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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Domenica Ruta’s Acclaimed Memoir

Domenica Ruta is author of the memoir "With or Without You." (Meredith Zinner)

Domenica Ruta is author of the memoir “With or Without You.” (Meredith Zinner)

Growing up in Danvers, Mass., writer Domenica Ruta was extremely close to her single mom Kathi.

But Kathi not only loved Domenica fiercely and pushed her to achieve, she would also undercut Domenica’s achievements: pulling her out of school to watch movies and alternating praise with screaming fits.

Kathi also used and occasionally sold prescription and illegal drugs, which she would share with her daughter.

“Our refrigerator was full of rotten food, we didn’t have Q-tips, we were always running out of toilet paper, but we had a full medicine cabinet full of high grade narcotics,” Ruta told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ruta developed her own substance abuse problems.

She writes about her alcoholism, and her life growing up with her charismatic but chaotic mother in her new memoir, “With or Without You,” which The New York Times calls a “luminous, layered accomplishment” (see excerpt below).

Book Excerpt: ‘With or Without You’

By: Domenica Ruta

Prologue: Glass

Domenica Ruta book With or Without You

My mother grabbed the iron poker from the fireplace and said, “Get in the car.”

I pulled on my sneakers and followed her outside. She had that look on her face, distracted and mean, as though she’d just been dragged out of a deep sleep full of dreams. She was mad, I could tell right away, but not at me, not this time.

Her car was a lime-green hatchback with blotches and stripes of putty smeared over the dents. The Shitbox, she called it. We called it, actually. My mother hated the thing so much she didn’t mind if I swore at it. “What a piece of shit,” I’d grumble whenever it stalled on us, which we could gamble on happening at least once a day, more if it was snowing. Far and away the most unreliable car we ever had in our life together, it was a machine that ran on prayer.

Among the car’s many other defects, the inside casing of the passenger door  had broken  off, leaving the mechanical skeleton that controlled the window and lock exposed. I poked my fingers inside the levers, watching the sinewy rubber push and pull, the metal joints grasp and release. A spectacular display. I couldn’t get enough of it. “Stop it,” Mum said. She reached over and grabbed my hand. “This car’s old as me.” More than twenty years, at least. “I don’t know how much longer it’s going to stay in one piece.”

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

She lit the cigarette bobbing anxiously between her lips and slid her key into the ignition. I held my breath. It was a ritual so intuitive that I never questioned its provenance or worth,  silently assuming that any exchange I might have with the present atmosphere would choke up the magic at work under the car’s hood. And then what? Would we be able to drive to school, work, and stores, like everyone else in the suburbs? Or would we hear the familiar sputter and cough that so often ruined our day?

“Come on,” Mum whispered. “Come on.”

A rumble. The engine turned over. We were going somewhere. My mother  and I lived on the North  Shore of Massachusetts.

Boston was only thirty minutes away, though we seldom made it out that far. Not in one of her cars. Wherever we went that day was close to home, because we drove for only a few minutes before she parked on a quiet, tree-lined street and got out. I remember watching her body pass by through the windshield, then jumping into her arms as she opened the door, lifted me up, and sat me on top of the car’s hood. It was a cool gray day and the metal felt warm beneath my legs. Mum leaned into the open driver’s-side window and pulled out our fireplace poker from the backseat. Then, without  a word, she began smashing the windshield of someone else’s car.

This other car was red, I remember, but it’s possible I’m wrong, that over the years I’ve painted it in my mother’s rage. How old was I? Four, maybe five? Small enough still that my mother sometimes carried me but too old to be shocked by the things she did.

My mother.  Her  name was Kathleen, which she shortened to Kathi. Spell it with a Y or, God forbid, a C, and she’d lacerate your face with her scowl. She was a hair taller than five feet and I once saw her turn over a refrigerator during a fight with one of her boyfriends. The core of  her strength was concentrated in her lungs. Like all the women in our bloodline, Kathi was a screamer. Sometimes she opened her mouth and the screech that came out sustained for minutes without breaking or getting hoarse. She used to bend down to scream directly into my face, and I would get lost staring at the black fillings in her molars, the heat of her breath touching my skin like a finger. But volume was never an accurate herald of my mother’s mood; loud was simply the who and the what of her. That voice, those big dangling earrings, the long red nails and skintight jeans and shirts slit open a few inches below the cleavage of her enormous breasts. I was forever climbing onto my mother’s lap, trying to button her shirt higher. “No, Honey,” she’d say, pulling my hands off her chest. “Mummy wants to show off her boobies right now.” Her hair was almost  black,  but she insisted on bleaching it Deborah Harry blond. She had one tattoo, a small but regrettable crab on her left ring finger. It was her astrological sign—the Cancer. Even she was ashamed of it, I know, because she hid it under a gold wedding band long before she ever married.

