Books

With or Without You: Domenica Ruta’s Art of Survival in Perilous Terrain

There is an intimacy innate to memoir. There’s no separation, none of the suspension of disbelief characteristic of fiction in which author, narrator, and protagonist might all be distinct, in which your omniscient, nameless, faceless authorial presence might lead you through a story while remaining invisible, or the narrator is a character, completely distinct from the author. The reader comes to know the author’s work, but not the author. In memoir, the writer speaks to you directly, tells you a story about herself, one person to another, her personal and inner life laid bare before you, like a series of long literary letters from a friend.

Domenica Ruta’s first book, the memoir With or Without You, recounts Ruta’s turbulent life in the haunted, drug-funded, working-class North Shore of Massachusetts. The intimate tone that occurs naturally in memoir was amplified tenfold for me with Ruta. I also grew up in an old Boston suburb dotted with historical landmarks that look the same now as they did hundreds of years ago. She and I are nearly the same age. We grew up with the same technology, the same TV shows, and the same local teenage fads. I can imagine exactly what her accent would sound like. We were both outcasts, unpopular and depressed children. We smelled the same ocean breeze in the summers, watched the same storms from our windows. We lived among marshes, farmland, and forests, parts of which look just like the rolling farmlands in England, with stone walls and brambles, rose gardens, white picket fences, trellised archways, and original colonial A-frames that still stand, still made red with real oxblood paint.

Ruta was the child of a highly erratic single welfare mom who couldn’t or wouldn’t stay employed. She never seemed to need to work because there was always money to be made in moving drugs or a short stint in an odd job, just long enough to pay for the next new interest, but never anything resembling a primary vocation. She was a mom who dispensed love, affection, and lavish indulgences in enormous gestures matched only by the vile, hate-filled episodes of humiliation and verbal abuse she targeted at her daughter. With or Without You, as much as it is a personal memoir, is a story of a mother and daughter, of mutual obsession and the thin line between love and hate, pride and shame. Her story is beautifully told, with no pretention, but with a sophistication of language that is as poetic as it is easy and conversational.

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 a 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… 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.

It’s a quick and easy read, but not a throwaway. As simple and easy as it is, it’s also often very dark and also rewarding. Generous schadenfreude and moments of levity and sheer joy lift what might otherwise become bleak.

In the Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex counties of England, where Massachusetts’s—and therefore our country’s—first permanent white settlers came from, the land may look similar and the county and town names may be exactly the same, but the seasons are more reasonable, the flora and fauna less hazardous. Massachusetts, meanwhile, is unforgiving. Winter blizzards and summer heat waves are constant and deadly extremes, hurricanes threaten fishing and costal communities yearly, and disease-ridden carnivorous insects are especially vociferous. My father has an old almanac lying around somewhere from a couple centuries back—it was a popular pastime for educated farmers back then to write almanacs to amuse themselves—in it, there’s a dictionary that defines soil as a rich, life-giving fount of nutrients, except in New England, where the soil is composed of rocks. The surviving passengers of that first perilous Mayflower trip would have died of starvation and disease if the Native Americans hadn’t shown them how to fertilize this brutal land and protect themselves from lice and ticks. And we all know the thanks they got for that gift. But this is all to say that the society that lived on in this place, the society that I know and that Ruta knows, echoes the barbarism of the land itself.

The first half of With or Without You covers Ruta’s childhood recollections in simple, unadorned language. At the same time, though, this language is precocious, the result of a maturity wrought by daily fear of Ruta’s mother and her drug- and break-up-induced episodes. The opening scene places Ruta on a trip with her mother to smash in the windows of her brother’s ex with a fireplace poker in a thuggish display of honor and loyalty, a trait of Italian-Americans that’s stereotypical, but here rendered as all too real. “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. The 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. ”

Here we see the broken boundaries between mother and daughter that make for a muddled dynamic that often casts Ruta as not just a daughter, but a best friend, worst enemy, servant, pet, and personal savior.

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 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 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 by 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 covered in 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.

The mother-daughter relationship is the essence of the memoir. As different as her mother is from Ruta—an unpopular, sullen, depressive, intellectual child who seems to unwittingly invite the attention of bullies—their relationship is not only the essence of her childhood, but of her life. If the first half of the book is Ruta trying to gain that elusive love, attention, and approval from her mother, the second half is about her as an adolescent and adult, trying to escape, save, and recover from the same woman she idolized in the book’s first half. This memoir describes how a single child of a single parent is molded by that singular relationship, particularly when the parent is as fickle and dysfunctional as Ruta’s.

