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I am an avid reader, educated and certified Pastry Chef, Proud USN submariner's wife, and mother to two of the greatest kids. Born in the south but living the good life in New England!

Review: With or Without You: A Memoir by Domenica Ruta

With or Without You coverTitle: With or Without You: A Memoir
Domenica Ruta
 Spiegel & Grau (February 26, 2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars



A haunting, unforgettable mother-daughter story for a new generation—the debut of a blazing new lyrical voice

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.


I will be brutally honest right now…it’s a very odd thing for me to read a non-fiction book.  I don’t necessarily have anything against that section of the bookstore; I’ve just never found reading about people’s truths and histories all that interesting.  Considering I’ve had my nose in and out of books since I first learned to read, it has always been the fictitious fantasies that pulled me in and helped me step out of my own boring world.  With that being said, this book came to me in a very unlikely fashion and now, after finishing it, I am so glad I took this leap into another genre.  Everyone gets plenty of junk emails that pollute the inbox in which I typically don’t bother opening and just send directly to the trash folder.  It was one of those seemingly useless emails from Netgalley that advertised With or Without You as their “must-read” in the non-fiction category that caught my eye on a day that I was actually considering reading something new to break the monotony of the books I had recently been in.  Thankfully they decided to include a synopsis in the email and that is exactly where they grabbed me.  Within that short blurb I had this unbelievable feeling that within those pages, I would find things that I could relate to and maybe, just maybe, I would have some understanding of my own version of the dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. The deal was sealed and the downloading began.

Within the first few pages I knew I had made the right choice. Not only was the style of writing comfortable and easy to read, but the picture that was painted wasn’t colored with broad and fuzzy strokes of memories; they were portrayed as if a photo was taken in those moments, frozen in time for all to see the gory details.  Even though most adult have vague memories of their childhood, whether it be a good one or bad one, Ms. Ruta made it clear that these specific moments were burned in her young memory  in the hopes that one day the bigger picture will make sense.  Her childhood was anything but what most consider “normal” and the things this innocent child witnessed and endured is nothing short of a nightmare at times.

Her mother, Kathi, is a self-centered drug addict who struggles to put anyone before herself, including her daughter.  She dismissed this child and her needs constantly but would then crave her attention when it was convenient for her.  She has a very warped sense of humor and, in my opinion, said some horrible things to her daughter just to unleash her unhappiness onto someone who was willing to take it and come back for more. Her temper alone could give even the most forgiving and understanding person whiplash from all the ups and downs and sadly, Nikki (short for Domenica) bore the brunt of it. Kathi had a hard time accepting the fact that she was now a parent so instead she treated her daughter as if she was just a houseguest for a sleepover party.  Being her daughter and clinging to any attention she could get from her mother, Nikki was subjected to stories and tales of her mother’s youth that most children should never know.

“Stories of her lost youth were out nightly bedtime ritual.  She never read books to me.”


“I was beautiful and popular,” she told me. “Everyone worshipped me. And you know what?  I was nice to everyone. Even the geeks. The geeks loved me. I won class president four years in a row by a landslide. The geek vote was crucial. My senior year, no one even bothered to run against me.”


It was as if her mother’s life was perfect before this innocent child was brought into it. And now, with her glory days behind her, the only way she can make it through is to re-tell these stories so that her daughter can be made aware of just how “lucky” she is to have such an accomplished person in her vicinity. But of course with all the perfection of her former life, she also made it clear to the young ears listening that the new addition was not-so-great but made up for it in entertainment value.

“Did I tell you about the time when you were brand-new, lying on Nonna’s bed, reaching for me, and you were so cute I wanted to hit you. I mean really hit you! I leaned over and bit your food and you started to cry. Oh, the face you made! Sometimes I would bite you just so you would make that face again. It was so fuckin’ cute!”

“Do you remember the time I pulled over on the side of the highway and contemplated leaving you there?”


Yes. Vividly. But I let her tell it again. I never interrupted my mother’s reveries. They were too important to her. She so badly wanted an audience, and I just wanted her to be near me, to smell the acrid mint of her cigarettes, feel the weight of her body pressing down my blanket. Our little nighttime chats. Was she trying to scare me? To push me away? It had the opposite effect.  I clung even tighter.”

Even with all of that, her mother still wanted certain things for her daughter but the selfish side wanted them only if they were accomplished on her terms.  She would spend every dime she had on drugs or overpriced, useless items but then turn around and get a job and work just long enough to afford the tuition to send her daughter to private school.  I think Kathi wanted her daughter to be more than she was but couldn’t find a way to say it or encourage it so instead, she showed it by doing what was necessary.  Even if that meant breaking a law here and there, she sent her to boarding school or ballet classes to help build her into the woman Kathi wanted to be. Granted, her ideas on how to help her daughter succeed may not have been the traditional way, but you can’t ignore that at certain times in Nikki’s life, she actually did what a parent should do. Sacrifice, even if for just a moment.

