Hitting the Memoir Motherlode: With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

cover image of With or Without YouCocaine-fueled rages, scathing insults, and drunken oversharing aren’t what a daughter hopes for in her relationship with her mother, but Domenica Ruta relates many of these un-tender moments, along with the occasional affectionate gesture from her mother in her memoir, With or Without You.

Growing up in the ’80s with her flamboyant, substance-abusing mother in Danvers, Massachusetts, a working-class town north of Boston, Domenica Ruta became a bookish, lonely girl – the opposite of her partying mother, who was always coming off her last high or heading for her next one. An excellent student who was often kept home by her mother to watch movies on TV, Domenica eventually got admitted on scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover, a private boarding school, for her final three years of high school. Andover isn’t far from Danvers in actual distance, but it was an escape from her mother’s suffocating orbit; it got the lonely, troubled Domenica away from the Kathi Ruta’s mood swings, junkie friends, alcoholic husband, wildly fluctuating finances, and squalid housekeeping.

The escape comes too late, though. In the summer after tenth grade, sober, serious, tidy Domenica – whose mother constantly denigrated her for being “square” and no fun – starts using drugs herself.

My mother didn’t fuss over me as much once I started smoking pot. She seemed relieved. I had friends coming over to the house when I was home and another set of girls to hang out with at school. I moved seamlessly, though not without guilt and tiny pricks of shame, between my two different worlds. This is fairly typical of scholarship kids at prep schools. My Andover friends felt more like business associates. Finishing our homework and getting high without getting caught were occupations we shared. We studied together, baked cupcakes in the dorm counselor’s apartment, debated about Kant and free will versus determinism, practiced our Russian with elderly immigrants, tutored inner-city children after school, and found every possible opportunity to sneak into the woods and get stoned. Back home I became known as the girl who lived in That House, the broken-down one with no rules. Kids from my old public high school and then friends of their friends discovered that they could drink and smoke at my place with impunity. There were times when I returned home from boarding school to find kids I had never met before sitting on my porch, smoking cigarettes. They would nod at me sullenly, as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

Domenica Ruta’s high school and college binge-drinking habit eventually develops into full-blown alcoholism. Writing With You or Without You seems to be as much a way of convincing herself that the past is really past as a way of working through her complicated love-hate relationship with her addict-mother.

I haven’t been able to find any reporting on fact-checking the truth behind Domenica Ruta’s book, but after publishers have been burned on fake memoirs so many times, I would guess there has been some. The author mentions towards the end seeing an article about her mother’s run-ins with the law that can be easily found on the Web site of the local paper. I would be curious to hear Kathi Ruta’s response to With or Without You (which includes, almost as an aside, a serious allegation of repeated sexual abuse by an uncle that her mother may or may not have been aware of) but any reporter who called might get a response similar to the one quoted in the newspaper article: “Call someone who gives a ****, sweetheart.” After reading the memoir, I get the sense that Kathi Ruta would be both proud of her daughter for writing a book and proud that she herself is the central figure in her daughter’s narrative.

With You or Without You is a good one to recommend to readers who liked The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or Parched by Heather King.

With or Without You
Ruta, Domenica
Spiegel & Grau
Feb. 26, 2013
978-0-8129-9324-0
224 pp.
$25.00, hard.

Disclosure: I won a free advance reading copy of this book from Shelf Awareness.

Other opinions (all good)
Bibliophile by the Sea
BookChick Di
The Relentless Reader

14 thoughts on “Hitting the Memoir Motherlode: With or Without You by Domenica Ruta”

  1. I saw a brief mention of this one somewhere and thought it looked interesting but I was wavering on picking it up so I was glad to see your review in my feed this morning. The “if you liked The Glass Castle” comparison was especially helpful. I think I’ll try the audio, despite a general preference for professional narrators rather than the author reading their work (even with memoirs.) Thanks.

    1. There was love there, it seemed! If the author had been born another generation later, her grandmother might have taken custody of her, but that wasn’t as easily done back then, I guess.

  2. That sounds so sad, that she was so close and yet it happened. Glad that she has made it through though. Interesting what you’ve said at the end there about her mother.

  3. I knew that whole family. I haven’t read the book yet – just read this review and purchased it for my Kindle. But I would venture to say that any bizarre, insane, drug fueled chicanery is true. And I am sure that she didn’t know the half of it. So happy to see her being a successful adult. She was a sweet kid.

  4. “Domenica Ruta grew up in a working-class, unforgiving Italian town north of Boston where in the seventeenth century women were hanged as witches. Her mother, Kathi, a notorious figure in this hardscrabble place, was a drug addict and sometime dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches, whose highbrow taste was at odds with her base appetites.” (http://www.domenicaruta.com/the-book)

    Although I have only started reading Domenica Ruta’s memoir, I must object to the author’s description of her hometown. True, Danvers is situated north of Boston, but it is hardly “working class,” “unforgiving,” and “hardscrabble.”

    In 1999, the median household income in Danvers was approximately $59,000; and family income, approximately $71,000. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, only 2.9% of individuals in the town lived below the poverty level, as compared to 12.2% nationally. When compared nationally to other communities of similar size, Danvers ranks among the top 11% middle-class communities.

    Like many other suburbs in Massachusetts, Danvers has relatively low diversity. Ninety-seven percent of the population is white. The largest ethnic groups are Irish (24%), Italian (15%), and English (12%).

    Danvers, moreover, is hardly what the author describes in her book as a “dying phenomenon: a place where everyone knows everybody else.” Although residents tend to be friendly and welcoming, such intimacy in a town of approximately 25,000 seems unfathomable.

    Many, maybe all, memoirists follow too closely the advice given by Emily Dickinson. They tell the truth but they “tell it slant.”

    1. I hope I didn’t put words into her mouth, because I can’t remember now if those adjectives to describe Danvers were from the author or the publisher. I think growing up with a single mother on welfare who ran afoul of the law may have placed her in the seamier, poorer segment of Danvers society. I did find Danvers described by a police chief in 1980 as “a paradise for car thieves”. It also had a state mental hospital, which don’t tend to show up in the tonier towns! I thought, too, her idea that everybody knew everybody else was within neighborhoods, the way people in a neighborhood tend to form ideas about others in the neighborhood.
      Please check back in and let me know what you think of the book as you get further into it!

      1. You didn’t put words into the author’s mouth. They are found on both the book’s cover and her website,and they permeate the book reviews I have read. As a result, I felt that the reputation of Danvers needed to be scrubbed.

        Ruta’s neighborhood, which runs off a main road and backs up to the river, cannot be described as seamy, although it certainly isn’t “toney.” Like my own children, the author may have known and been known by everyone on her street, but expanding that experience of intimacy to an entire community is misleading.

        Danvers, moreover, isn’t crime-ridden. Although the car theft rate may be higher than other communities, that is most likely due to the shopping center that opened in the ‘60s and was expanded in the ‘90s.

        The Danvers Mental Hospital, always a stain on the town’s reputation, closed in 1992.

        Substance abuse continues to be a problem for society as a whole. The author’s recovery, in spite of her dysfunctional family, is to be commended.

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