In today’s age of oversharing, throw a rock and you’re bound to hit a confession memoir (or an author who’s in the process of writing one).
There are those sporting protagonists who overcome adversity in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances --- the drug addict living out of a trash can who trades in her crack pipe to become a hotshot lawyer (Cupcake Brown’s A PIECE OF CAKE), or the homeless teen from a shady background who defies expectations by getting accepted to Harvard (Liz Murray’s BREAKING NIGHT). Others feature parents who seem more like monsters than nurturers with any hair of self-respect or responsibility --- Augusten Burroughs’s RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, Jeannette Walls’s THE GLASS CASTLE, and Mary Karr’s trio of memoirs are the most obvious examples that come to mind. Too much religion (Jeanette Winterson’s ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUITand WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL?) or death (Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joyce Carol Oates’s A WIDOW’S STORY). The political treatise (Sonia Sotomayor’s MY BELOVED WORLD). The travelogue (Conor Grennan’s LITTLE PRINCES, or any number of books by Paul Theroux). The recovery rant (Bill Clegg’s NINETY DAYS). Or the expanding pile of books about growing, cooking, eating, or serving food (Gabrielle Hamilton’s BLOOD, BONES & BUTTER).
The list goes on and on. Add to the heap Domenica Ruta’s first book and memoir, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU. Alcohol addiction, dysfunctional parents, sexual abuse, and a prestigious MFA degree --- Ruta has been through all of it.
"From the moment she realizes how fast she’s fallen and how far she must climb to start living again, Ruta's perspective about her past --- and her writing --- slides into focus. There’s a fierceness and purpose in these chapters that’s inspiring to read..."
As a child in the 1980s, Ruta grew up in a blue-collar town on the North Shore of Massachusetts. The schools weren’t that great, the accents were thick as molasses, and nail salons, roadside bars and strip malls were the places to be on Friday nights. Thirty minutes from Boston, Danvers was a suburb full of working-class people, many of them hard up for money. But none of them seemed to be as stretched as Ruta’s family. With trash piling up both inside and on the front porch, a car that rarely worked, and a dilapidated house that made even Ruta’s few friends steer clear of coming over, the Rutas were frequently the topic of neighborhood gossip.
But despite disastrous appearances, Ruta writes of being proud of her childhood, having never known anything different. Sure, her garish, cussing, cleavage-showing mother was either drunk, popping Oxycontin, or stoned, but the pills or toke she shared with anyone who was interested (including Ruta) and the times she let Ruta play hooky from school to watch the Godfather movies were fun, somehow making up for the lack of discipline. It was only when Ruta matured and began spending time at other friends’ houses that she realized something wasn’t quite right about the way she was being raised.
By the time Ruta had reached puberty, her family’s dysfunction had reached an ever-increasing high. Although her parents divorced and remarried other slightly less crazy people, their new lives promised more of the same circus. Drug abuse. Bounced checks. Zero guidance or protection (including inappropriate sexual attention from a “friend” of her mother’s). It’s a wonder that Ruta managed to survive her own suicide attempt, let alone get her act together enough to attend Phillips Academy, an esteemed prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, and, later, Oberlin College on scholarship.
Moving away to boarding school, college, and eventually graduate school removed Ruta from the mayhem, but it certainly didn’t save her from its persistent influence. Her own burgeoning romance with alcohol and various pharmaceuticals helped her dull the pain, but as any addict knows, it never filled the void or answered any of the questions she had about where her life was going or who she wanted to be. Despite her enviable bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Ruta was on the fast track to becoming the person she most loved and despised --- her mother. Throughout the latter half of the book, the message is clear: If Ruta didn’t get help, she’d be dead.
At the outset of WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, it’s immediately apparent why Ruta chose memoir instead of fiction for her first foray into publishing --- she had something she had to get off her chest, and it’s that myopic impulse that drove every word onto each page. At times, this approach is limiting --- the beginning often reads like an unedited rant, jumping back and forth in time and from memory to memory like a teenage diary full of scrabbled-together journal entries. Interesting, sure, but not always cohesive to follow. So, too, are the periods that Ruta glosses over, withholding salient details to get at the punch line --- the aforementioned sexual abuse, her own tried-and-failed relationships with boyfriends, and her adventures at boarding school and in college.
But quietly, almost as if she wasn’t aware of it while writing, Ruta’s story starts to sing. From the moment she realizes how fast she’s fallen and how far she must climb to start living again, Ruta's perspective about her past --- and her writing --- slides into focus. There’s a fierceness and purpose in these chapters that’s inspiring to read, and it’s her humility about the road to recovery --- including finding a way to forgive her family and herself --- that make this a memoir worth reading.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on March 8, 2013