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Thursday, March 21, 2013

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

With Or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Published by Spiegel & Grau ISBN 978-0812993240
Hardcover, $26, 224 pages

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.

rating 4 of 5

Domenica Ruta's website is here.
My review of Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?  is here.


  1. I have a difficult time with stories where children are so poorly treated by their parents - I couldn't get through the Glass Castle although a lot of people do recommend it. Sounds like the author did a lot with a very bad set of circumstances.

  2. I would love to win and read With, or Without You by Domenica Ruta.