Is That My Mother on the Phone?

In Domenica Ruta’s memoir of growing up on Massachusetts’ North Shore, quitting drugs is easier than quitting her astonishing mother.

llustration by Danny Gregory

One day in the early 1980s, Kathi Ruta put her daughter Domenica in the passenger seat of the lime-green hatchback she called the “Shitbox.” To Domenica’s surprise, the car actually started. From her home in Danvers, Mass., a working-class suburb of Boston, Kathi drove to the residence of her brother’s ex-girlfriend, a woman named Josie. Domenica was only 4 or 5 at the time, but she recalls what happened next vividly: Kathi wielded a fireplace poker and, with all the torque her zaftig 5-foot frame could muster, brought it down on the windshield of Josie’s car, an act of retribution for some slight now lost to family history.

“My mother’s Italian-American family had a thuggish, moronic code of honor that everyone violated as often as they upheld it,” Domenica Ruta writes at the outset of her powerful new memoir, With or Without You. “This windshield job was an act of loyalty. I learned as I grew up that my mother would demand nothing less of me.”

Kathi—and the debt of loyalty that daughter owes to a mother—looms over every page of Ruta’s first book. In Ruta’s telling, her mother is volatile, needy, loud, and outrageously brash. During a visit to the beach, she dares her daughter, then 9, to call an innocent passerby a cunt. “A social experiment,” Kathi calls it, and chides her daughter for refusing to participate. Kathi is also an addict—an abuser and sometime dealer of various controlled substances. She brags that she once sold cocaine to Steven Tyler, back when Aerosmith was still just a local Boston act. But Oxycontin—Oscar de la Hoyas, as she nicknames them, or just Oscars—are her narcotic of choice.

Like many addicts, Kathi loves company. “I remember nights when Mum would get really high and keep me up for hours, sitting on my bed and holding forth like a monarch unjustly deposed,” writes Ruta. By day, Kathi would order her to skip school and watch movies with her, invariably The Godfather, Scarface, or Annie Hall. And when Ruta got a bit older, Kathi made her a partner in her substance abuse as well.

Ruta doesn’t remember what her symptom was; it might have been a headache, though it also could have been a falling out with a friend. “Mum never distinguished between physical and emotional pain,” she explains, “especially when she had a pill that could cure both.” Whatever the problem, Kathi prescribed her teenage daughter half a 20-milligram Oscar (and snorted the other half “in solidarity”). Domenica swallows the pill, feels a wave of euphoria spread out from her stomach, then darts to the bathroom. “Imagine a hundred-pound teenager on the equivalent of one bump of heroin,” she writes. “Puking violently, I swear I have never felt so good in my life.”

In its contours, With or Without You is a conventional memoir of recovery—the story of how Domenica broke from the destructive habits she learned from her mother and found solace in the vocation of writing, a minor miracle given the esteem in which writing was held in the Ruta household. Growing up in a home with precisely three books—a book of cartoons about Italian-American stereotypes, a book about flatulence, and Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo—Domenica learned to devour words wherever she could find them. “I read the Salem Evening News, a daily paper that we bought only when someone we knew made an appearance in the police log,” she writes. “I read the electricity bill and learned my first Latin, arrears.” But in these makeshift textbooks, Ruta found an unconventional voice, a scary good mixture of erudition and hardened street smarts. Her writing is also, as they say in Danvers, wicked funny—though in her case wicked is more an adjective than an intensifier.

The mordant clarity of her prose is that much more impressive considering all the mind-numbing narcotics she’s poured into her body in an attempt to cope with the traumas of her childhood. Though some of Kathi’s antics can play as tragicomedy, others are simply tragic. Among the cohort of drug friends who breeze in and out of the Ruta home is a man named Vic who Kathi knows to be a pedophile. Yet she repeatedly leaves her young daughter alone with him, and he repeatedly assaults her. It’s a testament to the bond of loyalty Kathi commanded that Ruta attempts to forgive her even this, the ultimate maternal transgression.

