In the opening pages of her bracingly funny and poignant memoir, Domenica Ruta plunges readers into the maelstrom of her turbulent family life.
As she recalls the events, which transpired when she was 4 or 5, her mother grabs a poker from the fireplace, orders the child into their decrepit car, drives a few miles, stops, and beats in the windshield of a red car belonging to her brother’s ex-girlfriend. It cracks, but fails to shatter.
That image could serve as a metaphor for the profoundly enmeshed, profoundly dysfunctional relationship between Domenica — known as Nikki — and her mother, Kathi. An addict, drug dealer, and sometime welfare queen, Kathi is a larger-than-life character whose rage, irresponsibility, and “violent, temperamental love” are all integral to her (undoubtedly disordered) personality.
The mother-daughter drama in “With or Without You” plays out, fittingly enough, in the town of Danvers — formerly Salem Village, which sent 19 of its citizens to the gallows in nearby Salem for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Kathi, seen through her daughter’s eyes, is indeed a demonic figure.
At once compelling and repellent, she is clearly unprepared for motherhood and out of sync with the workaday world. When she becomes pregnant, she considers both abortion and adoption, but keeps the baby and soon parts ways with Nikki’s abusive father, Zeke. He marries another woman, Carla, who seeks consolation from Kathi when he explodes into violence. But Zeke sees Nikki with some regularity, and, in time, for all his flaws, comes to seem the more stable and dependable of her parents.
Not that that’s saying much.
Ruta introduces Kathi as a woman “who believed it was more important to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one,” and who “made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine.” Kathi “loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me,” Ruta writes, and she so dominates Ruta’s adult consciousness that “at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me.”
“With or Without You” tells an emotionally complex story in which love and hate are two sides of the same coin for both mother and daughter. Theirs is a harrowing tale of loss, all the more tragic because it might well have had a happier ending. Like her daughter, Kathi is not just self-destructive, but also bright, funny, and a true original.
Ruta keeps the anguish attending her upbringing (which included repeated sexual abuse by a family friend) at bay with a voice that is richly sardonic. And from a hard-earned remove, she tries to give Kathi her due. At her best, Kathi “was capable of performing the role of the empowered hard working single mother,” willing to sacrifice for her only child, Ruta writes. “If there was an indulgence that could be purchased, my mother would find the money for it,” including symphony orchestra tickets and French lessons. Ruta grew up amid emotional chaos, but not without the consolations of art and other intellectual pleasures.
In the middle of the story, the narrative takes an improbable turn: The habitually destitute Kathi, now married, assumes control of husband Michael’s failing taxi company; she turns it into a service to ferry around special-needs children for local school districts and becomes a transportation millionaire. With her newfound wealth, she is admirably generous, giving Ruta a credit card to use at will and flying her to Paris to celebrate her graduation from Oberlin College. But she is also dangerously spendthrift and lax in her accounting practices. And the good days, inevitably, don’t last.
In time, consumed by her myriad addictions, Kathi sinks into destitution and despair.
And what of Ruta? She can hardly be expected to have escaped the effects of such a childhood. She spends most of college in a drug-fueled haze. By graduate school, her drug of choice has become alcohol. In the memoir’s most conventional section, she becomes a “Lost Weekend” drunk, spiraling downward until she hits bottom.
As we know she must, she eventually finds her way to sobriety, in part by sealing off her past. As her mother turns into a supplicant for both attention and money, Ruta starts rejecting her calls, changes her phone number, pretends that her mother is dead. There is an emotional price involved in such cutoffs, but Ruta believes it must be paid.
The book’s title refers to a U2 song that daughter and mother used to sing together, a song that Kathi plays to try to win her daughter back. Ruta’s memoir is her response — a gesture, arguably, of both revenge and reconciliation. It is a purgation, an accounting, but also a tentative move toward healing and forgiveness. If we had any doubt of that, the dedication makes it clear. It reads only: “For her.”
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review, can be reached at