Wednesday, February 27, 2013

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

I haven't read a memoir as good as With or Without You  since The Glass Castle, The Liar's Club and Running With Scissors. In spite of all the harsh and highly questionable parenting that Domenica, 'Nikki', is subjected to at the hands of her needy, unreliable and often drug addicted mother, there is fierce love among the pages of this book. I don't know, perhaps it's the occasional humor peppered throughout, or the sense of family loyalty - the simple fact that we all only have one mother, so what's a child to do? - or the fact that the author grows to recognize her mother's limited maturity and learns to adjust her expectations.

Domenica's writing in With or Without You is clear and straightforward and, as with many memoirs of wrecked childhoods, difficult to read, to witness, without cringing. I marvelled at the author's resilience and, after her own rocky start to adulthood, her ability to rise above a life not many manage to overcome. Once I started reading, it was almost impossible to put down.

Highly recommended reading for those involved with family and loved ones struggling with addictions.

Domenica grew up in a working-class, unforgiving town of north of Boston, in a trash-filled house on a dead-end road surrounded by a river and a salt marsh. Her mother, Kathi, a notorious local figure, was a drug-addict and sometimes dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches, and whose high-brow taste was at odds with her hardscrabble life. And yet she managed, despite the chaos she created, to instill in her daughter a love of stories. Kathi frequently kept Domenica home from school to watch such classics as the Godfather movies and everything by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, telling her, "This is more important. I promise. You'll thank me later." And despite the fact that there was not a book to be found in the whole household, Domenica developed a love of reading, which helped her believe that she could transcend this life of undying grudges, self-inflicted misfortune, and the crooked moral code that Kati and her cohorts lived by.

With or Without You is the story of Domenica Ruta's unconventional coming of age - a darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit '90's youth and the necessary and painful act of breaking away, and of overcoming  her own addictions and demons in the process. In a brilliant stylistic feat, Ruta has written a powerful, inspiring, compulsively readable, and finally redemptive story about loving and leaving. (back cover)

Publisher: Spiegel and Grau
Published: February 26, 2013
Length: 224 pages
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780812993240


The three of them were locked inside their collective nightmare. I wandered in the dark behind them, invisible and restless as a ghost. It was as though I wasn't there. A blessing, I suppose, to be excluded from the drama. Until one night Carla shouted at my father: 
"Why don't you ever hit her?"
Carla pointed to where I stood clutching the banister, and the feeling of a rusty shiv pierced my ribs. Why was not an interrogative adverb in this sentence; it was a modal of suggestion, as in, Why don't we invite the neighbors over for supper? Why don't we go apple picking this weekend? Why don't we try to be more egalitarian with our violence? pg49

In that big backyard I read about the spider who spun prophetic words into her web, about the lion who gave up his life for the sake of four bereft orphans, about the pioneer family in a covered wagon battling scarlet fever and blizzards. I read about the gods and goddesses of Greek antiquity, who were as real to me as the people in my family. It was amazing to me how much time could disappear while I was reading. pg 52

It was a funny inhibition, considering Kathi was utterly lacking in social restraint. There is a ripple of meat in the frontal lobe responsible for impulse control. When the neurons are firing appropriately, it prevents most of us from, let's say, telling the hostess of a crowded restaurant to go fuck herself because we're hungry and all the tables happen to be full. This part of my mother's brain was a blitzkrieg. Her emotions could erupt anywhere, at any time - at a department store, in a dentist's office, on an airplane. If I tried to intervene, all the radiation she was leaking would concentrate into one furious laser beam aimed right at me. I'd learn the hard way that the only thing I could do in these moments was step back and watch her detonate. pg 98

The movie Pulp Fiction should have been subsumed into the boys-only category, but the girls of Paul Revere got hold of it first. There was a lot of hype about this movie when it was released. The violence was supposedly graphic and disturbing, so much so that movie theaters across the country cracked down on checking IDs before you entered the theater, meaning that only a couple of kids from New York City had actually seen it. The house counsellors at Paul Revere were pretty supportive of any weekend activity that didn't leave us pregnant or dead, so not only did they rent Pulp Fiction for us one Saturday night, they baked us cookies, too. pg100


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds like a wonder and somewhat painful memoir -- nice review Irene.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

You are on reading and blogging fire at the moment, I love it! :)

BECKY said...

Memoirs and "coming of age" novels are my favorite books to read! Great post!

Trish said...

Diane - painful, yes. Wonderfully written, too.

Sam - It's the snowy weather here, I think. We'll see how long it lasts.

Becky - Yes, mine too.