But as monstrous as Kathi can be, she shows flashes of humanity. Recognizing her daughter’s intellectual gifts, she puts her in parochial school, paying the tuition in cash after helping a friend move a brick of cocaine. And Kathi is at once the source of Domenica’s pain and her connection to its temporary cure—a steady supply of crushed up Oscars.

Author Domenica Ruta.
Author Domenica Ruta.

Courtesy of Meredith Zinner

Gradually, Domenica realizes that in order to break her cycle of chemical dependency she has to end her relationship with her mother. But quitting Kathi makes quitting drugs look easy. When, as a graduate student in Texas, Domenica stops answering her mother’s calls, Kathi behaves like a jilted lover—a crazy jilted lover. “She left messages that were more like sound installations of her whacking her phone repeatedly against a hard surface,” she writes. “She would hold her phone up to the radio if it was playing a song we used to like,” among them the U2 song that would become the book’s title.

Throughout the book, Ruta writes with unflinching honesty about the most unbecoming of circumstances, often reserving her most withering assessments for herself. Hers is not a heroic recovery, but a long, fitful, messy one, with collateral damage done to friends, a string of boyfriends, and her own mind and body.

There are moments, however, when she allows herself to slip into caricature. After parochial school, she receives a generous financial aid package to attend Phillips Academy Andover. Ruta and I were contemporaries there, though I didn’t know her—it’s a big school. She describes the experience of being an outsider in that rarefied world with typical astuteness, but at times exaggerates for effect. My knowledge of the boudoirs of Paul Revere Hall was admittedly limited, but I saw enough of them to know, for example, that not every one featured “the same hunter-green floral-print bedspread from a designer I’d never heard of named Laura Ashley.”

But if her portrait of boarding school succumbs to stereotype, her description of Boston’s suburbs is spot on. Ruta captures the strange juxtapositions of the North Shore, where hard-luck old industrial towns adjoin tony enclaves with names like Prides Crossing and Manchester-by-the-Sea. Danvers is a collection of bars, roast beef shops, and the crummier of the North Shore’s two malls; in neighboring Hamilton, meanwhile, horsey swells gather at a club called Myopia, “a piece of found poetry that no one in the town seems to appreciate.”

Ruta is also attuned to the ways in which the North Shore’s Puritan history still haunts its present. When Kathi learns that Domenica’s seventh-grade boyfriend shares her birthday, she demands to speak to his mother, who confirms her suspicion: The two women, both single mothers, had shared a room at Beverly Hospital. “They wanted to consolidate the two whores in the Scarlet Letter room,” as Kathi explains it. She may not own Hawthorne’s novel, written a few miles down the road in Salem, but she knows the gist.

Ruta portrays a rougher side of the North Shore than the one described by the late John Updike, a longtime resident (and avid member of Myopia). In this, With or Without You makes a worthy companion to another excellent recent memoir set in Essex County, Andre Dubus III’s Townie. Dubus’ book takes place a decade or so earlier, in the 1970s, and a couple of towns north, but it too is the story of a writer attempting to escape addiction (in his case, to the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a fistfight) and the shadow of a charismatic but deeply flawed parent (his father, the writer Andre Dubus).

Unfortunately, like Townie, With or Without You loses steam at the end, lapsing into sentimentalism otherwise absent from its pages. There is a jarring section about the unconditional love of dogs—a truth undeniable and undeniably clichéd—and a list of “exit interview” questions for Kathi that feels like a workshop exercise that somehow made its way into the final manuscript. But the majority of Ruta’s book hums with jangled energy and bristles with sharp edges.

The dedication page, by the way, reads For her, which I can only assume is a reference to Kathi. She may have robbed Domenica of her childhood, but she gave her one hell of a story to tell. For that, I suppose we all owe her.

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta. Spiegel & Grau.

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