With or Without You
Domenica Ruta, 2013
Spiegel & Grau
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. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Danvers, Massachusetts, USA
• Education—B.A., Oberlin College; M.F.A.,
University of Texas at Austin
• Currently—Brooklyn, New York City
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. (From the publisher.)
A fierce, smart account of a devastating childhood, in a memoir drawing comparisons to the The Glass Castle. Not surprisingly, Ruta, whose mother was an addict, struggled with her own demons; her memoir is a testament to her own redemption.
Life under an erratic single mom, first on welfare, then a millionaire, in the 1980s proved a wearying contest for survival of the fittest as recounted in this valiant, bittersweet debut by Danvers, Mass., native Ruta. Five feet tall and Italian American, with a loud gutter-mouth, copious breasts, and bleached blond hair, Kathi aka Mum lived from one menial job to the next that kept her comfortably supplied with pain killers she happily shared with her only daughter while concocting conflicting plans for her including school scholarships and early pregnancy.... Ruta's account is a fairly dry, restrained chronicle of a wrenching embrace of health and sobriety.
Billed dramatically as the debut of a prodigy—Ruta was finalist for the Keene Prize of the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers—this memoir assays the author's rise from a particularly tough childhood. Her mother was a drug dealer and user, and Ruta had to break from her to survive. An in-house favorite being compared to Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle.
The memoir of the emancipation of a daughter from her drug-dealer, addict mother. Despite the hardships she endured as a child, Ruta demonstrates a deep and loving bond with her mother. Other family members meander in and out of the narrative, but it is Ruta's mom who features the most prominently in these stories of coming-of-age during the 1980s.... The use of dark humor and explicit language...makes the book so intriguing, and Ruta shows how a strong maternal bond at an early age can lead to forgiveness regardless of the circumstances. A sharp portrayal of recovery from a lifetime of pitfalls and the love that held it all together.
1. Ruta begins her book with a scene from her childhood, when Kathi takes her along with her when she goes to destroy someone’s car. Why do you think Ruta chose to begin her book with that scene? What does it tell you about Kathi? How are the themes that it sets out subsequently explored throughout the rest of the book?
2. The dedication of With or Without You is “For Her.” Why do you think that is her dedication?
3. In her late twenties, Domenica worked for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “If only all battered wives could be so conveniently sympathetic,” Ruta writes. “The real picture is something more complicated, a prism that captures the full spectrum of good and evil and shatters it into fractured pieces of color and light” (p. 43). How does With or Without You explore this theme?
4. In a quietly momentous scene in the book, Domenica sees her sister lying on Carla’s stomach and whispers a single word. “It wasn’t until much later that I understood what had happened that day,“ Ruta writes. “Inside me was someone new waiting to be born…someone who would devote her life to describing such moments in time” (p. 53). What does Ruta mean? Why is that moment so significant?
5. What do you consider Kathi’s biggest betrayal?
6. What would you consider Kathi’s best attribute?
7. What do Kathi and Domenica have in common?
8. The extended Ruta family is almost continuously burdened with debt. Explore the theme of debt, both literal and metaphoric, in the novel. How do debts affect their relationships and hold them back?
9. Why does Domenica enjoy working in the dementia ward?
10. When Domenica is recovering, how does she find solace?
11. While in Austin, Domenica falls in love with another writer. “It was just as awful as my mother had said it would be,” Ruta writes. “It was even worse that she was right” (p. 145). What is Ruta referring to? What is the larger significance of Domenica’s realization?
12. Near the end of the book, Ruta wonders why she can’t have compassion for Kathi. Do you think that Kathi is deserving of Domenica’s compassion? Do you believe that Domenica does not have compassion for Kathi?
(Questions courtesy of domenicaruta.com.)
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