With or Without You: A Memoir

With or Without You: A Memoir

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by Domenica Ruta

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A haunting, unforgettable mother-daughter story for a new generation—the debut of a blazing new lyrical voice
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for…  See more details below



A haunting, unforgettable mother-daughter story for a new generation—the debut of a blazing new lyrical voice
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Domenica Ruta grew up in a working-class, unforgiving town 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 highbrow 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 her 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 Kathi 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 ’90s 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.
Praise for With or Without You

“A luminous, layered accomplishment.”The New York Times Book Review

“A singular new coming-of-age memoir traces one girl’s twisting path up from mean streets (and parents) to the reflective life of a writer. . . . The burgeoning canon of literary memoir . . . begets another winner in Domenica Ruta’s searing With or Without You. . . . [A] gloriously gutsy memory-work.”Elle
“Stunning . . . comes across as a bleaker, funnier, R-rated version of The Glass Castle and marks the arrival of a blazing new voice in literature.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Valiant and heartbreaking.”Bust
“Powerful . . . Ruta found an unconventional voice, a scary good mixture of erudition and hardened street smarts. Her writing is also, as they say in Danvers, wicked funny—though in her case wicked is more an adjective than an intensifier. . . . [With or Without You] hums with jangled energy and bristles with sharp edges. . . . Ruta writes with unflinching honesty.”Slate
“Bracingly funny and poignant.”—The Boston Globe
“Exceedingly powerful.”—Booklist

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Editorial Reviews

Domenica Ruta was not blessed with a role-model mother, but she was nevertheless blessed. Kathi, her heroin-addict single mom, kept her home from school, encouraged her to have sex, apply for scholarships, and watch movie classics. Living in the midst of such wild dysfunction, Domenica learned both by following examples and fighting them. Her portrait of her mother in With or Without You is affectionate, without relinquishing its sense of balance and loss. A rare, unfeigned mother-daughter story; a Discover Great New Writers selection; now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

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My childhood took place in the 1980s. i cut my baby teeth on the cardboard record sleeve of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. Ronald Reagan was president. Mr. Macaroni Mouth, I used to call him: I don’t remember why. Kathi had a special salute whenever his dour face appeared on TV.

“Ba fungul,” she said, brushing her hand under her chin. She flicked her thumb against her top front teeth, shot a middle finger into the air, pretended to spit. “He was an actor, you know. Not even a good one. Westerns. Glorified soap operas.”

My mother hated Ronald Reagan so much that I assumed she knew him intimately—that he was just another of the many in a revolving door of friends she was always complaining had ripped her off. As my mother saw it, the things Reagan was saying about her were getting low-down and personal. What she meant, of course, was her demographic—the single mother on welfare. It seemed every other night there was a special feature on the evening news reviling these women, until they became the fictional antagonist of the straining American economy. Mum took things like this to heart.

There were plenty of times when Kathi was capable of performing the role of the empowered, hardworking single mother. At Christmas, for example, she would take on a second, sometimes third job as a cashier at the local toy franchise just so she could get her hands on the coveted toy of the season. One year it was a pig-faced doll with a cowlick of orange yarn, which I later abused mercilessly by beating its oversize plastic head against the sidewalk. Kathi had hidden this doll under her register so that when the mad rush was over and the store had sold out there would be one left for me, one that she could pay for on layaway.

If there was an indulgence that could be purchased, my mother would find the money for it, any extracurricular curiosity I entertained had her whipping out the checkbook so she could pay someone to nurture it. This is how I became a passionate child-dilettante of ballet, photography, oceanography, and conversational French. At some point when I was eight or nine, I connected the notes of a famous classical piece I heard in cartoons to its composer, Beethoven. Kathi was so thrilled she bought me tickets to a children’s series at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Every Saturday morning for six weeks, I rode with a troupe of young classical enthusiasts and their parents on a school bus into the city. Knowing she would never be able to wake up in time to drive me to the rendezvous point, Kathi hired a taxi to take me there and paid in advance. When I expressed an interest in computers, she waitressed at a Colonial-themed restaurant that made her wear a bonnet for the Sunday brunch shift. She worked every weekend for two months, long enough to buy me a brand-new Apple IIe, then called in sick one morning and never went back. She worked stints as a bartender, a salesgirl in a tourist attraction presiding over a lobster tank, and a canteen truck driver. This was my favorite of her jobs, though it didn’t last long. I enjoyed the endless stock of Kit-Kats and getting to ride in a great big truck with my mum. She did not enjoy getting up before dawn every day. I think the only reason she took that job in the first place was to go boyfriend hunting, but her prince was not to be found at a construction site.

