Cocaine-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 or Without You
Spiegel & Grau
Feb. 26, 2013
Disclosure: I won a free advance reading copy of this book from Shelf Awareness.