What else do you need to know about this woman before I go on with the story? That she believed it was more important  to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one; that she allowed me to skip school whenever I wanted to, and if there was a good movie on TV she wouldn’t let me go to school because, she said, she needed me to stay home and watch it with her; that, thanks to this education, I was the only girl in the second grade who could recite entire scenes from Scarface and The Godfather by heart; that she made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine; that her ability to make money was alchemical; that she was vainer than a beauty queen, but the last time I saw her she weighed more than two hundred pounds and her arms were encrusted with purulent sores; that she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me; that at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me.

Now, where was I?

Bashing the windshield of a red car.

This car belonged to a woman named Josie, an ex-girlfriend of my mother’s only brother. I don’t know whether my uncle asked my mother  for this favor or if she had volunteered. Either way seems plausible now. My mother’s Italian-American family had a thuggish, moronic code of honor that everyone violated as often as they upheld it. This windshield job was an act of loyalty. I learned as I grew up that my mother would demand nothing less of me.

At this point  in Kathi’s life she weighed about  a hundred  and twenty-five pounds.  With such a pillowy shape on her diminutive frame, the woman didn’t have powerful torque on her side. But put a metal bar and some anger in her hands and Mum could swing like Ted Williams.

After what seemed a long time, the windshield chipped in one spot.

“Don’t look at Mummy right now, okay?” she muttered to me. What else was I supposed to be watching? And who was she trying to kid? My mother loved an audience. No one knew this better than I did.

She took a few more whacks and the chip began to crack outward in jagged spokes, the shape of the sun as I drew it in my crayon land- scapes.

Sitting on the hood of the car, I wanted nothing more than to hear the glass shatter,  but it was taking forever. My mother and I seemed to realize this at the same moment,  because she stopped, turned to look at me, and shrugged, as if to say, “You’d think this would be easier.”

My body leaned toward hers like a plant stretching in the direction of the sunniest window in the room. I prayed with each strike that we would finally hear it—the lovely, delicate rainfall of something whole now in pieces. My mother beat that woman’s windshield with everything she had, but it would not shatter. Eventually she gave up. We got back into the car and drove home in silence, both of us longing for the sound of breaking glass.

Excerpted from the book WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Domenica Ruta. Copyright © 2013 by Domenica Ruta. Reprinted with permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


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  • Frank McManus

    Wow … much of this sounds like a technicolor version of my own monochrome childhood — but I knew never to drink out of open cans around the house!

    I came to understand my mother as having Borderline Personality Disorder, though not until I was in my 30s. I had to cut her off, too.

    Must read this book. Thanks!

  • Margaret

    As I’ve often said, if you’re not able to protect yourself, you’re at risk of misery and even of survival. I saw this in working in group homes for the handicapped; hearing about the inadequacies of foster care;experiencing the lack of interest on the part of school counselors; etc. No one ( or, maybe only the few) really cares about children or any one else for that matter if it interferes with their agenda, as Dominica stated.
     If all of us just were more compassionate to our fellow human beings what a better world it would be for everyone.
     Luckily, she not only had a strong intellect but a strong survival gene.

  • Happy

    I just heard this interview on my way to work. My mother wasn’t a drinker or into drugs but she was a person who didn’t know or feel comfortable with her own self which led to lots of different men and always changing herself and my sister and I to ‘fit’ them. The thing that resonated with this interview was the point about mothers wanting their children to do better than them but then being jealous of it or angry about it when it happened. This is exactly what happened with my mother and her jealousy was so toxic that I had to cut her off, too. I’m going to pick-up this book. Great interview!

  • Danyale1984

    My breath has just been taken away.  My mother was an alcoholic. She could be the most funny, loving, person but also she would berate me with insults tell me how she hated me and would even fight me when she was really intoxicated. She died when I was 15 and it is si difficult to be a young adult. Desperately needing the guidance and unconditional love from a parent but, not connecting that feeling with your own mother. I have to read this book.

  • Kristina

    I just printed out your first chapter…excited to read your book. I am inspired to  maybe….start working on my book again…very different story but the same in some ways.

  • Sway

    I listened intently to this interview and ended up with tears in my eyes. I was lucky enough to grow up with two parents who love me dearly, though they resorted to heavy drinking when life got hard. I never felt neglected. I always had healthy meals, nice clothes, a roof over my head, and lots of encouragement. But I’m still coping with the way they acted– towards each other and toward me–while drinking. I always tell people I was raised in a bar — often nights my parents would take me along on their nights out because it was just cheaper and easier than finding a baby sitter. I had no idea this was not normal until I was in highschool. So I could relate to Domenica’s story about praying for a safe journey home. It’s tough growing up with addicts. I find it’s harder now as an adult sometimes, because I always find myself thinking about those horrific moments. My parents are on and off in recovery, but when they start to slip back into old ways, I feel helpless. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I cannot wait to read this book. Maybe it will help me through my ongoing hope to have closure. 

  • BabCa

    I will be buying this book, as I listened to your story I was also reflecting on how I grew up. I too lived in trashy home, had no food but plenty of drugs and alcohol for my single mothers parties. I used to think God was punishing me by making me and my brother live this way. Thank you for your story and excited to read this book.