Kathi was once inspired by an ad on TV to sign up for a course in TV/VCR repair. I remember seeing the thick hardcover textbook open on our coffee table, every single sentence ablaze with my mother’s pink highlighter. A razor and a shortened straw lay on a dish nearby. I think she went to the first two classes before quitting. In a pinch Kathi would sell cocaine, but, like waiting tables, it was a temporary means to an end, never something she counted on as her primary vocation.

Then there were periods when my mother was just as happy to sleep all day and collect welfare. On the first of the month she would hop around our apartment, waving her check at me and singing, “Free Money Day! Free Money Day!” I danced at her heels, rattling off the list of toys I had been dreaming about since the dissipation of last month’s check. My mother would spend every dime of her welfare check immediately on cocaine, new clothes, new coloring books and dolls, and maybe a night or two of take-out Chinese. We lived on the leftovers for as long as possible. By the end of the month we’d be fisting the couch for loose change and I’d be off to the corner store with a pocket full of quarters to buy milk, Slim Jims, and cigarettes.

The two of us lived in the basement of the house her father had built when she was in high school. She rented the one-bedroom apartment from her mother, who charged a hundred dollars a month, or whatever my mother was able to give her. Her brother lived in the big house upstairs, first with a group of single guys and later with his wife and kids, and paid the same monthly amount to his mother, who lived next door in the little ramshackle camp where the whole family had started out a generation earlier. Mum called our plot of land the Ruta Compound.

“We’re just like the Kennedys,” she said.

where and when we got the name Ruta I have no idea. There is no one I can safely ask, as the members of my tribe are notorious throughout the North Shore as a band of lunatics who lie even when the truth would do just as well. So I don’t know when the first Rutas got on that boat to cross the Atlantic or what port bit its thumb at them in a final farewell, only that some of us hail from a blister in the boot of Italy, the rest from that rock the boot’s aiming to kick out of the Adriatic, Sicily, and that all this emigrating was an old story by the time my grandmother was born.

After his tour in World War II, my grandfather bought a tiny summer cottage on a river in Danvers, Massachusetts, winterized it as cheaply as possible, and set up his family there. The street was called Eden Glen Avenue, a dead-end road surrounded on three sides by a river and a salt marsh. My mother grew up there and twenty years later, so did I.

Our home was always too hot, too cold, and too small, but worth it, my mother insisted, because when we left our windows open we could smell the tides going in and out. Out back was a field of tall, feathery reeds fringed by tidal flats of black mud. The river flowed into the Atlantic less than a mile past our house. Generations of swans nested in the marsh. Like my family, they had been living there since before I was born. Every summer a harem of seals swam down from the Arctic and piled on a floating dock in the middle of the river. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and I would all walk down to the beach at the end of Eden Glen to say hello to them, a homecoming parade that marked the official beginning of our summer. The seals lay one on top of another and sunned themselves all day long, fat and serene in their big glistening pile. Occasionally, and for no reason I could ever discern, the whole pod would start barking at the same time. Then, just as suddenly, they would fall silent.

These animals, this river—it all belonged to us. I decided this in the way that only children and dictators assume things, by pointing a finger and saying it is so.

i was afraid of everything in the natural and supernatural worlds and a river is the nexus of both. The waters surrounding Eden Glen were home to riptides, toxic waste, dragons, sharks, ghosts, naiads, and, in the phragmites growing up on the banks, bloodsucking Lyme ticks. Not until my teens—my late teens, really—was I brave enough to walk to the river alone. Before that I would get close to the water only if my mother or my grandmother came with me. We’d climb down the little hill to the tiny beach that surfaced at low tide. On clear summer nights, we’d cut through a path in the backyard to the small pier built by my grandfather years before. The pier was a scenic place to watch the sun set, brood, and slap mosquitoes on one another’s arms. No one had the patience for fishing and, besides, you couldn’t eat anything caught off Eden Glen. The river was too polluted, first by a shoe factory on another tributary a century earlier, and later by the yacht club across the channel from us. The boats were always spilling gasoline into the water, and they thought the shallow water near our house was the best place to flush their toilets. I remember the grotesque beauty of those hot summer days, when petroleum rainbows would encircle thousands of dollops of floating human shit. I would stare in stupefied wonder, as at so many mandalas rising and falling on the surface of the water.

