With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Ah, well … who needs enemies when you have relatives like debut author Domenica Ruta? ‘Dysfunctional’ sounds nearly sane after meeting Ruta’s family on the page or stuck in the ears – choosing the latter is especially recommended as Ruta herself narrates with chilling, detached efficiency.
Her father – who abandoned her mother during a Hawai’i vacation when he found out she was pregnant – was mostly absent. Her “Uncle Vic” – apparently known by many of the extended family to be a pedophile – sexually abused her as a child.
No one, however, compared to Ruta’s mother Kathi: “Spell [her name] with a Y or, God forbid, a C, and she’d lacerate your face with her scowl.” Drug addicted (“a narcotic omnivore”), neglectful (“Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not”; “There were several occasions on which my mother let Uncle Vic sleep in my bed when Auntie Lucy threw him out”), abusive (“‘You miserable c***. You don’t love me. You never loved me. I knew it'”), Kathi is surely one of the most monstrous mothers memorialized between the pages.
Occasionally, surprisingly, Kathi’s maternal instincts kicked in – albeit in roundabout ways – especially when Ruta’s education was at stake: she helped sell a “brick of cocaine” to pay for parochial school, she dressed Ruta “like a prep-school fetish out of Playboy magazine” for her interviews at the “ten most expensive boarding schools in New England” believing she was gaining Ruta admission, then “was envious, heartbroken, and scared, but, more than that, more than anything, she was proud” when Ruta entered 10th grade at Phillips Academy Andover.
In order to live to tell all, Ruta survived a teenage suicide attempt, her own addictions (alcohol is her drug of choice), and decades of mother/daughter toxicity, until she finally exorcises her past in print. Amazingly, in a telephone call with a New York Times writer, Kathi affirms Ruta’s memories: “‘She lied about nothing. She told the painful, honest truth.'” No chance of a James Frey-style exposé here!
Ruta is a visceral writer, arranging her words with blunt clarity. She miraculously avoids any self-pity. Through the bleary and brutal, she even manages surprising moments of pithy humor – laughing through drowning eyes and clenched teeth.
Reading (or listening) with dropped jaw will surely fulfill any Schadenfreude fantasies, while reaching book’s end should inspire respect and admiration, perhaps even some fear: the next line of that U2 song that I assume inspired the title continues with “And you give yourself away …” and then multiple repeats of “I can’t live / With or without you …” Now that Ruta’s given herself to legions of readers, let’s hope her survival instincts remain stronger than ever.