Ruta depicts her mother as a Debbie Harry blonde in tight jeans with too much cleavage. She is a chain smoker who never emptied an ashtray in her life, who instead switches to the empty beer cans and leftover takeout trays that litter her house. She believes soul-deep that she should be living like the Kennedys, and that her daughter will marry into wealth and class. And at the same time, she dares her own pre-pubescent child to call random passersby “cunts,” and when Ruta reluctantly does, her mother howls with laughter.

The effect, though, of Ruta’s writing was to make me love her loud, terrifying, borderline abusive and drug-addicted mother as much as she did. I yearned for her mother’s attention and love right along with her. With her mother’s erratic nature and strong, fleeting obsessions, Ruta had to compete for attention even with the polluted river behind their house that her mother worked virulently with environmentalist groups to protect. “I never dipped a toe in that water even then, no longer from fear but from spite. My mother already had so little attention to give that sharing her with anything else made me mortally pissed off. I watched that river through the windows of our house like a jilted lover studying her rival. It was the ultimate antagonist, always beautiful, never the same.”

Central to Ruta’s mother, and to Ruta’s childhood, are questions surrounding class. Ruta descends from both Italian and Irish Catholics, and the town she grows up in, Danvers, is a place where class and income level are to this day easily distinguished, a la Henry Higgins, by dialect, and locals can tell what block you grew up on and how much your house is worth by the precise way you drop your Rs. The descendants of our country’s first English settlers still thrive here. Their names are on 200-year-old libraries and town halls, and plaques that plaster historical sites.

The Rutas have thrived all over the North Shore, too. Names of people in their class are more likely to grace the awnings of pizza joints, cab companies, and pawnshops. When Ruta is accepted on a scholarship to go to boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover, the distinctions between classes become evident as she spends her adolescence with upper-class children from all around the globe, destined to become influential and famous icons of our generation, or at least phenomenally successful in business and society just like their parents.

Ruta is a series of contrasts herself: highly educated along with Boston blue bloods and people whose last names are on household products you use, an instinctual and highly literary reader from birth, but who still deeply identifies with the derelict house with rats and squirrels living in the walls, with a junky mother she adores and despises, a mother who begged her to get pregnant throughout high school just to give her a baby to amuse her.

These are the contradictions, aspirations, and past that lead Ruta onto her own dark path. As the story advances and we see, through the adult Ruta’s eyes, a more nuanced and poignant view of her life, a more realistic view of her mother’s wreckage, and also her own downward spiral. Bad relationships, crippling addictions, a series of depressing occupations, amount to self-described waste of an excellent education. But in true New England fashion, Ruta’s bittersweet story does not indulge in sentimentality, staying rooted in stoicism and the drive that make her both a compelling survivor, and a compelling narrator. “The Buddhists believe that every human life is like an ornament made of glass, something precious, beautiful, and bound to be destroyed. The trick is to see the world as a glass as already shattered, freeing yourself from a life exhausted in dread of the moment of breaking.”

There is something else heroic about With or Without You. Growing up as an avid reader—Ruta was, perhaps improbably, addicted to literature seemingly straight out of the womb—in Massachusetts, writers are confronted with too many hefty canonic literary figures to live up to: Nathaniel Hawthorne; Robert Frost; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Henry David Thoreau; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Louisa May Alcott; Oliver Wendell Holmes; Edgar Allan Poe; Herman Melville; Emily Dickinson; Sylvia Plath; e. e. cummings… The list goes on and on, and it keeps growing. And what’s more intimidating than these mammoth names is that many were blue bloods. Those who weren’t born that way were lifted to that status after their success and fame were established. But none of them wrote about a life so base and so low-class as Ruta’s.

Hers isn’t a redemption story, nor is it about great people who’ve fallen on hard times. There is no lofty family legacy, and their aspirations were naïve, even if achievable on many levels. She dropped her accent, and got her golden ticket education. But still, her family heritage is of a different kind of New Englander. The kind who yell “cunt” at strangers for fun and wear push up bras, platform heels, skintight jeans and animal print to interviews at prestigious prep schools—but not out of defiance. Out of genuine belief that that’s how to behave and dress. These are people who now end up with their pictures posted on People of Walmart. Other authors might make fun of them, or try to portray them as mythical noble savages. The salt of the Earth. But Ruta portrays them honestly. Sympathetic, understandable, humiliating, loyal, loving, cruel, criminal, tragic, ordinary, and even colossally trashy. They’re real people, and she honors them with her honesty.

Erica Blumenson-Cook earned a BA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. She works as a grant writer in Los Angeles.