Of course with the good comes more of the bad and unfortunately Kathi could never quite understand her daughter.  They were alike and yet different which added to the dysfunction of their relationship.  Towards the end of their mother/daughter relationship, Nikki had become a bit of a caretaker and Kathi took full advantage of it. Years of drug abuse aided in Kathi’s loss of her grip on reality and again, Nikki was there to bear the brunt of the abuse.  Their last conversation was difficult to read but I found myself happy that Kathi was losing her grip on Nikki even more than on her reality and this is where my hopes for Nikki future soared.

Her father was not much better and just as clueless as to how to be a parent; especially to a lost little girl.  At times he was scary and harsh towards her but yet she still took it all because it’s all she knew to do. She had nowhere to go so she clung to the only family she knew of even if they shook her off like an intrusive pest.  Although over the years, her father did make some changes, some of it came a little too late for the little girl lost within Nikki.

“I’d feel sorry for your future husband,” my father said grinning, “but who would ever be crazy enough to marry a cow like you?”

The extended family dismisses her just as easily and unfortunately she’s never given reasons as to why.  Instead of a traditional relationship with extended family, her mother introduced her drug “family” as if they were the people Nikki should rely on and seek love from; even using terms like Aunt Lucy or Uncle Vic to refer to them.  And let me tell you, these are just two of the many people who should not have been allowed to be within 100 feet of any innocent child.  What Nikki had to endure because of her mother’s choices in “family” is just heartbreaking and caused anger to boil inside of me.  My heart ached for her and her need to feel loved and accepted within her own family and as a reader, I struggled to watch it all unfold.  I completely sympathized with what it’s like to feel different and like an outcast within your own family; never quite having all the pieces to put together as to why you are always on the outside looking in. She had a grandmother who did care for her and give her some of the motherly love she craved but as with life, all good things must come to an end.

“There were so many things I should have told someone about, but I never said a word, not to my friends or my teachers or even to my therapists. I was so bound to her, so afraid of her, so afraid for her. Maybe I was trying to protect her.”

“Something happens to you, and then it’s gone. It becomes a memory that becomes shrapnel. Shards of experience still hot with life singe the brain wherever they happen to get embedded.  Sometimes I swear I can feel the precise location of my memories like warm, tingling splinters under my scalp. Pictures with no sound, feelings with no pictures, the lost and found, mostly lost.”

Nikki’s troubled childhood morphed into an even more troubled adulthood as her mother’s addictions and demons became her own.  As a child she struggled and practically begged for love but as an adult she had all but perfected the skill of pushing people’s love and cares away.  Years of verbal abuse did its damage and because of the all-so-present and readily available of drugs and alcohol, she began seeking her own escape.  She becomes a lost soul with no real direction and no one really willing to guide her through.  It seems as though Kathi’s life’s cycle is repeating itself  and all you can do is sit back and watch it all crumble. Again.

“I would grow up to find that no friend, no boyfriend, not even a room full of people throwing a party just for me, could pry the lonesomeness from the body it inhabited. It was a shadow sewn to the soles of my feet that followed me everywhere I went, something as inexorable, dark, and magical as death. The whole world could be contained in that single word, and for me, right then, that was enough.”


“Enormous parts of my day are lost inside one memory or another. Certain scenes replay themselves, and I don’t know how to make them stop.  Sometimes I get so deeply possessed that I forget where I am. I’ll look up to see, to my surprise, that I’m on the number seven bus. I’ve missed my stop, it was miles ago, and now I have no idea where I am.


What if I lose my whole life like this?”

In the end, after all the ups and down and upside downs, this book is about a daughter’s love for her mother even when that mother has no traditional love to give.  It is also about what kind of strength it takes to separate from a mother’s abuse and dysfunction in order to survive the ride of life. If you like to read, experience, and challenge yourself with something different from your own life, this book may be just what you’re looking for.  It’s not for the faint of heart. It isn’t all fluffy hearts and clouds. It’s brutal and gritty and will show you the ugly side of Domenica’s life and the reality in which she’s lived in.  You do not have to have a dysfunctional relationship with a parent, or have a rocky childhood in order to allow this book in. You just have to be open and let go of all your pre-conceived judgments.

**I received a copy of this via Netgalley for an honest review.


amazonBarnes and noble


Domenica Ruta author picAbout Domenica Ruta:

Domenica Ruta was born and raised in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, Jentel, and Hedgebrook.

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