The family that owned the yacht club lived next door to us, and for their crimes against the river my mother would spit on the ground whenever she saw them drive by. “Your baby’s going to come out mongoloid for what you did to that water,” she once yelled as the pregnant wife drove past our house.

“Mum!” I gasped. “Her window was down. She might have heard you.”

“Good,” my mother said.

The river was one of the few things in this world that Kathi felt like protecting. For a while she volunteered with local environmentalists who dispatched her to collect samples of river water in coded plastic vials. She woke before dawn and sneaked into our neighbors’ yards to take photographs of the marsh grass they mowed illegally and the seawalls they weren’t supposed to build. There was a lawsuit at one point, and my mother couldn’t wait to take the stand.

“Maybe I’ll become a lawyer,” she mused.

Real-life lawsuits are utterly lacking in the drama she craved, and, like anything in Mum’s care, she gave up when the fight became more work than fun.

With or without my mother’s help, some official code was eventually passed, and the boats were instructed to flush their heads farther out at sea. 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 and never the same. Sometimes the waves licked the grass gently, like a dog attending to his fur. A strong wind would later chop the water into a rhythmic progression of crests. These sudsy waves might later shrink into the tiniest ripples. Or disappear altogether, like the day I noticed that the surface of the river was as smooth as a pane of glass. I stood at the kitchen window and stared, elated and afraid. What caused this to happen? Would it ever happen again? What did it mean?

The Porter River, I learned it was called years and years after I left home. It was always just the River to us. Growing up, I thought that my mother was the one who called in the tides.

kathi and i were the two most outrageous snobs ever to receive public assistance. My mother had grown up middle-class and, despite the succession of menial jobs she held, she refused to let go of certain standards. No matter how broke Mum was, she would find a way to outfit me in designer clothes. The telephone was sometimes cut off for nonpayment, but you’d better believe she paid that cable bill on time. Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not.

I remember nights when Mum would get really high and keep me up for hours, sitting on my bed and holding forth like a monarch unjustly deposed. We were not meant for this life, she would say. There were Cadillacs in our future. A summerhouse on Martha’s Vineyard. I was going to grow up and marry a Kennedy, she promised. In reality she sent me to a day-care center run by Catholic Charities, where I contracted diseases only babies in Third World countries still get.

We made do with what we had, and for what we lacked we pretended. Learning our parts from our two favorite movies, Mommie Dearest and Reversal of Fortune, my mother and I would act out scenes in our tiny basement apartment, speaking in affected voices, wishing out loud that we could be the twisted, tormented millionaires who dominated our imagination. My mother was Sunny von Bülow, the bleach-blond tyrant in yet another coma, and I was her devoted maid, trying to wake her up. “My lady,” I would say, brandishing a feather duster, as I stood fretfully at her bedside. She was Joan Crawford, the abusive egomaniac, and I was her tortured Christina. Mum chased me around the apartment with a clothes hanger as though she were going to beat me. I would run from her in a fit of giggles, and when I finally let her catch me, she’d pin me to the bed, the hanger raised above her head. She would bite her lower lip and bring the hanger down hard and fast, stopping herself an inch, sometimes less than an inch, above my face.

“Wire hangers!” she’d cry out. It was our favorite game.

during kathi’s sedentary spells, which could last anywhere between a couple of days or several weeks, she lay regally in her bed consuming four or five movies in a row. My mother was both a movie slut and a film snob: she’d watch just about anything that was on, but she would press Record only if the story was truly great.

“What are you doing?” she’d call from under the covers, a smoldering ashtray always close by braiding threads of cigarette smoke in the air like a loom. “Make me some toast,” she’d yell. “Don’t be stingy with the butter.” Soup, a fresh book of matches, some chocolate milk—these were the things I was constantly fetching for her. Then sometimes she’d bellow, “Honey! You have to watch this movie with me.”

“I’m doing my homework.”

“This is more important. I promise. You’ll thank me later.”

