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An American Gothic Memoir From Danvers

Detail from "With or Without You" cover. (Courtesy, Random House)

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Years ago, when one of Domenica Ruta’s short stories was being workshopped in a graduate school seminar, a classmate commented that it didn’t feel real because the characters were not sympathetic enough, and that “poor people don’t talk like this.” The fellow writer could not know that Ruta had set the story in a world that was all too real. She had lived in it, and had barely survived it.

Now, Ruta has written about her life straight on, creating an unsettling and unforgettable memoir, “With or Without You.” What lifts this above the recent crowd of dysfunctional family chronicles is Ruta’s ability, time and again, to make her story feel new, even when you think she’s about to enter familiar territory.

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Domenica Ruta on Here & Now
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Domenica Ruta (Meredith Zinner)

Domenica Ruta (Meredith Zinner)

Barely in her mid-thirties, she has a lot to look back on. She grew up in Danvers, just a half hour north of Boston (though, as she notes, “we never made it out that far”). She’s raised by her mother, Kathi, and an extended family skilled at gaming the state welfare system but woefully inept at landing steady employment or building stable home lives.

In this tilted universe, Kathi Ruta is a star: she’s a former high school beauty who’s a frequent drug dealer and even more frequent user. As a mother, Kathi’s a charismatic monster, whose emotions can “erupt anywhere, at any time.”

And yet, Kathi loves her bright, inquisitive daughter with a fierce intensity. She works multiple jobs so Domenica can enjoy enrichment classes in one interest after another. But Kathi also, regularly, keeps Domenica home from school just to watch movies together (“Sonny Corleone, Travis Bickle – these guys were as real to us as Zeus and Apollo were in the homes of ancient Greece.)

With an understated style barbed with dry humor, Ruta creates a reality where any activity, any conversation, can collapse into bedlam. A gossamer cloud of dread hangs over even the sunniest scenes.

Fueling most of the chaos is an astounding array of drugs, alcohol, and skewed priorities. Kathi may forget to keep food in the house, but she makes sure there’s Oxycontin on hand for her and Domenica to numb everything from a headache to a bad mood. She opens their cluttered, increasingly trash-filled house to a steady stream of questionable guests. Worst of all, Kathi leaves Domenica in the care of anyone who’s available, including a relative who’s a known pedophile.

Amid all this, Kathi becomes laser-focused on giving her daughter what she never had: the opportunities of prep school and college. You at first think it’s a drug-addled fantasy, but incredibly, Kathi makes it happen. After interviews at the most prestigious schools in New England, Domenica gets a scholarship to Phillips Academy Andover, which launches Domenica on to college and graduate school.

With a discerning pen, Ruta bypasses the expected clichés of the disadvantaged girl at a privileged school, writing that her Andover classmates have enough money “not to harbor any class anxiety.” It’s only when she’s among these bright, confident girls that Domenica can start to consider what she truly wants for herself.

Sonny Corleone, Travis Bickle – these guys were as real to us as Zeus and Apollo were in the homes of ancient Greece.
– Domenica Ruta

Like many other scholarship students, Domenica quickly learns to move “seamlessly, though not without guilt and tiny pricks of shame, between my two worlds.”

But both these worlds dwell inside her. Domenica spends college and graduate school in a highly-functioning haze of booze, unable to come to terms with her love for her mother and her near-debilitating anger at her. Memories surface unbidden: “Shards of experience still hot with life singe the brain wherever they happen to get embedded.”

Through it all, Domenica continues to write, sometimes wondering if her work will be “posthumously acknowledged, like some hard-drinking Emily Dickinson.” She starts and ends romances. She battles her drinking demons. She finally cuts all communication with her mother.

In contrast to the first half of the book, accounts of her more recent life sometimes seem more summary than thoughtful reshaping. Maybe greater distance is needed. Or maybe her contemporaries, while more appealing, can’t help but pale beside the outsized characters from her youth.

But a memoir needn’t be perfect to be indelible. “With or Without You” is a powerful tale of resiliency, of messy struggling-up-from-drowning survival. That Ruta is here to tell it – with a clear, fearless voice – seems a minor miracle.

Carol Iaciofano’s book reviews, op-ed columns, and poems have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The Hartford Courant, and Amarillo Bay. Carol is also a co-author of the pop culture computer anthology, “Digital Deli.”


Weekend Edition speaks to Domenica Ruta.

A First Read excerpt from “With or Without You.”