When Joseph Luzzi returned in 2013 to the Rhode Island town where he had grown up, it didn’t feel like home. The previous November, his pregnant wife, Katherine, had been pulling out of a gas station when her car was struck by an oncoming vehicle. Their baby, Isabel, survived, but Katherine died.
After the tragedy, Luzzi, A89, moved home to Westerly, Rhode Island, for a few months so his mother could help care for Isabel. But he couldn’t connect with the infant, the neighborhood he’d once roamed, or the Italian classes he resumed teaching at Bard College (staying at his old apartment in Tivoli, New York, a few days each week).
“It was like falling through a trapdoor,” said Luzzi, whose memoir In a Dark Wood was published last year by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins. “I was happily married, waiting for my first child, happy with my job and where I stood in the world, and then suddenly I fell into this other dimension, where a lot was the same but completely different.”
For much of 2013, as Luzzi struggled get through each new day, one line kept echoing in his mind: “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” It’s the opening line of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the fourteenth-century masterpiece about the afterlife, inspired by Dante’s exile from his beloved Florence. “He spends the next twenty years roaming Italy, never fully at home, always in the back of his mind hoping he can get back to Florence,” Luzzi told me, “and he never does.”
The tale of being stranded in a strange land resonated with Luzzi. “I knew rationally I had to let go of the life I had, but emotionally I was hanging onto the idea of getting back a version of it,” Luzzi said. “To me, exile was the feeling of falling from one life into another that you didn’t want. It was an internal exile.” It was partly this realization that spurred Luzzi to start actively caring for his daughter. From there, he began dating and met Helena, the woman who would later become his second wife.
In 2014, Luzzi published his first non-academic book, a memoir called My Two Italies, and began working on a book about Dante for a general audience. Finally, he was ready to write about losing Katherine. “I reached a point where I had some perspective, but the rawness of the feelings was still there,” he said. “I felt the desire to bear witness both to her life and the suffering I went through.”
Luzzi completed a draft—but the material seemed too personal. In contrast, his book about Dante was too dry. That’s when it hit him: They were the same story. So, he combined them, producing In a Dark Wood. Through the process, he said, the guilt he’d buried deep inside, the regret over his perceived failures in the wake of Katherine’s death, evaporated. In creating a narrative for what happened, he was able forgive himself and move forward.
He hopes his book will help others do the same. “The dark wood is that space all people enter, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a professional setback, anything that’s your great crisis,” Luzzi told me. “I used to think it’s what lands you in the dark wood that defines you. Dante teaches it’s what you do to make it out.”
But how? Just as Dante followed his guides out of purgatory and hell, Luzzi said, we must open ourselves up to friends and family and rely on them as we rebuild our life.
“Even when things got really bad and bleak, I tried to hang onto the idea that I would meet someone, fall in love again, rebuild my family, move past grief and mourning,” Luzzi said. “What Dante teaches us is that you have to hang onto hope, even in your most difficult moments.”