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With or Without You: A Memoir 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
DubaiReader1 More than 1 year ago
Living with an alcoholic drug addict. Domenica Ruta's memoir about growing up in Danves Massachusetts, with her alcoholic, druggie mother, was an eye opening read. Often I felt that the young Domenica (Nikki) was caring for her mother rather than the other way around. Even as a youngster, Nikki was encouraged to drink alcohol and ingest Oxycontin and as a teenager, her mother was recommending pregnancy for her young daughter. Nikki was intelligent enough to realise that her only escape would be through education and she earned herself the scholarships that enabled her to attend good schools and obtain a degree. Her childhood never left her however, as she became more and more ensnared by alcohol. For ten years she lived in government housing, struggling through her days in an alcoholic stupor. Eventually she found a group of recovering alcoholics and a fair portion of the book describes the depression that she fought as a by product of recovery. Meanwhile Niiki's mother was calling her daughter incessantly, ranting and raving down the phone, until the only recourse left was to break all ties and have no contact at all. This was a powerful love/hate relationship, even thousands of miles apart, Nikki was drawn to her disfunctional parent. It is a tragic tale which left me wondering how people like Nikki's mother were even allowed to raise children in the first place. One would hope that these days the children would be rescued but I'm sure there are still some who slip through the net. This book reminded me of Unravelling Anne by Laurel Saville (3.5 stars).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent memoir. She is laugh out loud funny in some parts and sit back and contemplate in others. Brutally honest writing ..just how a memoir should be. The life of an addict from the outside in and from the inside out. I'm sad it's over.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Memoirs about people growing up in tough family situations are abundant. I just reviewed Jeanette Winterson's poetic Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, and Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle is a book I reviewed and recommended to many people over the past few years. Domenica Ruta's With Or Without You is a searing, honest look at her life growing up with a mother who was an alcoholic and drug addict, and wanted her daughter to have the same life. Her mother kept Domenica home from school to watch classic movies; she felt this was a better education for her daughter. The book opens with the mother, Kathleen, taking her young daughter along while she bashed in the windshield of romantic rival's car. The destruction she placed upon that woman's car is a metaphor for the destruction she would wreak upon her daughter's life. Like Winsterson, literature and books became a savior for Domenica."Reading seemed to be a skill I'd somehow picked up on my own. In an extended family where people stumbled- and stumbled proudly- over three-syllable words, such a drooling little fiend for literature was endearing to no one. (It should be noted that even the most illiterate of my clan knew their way around a food stamp application, a subpoena, and a workman's compensation claim. We were nothing if not adroit at manipulating the system.)" As she grew up, her mother did her best to lure Domenica into her drug-addicted lifestyle. Domenica did her best to avoid it, but eventually she succumbed. She believed that going to college and getting away from her mother would save her. If only her mother didn't send care packages of drugs to college with her. Domenica writes honestly of her struggles with alcohol, drugs and her inability to have a romantic relationship. She runs away to Texas believing that only distance from her mother can save her. But her mother calls constantly, begging for money, pushing the guilt, harassing her daughter until the only thing Domenica can do is cut off all ties to her mother. I particularly enjoyed the chapter where she worked as a recreation aide in a nursing home. She felt comfortable with those people, more at home with them than with her younger friends. She writes lovingly of a man named Saul who has lost his wife of sixty years, who became her compatriot. With Or Without You will hit home with anyone who has had addiction issues or lived with anyone with addiction issues. Domenica Ruta writes with a clear-eyed honesty, which is remarkable considering how drunk and drugged up she was at times. Her decision to cut ties with the woman who gave her life and raised her probably saved her life, but is heartbreaking for her nonetheless. We don't know at the end whether Domenica will make it, but her journey is unforgettable.
robinpeggy More than 1 year ago
One of the best memoirs I've read.  
kenjud More than 1 year ago
Fun read. Full of emotional twists and turns. I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was reluctant to read yet another memoir about an abusive and crazy mother but this one was well worth every second and more - i flew through it and wanted more.
Gingersnap000 More than 1 year ago
