In Memoriam: Rebecca Godfrey 1967-2022

Leslie Jamison
October 14, 2022

I’m heartbroken to share the news that our beloved faculty member Rebecca Godfrey died on October 3 after a long struggle with cancer. Rebecca was a singularly luminous person—fiercely devoted to her family, her writing, her friends, and her students. She was large-hearted, funny, exuberant and charming, ferociously loyal, joyfully stylish, bracing and tonic in her honesty, startlingly acute in her insights. She was a seeker and maker of beauty. Loving something made her want to give it to the world, which is part of why she was such a committed teacher. In the words of Madelaine Lucas '19, a former student and dear friend, “Rebecca was a generous and unwavering champion of her students’ work. She saw the best in us, and what we were capable of. To have someone genuinely believe in your work like that as a new writer is life changing.”

Headshot of Rebecca Godfrey

Rebecca’s seminar on anti-heroines expressed her appreciation for rebels of all shapes and guises, exploring “how these unruly characters—recluses, seducers, imposters, grifters, eccentrics, and terrorists—disrupt conventional notions of femininity, as well as the story itself.’ Her own novel, The Torn Skirt, is a ragged, intoxicating, and brutal account of female consciousness coming-of-age. Her seminar on crime writing wrestled with a dilemma, “How can artists explore murder and violence in a manner that is insightful and complex?” that her second book, Under the Bridge, managed to navigate with fearless grace. An account of the murder of  fourteen-year-old Reena Virk, a Canadian high school student, Under the Bridge brought Rebecca's nuanced gaze to characters who emerge as mysterious, contradictory, tough and tender and plural. Rebecca's writing lets them hum and shimmer and confound us. Under the Bridge is currently being adapted into a limited series for Hulu, and near the end of Rebecca’s life it brought her a sense of pride and joy to know that the story she’d told with such rigorous compassion would reach a broader audience. Throughout her illness, she remained passionately engaged with her novel-in-progress, based on the life of Peggy Guggenheim—another charismatic anti-heroine, disrupter of conventions, and seeker of beauty.

The last time I visited Rebecca in the hospital, I read aloud to her from Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and every once in a while, Rebecca would murmur, “How does she do that?” I felt the same way, often, about Rebecca herself—how she mothered and taught and wrote with such verve and full-hearted commitment, through sickness and exhaustion; and how she continued to bring together people she loved, writers she loved, friends she loved.

Talking to Rebecca was a form of oxygen. It was many forms of oxygen at once. She never looked away from the difficult or the terrible, and she was always interested in beauty as a means of survival. Craft made her feel alive. Honesty made her feel alive. Work made her feel alive. Teaching made her feel alive. Mothering made her feel alive. The joy and struggle of writing made her feel alive. It feels impossible that she’s no longer alive. She will be dearly missed.

If you would like to share a remembrance of Rebecca, please send one to [email protected]. I’ll be compiling these remembrances to share with Rebecca’s family.

Rebecca Godfrey was an award-winning novelist and journalist. Her first novel, The Torn Skirt, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Under The Bridge received one of Canada’s largest literary awards, the British Columbia Award for Canadian Nonfiction, as well as the Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing. She held an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and received fellowships from Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony. In 2016, she edited and curated the multimedia exhibition, Girls In Trees. She taught writing at Columbia University, and lived with her family in upstate New York.