Review: Domenica Ruta's With or Without You


Domenica Ruta's With or Without You is the autobiographical tale of a junkie's daughter, who navigates her mother's needles and pills on the way to adulthood only to end up with an addiction of her own. It's like Roald Dahl's Matilda, but without the magic or happy ending.

Ruta writes about her childhood with detached sadness. Growing up in Danvers, Massachusetts, she lives with her mother, Kathi, in the basement apartment of the family house.  Everyone knows Kathi as the town drug addict, and the memoir opens with Kathi trying - and failing - to smash a car's windshield with an iron poker. It tells you all you need to know about her:  she's violent and passionate and very, very crazy.  Outbursts like this came frequently between periods of extreme happiness. While Ruta waits in fear of her mother's next episode, she also encourages them. Ruta remains ominously addicted to her mother, barely able to escape Kathi's gravitational pull even when she moves across the country.

Although With or Without You has the telling bumps of a first book, it clearly conveys how addiction affects a family.  Every town has a Kathi. Ruta gives readers a glimpse into the life of the girl with the crazy mom, the girl whose house you weren't allowed to go to.

With that background, Ruta's own downfall seems inevitable, as she follows in her mother's footsteps. She does pills with her mom and becomes a functioning addict, trudging her way toward an MFA in writing.  Yet even while riding her own pill high, Ruta looks down upon her mother, promising herself never to be like her. It is often hard to stomach Ruta's hypocrisy, and hard to watch her justify her addictions. The book's saving grace comes when Ruta realizes she has a problem and heads for recovery.  

Ruta often leaves the reader wondering what's happening and why it's happening. Jumping around in the narrative, she invites confusion. At times this seems unintentional, but it also replicates for the reader Ruta's own chaotic experiences of her mother's intense, passionate and confusing love. Kathi praises and holds her daughter one minute, and berates her the next. The family goes from inexplicable wealth to abject poverty without warning. As hard as it is for the reader to make sense of this, it was probably harder for Ruta to live it, and to sort it into a memoir. Just as she couldn't escape ending up like her mother at one point in her life, she couldn't help but make the memoir in Kathi's image.

Domenica Ruta will be at the Brookline Booksmith on March 13 for a With or Without You reading, Q&A and signing.

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