Memoirs are one my favorite genres of literature especially those dealing with "real people." The line which hooked me into reading this book was ",,,and she grow-up in Danvers, MA." where my children and husband shared her hometown. Danvers is not a poor mill town and not all houses are falling down but just the opposite. It is a town which does not forgive if you are not part of the cookie cutter pattern of the social leaders of the Commmunity. As Ms. Ruta described her experience at St. Mary's School, I felt her pain because an outsider can shunned in this town. Her Mother, Kathi was certainly larger than life; a former Glory Girl of Danvers High School. She had visions of grandeur for her daugher. Domenica becoming a well educated single mother. Kathi made me laugh with her narcissism behavior and cry when the disease of alcoholism and drug addicition took over the life of a woman who did have a good business mind. Ms. Ruta wriiting of her own life was heart wrenching and wished that some one in her tribe of lunatics would have come to her rescue. How she was able to overcome her childhood and own addiction and become such a talent writer is beyond my scope.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This gloriously written book was truly a pleasure to read.  I am not prone to reading memoirs since they are often saccharin and not well written; but this book was thoughtful, insightful and written by a wonderful writer. It is interesting that many reviewers found the story unbelievable. I think this is a function of the fact that the author has not only survived hardship, but emerged with brilliance and even grace. As Domenica Ruta shows us, people can survive horrible things. This book offers realistic hope and inspiration.
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sjziegler More than 1 year ago
booksbysteph says "You Can See a Part of Yourself in Her True Life Stories" Domenica Ruta had a love/hate relationship with her mother. Highly dysfunctional. Born to teenage parents and raised in a drug house, it does not surprise that she turned to drugs as well. Yet she maintained this incredible mind and gift of knowledge. Her mother always found a way to give her the best of everything including fancy boarding schools (with the help of scholarships) yet resented the fact Domenica was so far away from her.  Her mother needed her in a way that psychiatrists can properly define and Domenica had an overwhelming desire to be loved by her mother. If Domenica achieved in one thing, her mother focused on her failure of another or made her feel like a failure. It took a lot of strength and 1400 miles to decide to cut her mother from her life and she did not make it easy on Domenica. Domenica never thought her gallon a day drinking habit was a problem.  I GIVE THIS BOOK: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars Each chapter has many stories and you will find yourself connecting to the stories in some way. I desperately wanted my mother to love me but I could never life up to her ever-changing and unreachable standards. Fortunately, I refused to even try any drugs because I knew I would become lost in a sea of glossy-eyed stoners. When I finally realized, like Domenica, that my life was less toxic without my mother in it, the pain does not get easier with each passing day. While Domenica is trying to overcome her battles with alcohol, I am dealing with issues associated with Depression.  Writing this book was most likely very difficult and emotional to write. Remembering stories of her loved ones. In a good story, there was a twist of bad and in a bad story there was a glimpse of good. I praise Domenica for her courage to write this book and the strength to overcome her challenges - one day at a time.  Until next time, live life one page at a time!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I appreciate the sharing that Domenica has painfully shared. This book reminded me so much of "Glass Castle" because of the raw things she had to admit to herself as well as her readers. While it is unbelievable that she made it out of this childhood alive she has will help all of us come to terms with things we had no control over and heal.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed reading this beautiful & tragic memoir. It opens your eyes to a life of hardship, struggle, and recovery. This book is  a wonderful read that I would recommend to anyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read! Loved Domenica Ruta's insight into dysfunctional families and way with words like "Denial and the desire to self-destruct are elemental cousins; mining one yields the other in equal proportion". Hopefully, there will be a sequel because dying to know how her journey ends with her Mom. Highly recommend - especially if you're from New England since she describes natives so humorously well.
anniemichelle More than 1 year ago
OMG…. This book blew me right out of the water. It touched a little close to home as well. This is a brilliant mother daughter memoir, one of the best I have ever read, do yourself a favor and go out today and pick up This book! As one reviewer put it “Freakishly brilliant, brilliantly freakish” This is the heartbreaking story of Domenica (Nikki) and her mother Kathi as they careen Through life in the 90’s trying to find purchase somewhere. Kathi is a sometime drug dealer who is addicted to drugs, alcohol, damaged men and hard times. Nikki is right behind her sharing her mothers drugs when offered or even worse pushed on her. They live in a crusty house filled with trash inside and out in Boston. Kathi goes through men and jobs, Nikki goes though schools and friends. Both trying to find their way. This book is filled with damaged love…a mother on a course of self destruction who tries to save and destroy her daughter all in the same day. Mother & daughter are extremely close in a not right kind of way. Kathi does try to instill in young Nikki that life sucks but, if you look real close and try really hard you might get lucky and see something beautiful out of all the ugliness. Nikki learns later in life that to truly love her mother she must let her go and forgive. Domenica is a truly gifted writer and I look forward to her next book.