  • Lou Carlozo

    So sorry to say this, but has Domenica been vetted? Faked memoirs are all the rage these days. I think of just two of the many: James Frey’s “A million Little Pieces,” and “Love and Consequences” by Margaret B. Jones, who turned out to be a wealthy white woman and not a part American Indian foster child. There have been WAY too many of these of recent … and regardless. Domenica’s story has a problematic issue: She’s confessing the sins of another family member. Hmmm. That’s not exactly courageous. Wonder how her mother feels about that?

    • momajo

      When I read the book, I could  literally hear Kathi’s gravely voice. The syntax is consistent with what I remember from many years ago.

      I went to school with Dominica’s mom, Kathi Ruta. Kathi was a notorious and boisterous stoner,  as well as  the president for all four years of the Danvers class of 1976. I wasn’t a close friend, but trust me, we all knew her. If you want to check out what Kathi’s been up to for the recent past, some of her woes are  well documented in the Danvers Herald articles from 2010. Will this serve as vetting?

      I think it’s safe to say that you  have not read the book.  It’s a heart wrenching and powerful piece. I daresay, if she keeps writing like this,  she’s well on her way to being to Danvers, what Updike is to Ipswich.

      • Robin Y

        Lou, I understand your question! As we said, even her mother said, it’s all true.
        Besides, Domenica is fiercely honest about her own sins.  
          And to the comment above, to think that Kathy might have been president of her class, as her daughter was, in this same town, makes me even sadder than I’ve been about her story. I’ll ask Domenica about that.  Best to all,Robin   

  • Sa162508

    I really enjoyed the segment on ms Ruta’s memoir. As someone who has struggled with prescription drug dependence, I smiled upon hearing of her success with sobriety. I’m now overcoming my own addictions and really appreciate being reminded that none of us are alone when it comes to such things. Thank you :) I love your show!

  • S. Wyshkind

    Why do you believe this “grateful” daughter? I heard the interview with the author.
     She complained that catholic daycare was not good enough for her. That girls at school hated her because of her mother, that she grow up  on drugs of her mother that were given to her by mother, and …  that she was put in the best school by her mother and graduated that school, and graduated college, and got  master  degree.
    I do not see consistency in this tale about drug edict, unruled mother and well organized, successful daughter raised up by this monster. I do not trust her because she dumped her mother, when mother asked for some help. She said that she couldn’t bare change of moods of her mother any more just after get successful. This is a good reason to dump aging mother.
    I doubt honesty of this daughter. Also her mother do not have opportunity to defend herself as it should be in any judgement.
    Why did you choose this Ruta?
    If mother asked for help it’s not because of jealousy (it is such shame to propagate this as jealousy), but because she think that she spent her life raising a child and she deserved some help from this child, when she need it.
    I see many old women with lifeless eyes. I know now the reason of theirs eyes expression -they are old mothers  abandoned by theirs children. This is very, very coming in USA. This is America’s shame!

    • momajo

       you really need to read the book to get the full and gruesome picture of what was going on here. Sadly, sometimes a parent is so destructive and abusive,  the only solution is to separate oneself. Reading the parts where the mother praised and then screamed,  at her, for me,  was the worst of all. For a child, it’s the worst. that confusing mixed message. I feel sick to my stomach thinking about it.

    • deels

       S. Wyshkind, I was a good friend of Kathi.  I took care of Nikki when she was a baby; I changed her diapers and rocked her to sleep.  The pattern was already emerging when Nikki was an infant.  I moved away and never knew how dramatically the downward spiral progressed, and I wish with all my heart that I had recognized it at that time.  I can tell you that this is all true.  Kathi also agrees that it is true.  Nikki did not “dump” her mother when she was successful.  She did that when she was still entrenched in her own addiction.  I recommend that you read the book.  I liken it to Jeannete Walls’ “The Glass Castle”.  It is a powerful memoir. It is honest and fair.

  • Jah458

    I too went to high school with Dominica’s mom and just finished the book.  I cried mostly from regret and guilt and for Nikki and Kathi’s lost childhoods.  My memories of Danvers are some what idyllic-a normal, average middle class town.  There were no ‘bad’ neighborhoods albeit some poor ones.  Our class of about 400 had it’s cliques but I don’t remember any real animosity between them like there is today.  Everyone was generally friendly and we were all aware of the drug scene.  There was no pressure to do or not to do.  It just was there, everywhere.  I feel ashamed that I did not know that things were so bad for some classmates and I never did anything.  I know I can’t do anything about that now but it hurts that I was so oblivious.  Nikki is a courageous young woman.

  • Beryl10

    Although Dominica is certainly a talented writer and her relationship and life with her mother is her’s to tell, her account of some of the adult members of her extended family is inaccurate.  It is unfortunate that in telling her story she is willing to characterize them thus.  Perspective is everything and her’s was a dark one, but there is enough sadness and damage without causing more.  
              – a  friend of the family - 

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