it recounts. And Looking for Mary (Or, the Blessed Mother and Me) by Beverly Donofrio tells the story of a non-practicing Catholic who takes a trip to a holy site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared.

Both books show how ordinary lives can become ordinary yet engaging stories. No need to have had truly unusual life experiences. And definitely no need to make up extraordinary life experiences.

Just follow Gutkind’s “Five R’s” and you’ll get there.

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