“It is the declaration of every thinking woman at some point in her life, a manifesto that crosses all boundaries of class or color or whatever arbitrary thing we try to pretend separates us. It starts out as a girlish whisper, grows louder with each passing year, until that faint promise we traced in the sand becomes a declarative, then an imperative:
I will not become my mother.
It’s an ambition born of fear” (p. 181).
This fear is palpable in Domenica Ruta’s memoir With or Without You (2013), which I could not put down (and not just because the title reminds me of dancing to U2 in high school). She recounts her childhood as the daughter of a single mother who happens to be a drug addict. Because Domenica, known as Nikki to her family and friends, is smart, I believed at first that this would be a story of triumph of how she survived her childhood and got out to become a successful writer. Well, that is the story, except that in the middle, Domenica finds herself battling serious alcoholism, which began in her teenage years through her mother offering her Oxycontin and supplying cocaine and alcohol.
Poor Domenica. I don’t think the book is meant to make us feel sorry for her, but I did. She spent most of her childhood caring for her mother emotionally, fending off pedophiles, trying to focus on education, being taught to dress like a slut (the results of which are simultaneous hilarity and awfulness with a teacher), and watching television in her bedroom alone. That made me the saddest: that she and her mother would often sit in separate rooms and watch television for hours, and that they would do most of their bonding by watching television and movies together. Those times did seem to be good memories for Domenica, as the other memories are much more horrific, but it didn’t seem like living. Domenica also described knocking herself out with allergy medicine after middle school so that she could escape life. She’d take a long drug-induced nap and then wake up in time to see her mother snorting coke or getting high with friends.
The whole story recounts instability, especially for a child. Domenica reacts to this once she leaves home—Danvers, Massachusetts—for grad school in Texas. That distance from her mother gives her the strength and clarity she needed to realize that her upbringing was not healthy and that she must sever ties. She stopped answering phone calls from her mother, which came several times a day and became increasingly hysterical. Her mother was emotionally dependent on her and could not let go. Domenica finally changed her phone number, which resulted in deathly silence. It also sent her into a downward alcoholic spiral.
Overall, this book was gripping because of the incredible craziness. The paragraph that grabbed me (and showed me just how much I have in common with the author), is this: “What else do you need to know about this woman before I go on? That she believed it was more important to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one; that she allowed me to skip school whenever I wanted to, and if there was a good movie on TV she wouldn’t let me go to school because, she said, she needed me to stay home and watch it with her; that, thanks to this education, I was the only girl in the second grade who could recite entire scenes from Scarface and The Godfather by heart; that she made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine; that her ability to make money was alchemical; that she was vainer than a beauty queen, but the last time I saw her she weighed more than two hundred pounds and her arms were encrusted with purulent sores; that she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me; that at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me” (p. 5). This paragraph pretty much sums up the book, which is why when I finished reading, I wasn’t surprised to see it on the back cover as the hook for readers.
Ruta also reminded me of my own situation when she recalled the part of the brain that prevents us from saying stupid things in upsetting situations. “This part of my mother’s brain was a blitzkrieg” (p. 97). This reminded me of my own mother’s problems with this. Once she came to visit me when I was in college to take me to lunch. The truth was, she had driven the three hours for a shopping trip, as the rural area she lived in had no mall, but she picked me up and took me to Subway, near the townhouse I shared with a roommate. Two of my younger siblings were there, too. As we went through the Subway line asking for toppings, the worker asked if my mom wanted banana peppers. My mother, instead of answering the question, said rudely, “Those aren’t banana peppers. They are salad peppers.” To avoid further confrontation, I stepped in to clarify and smooth over the situation (with my expert knowledge as a former employee of Subway). I said something brilliant like, “Mom, here they call them banana peppers.” She wanted to protest, but instead sputtered another explanation of her name for them, and then fell silent. We ate, without incident and without conversation.
Then we got in the car. As soon as the doors were shut and she put it into drive, she began screaming at me. It was the most vicious screaming I had ever heard from her, about how I was a know-it-all and how dare I embarrass her in front of the Subway people (as if they care…) and how I was a spoiled brat and she hated me and on and on and on. She ranted about my fiancé and the decisions I was making as an adult. I finally could take it no more and yelled back. That didn’t help much, but it honestly felt good since I had never ever done that before. She dropped me off and stopped speaking to me for a month, until my step-father got involved and called me and asked me to speak to her. He explained her bizarre behavior as having a hard time cutting the apron strings, but the truth is that she had always been bizarre and uncaring.
Overall, I wouldn’t call this book uplifting or a new favorite of mine, but I did like the prose style and the story of redemption. I also related to the contents quite easily, although my past and my family issues don’t include substance abuse (that I know of). I wish Domenica continued success, and I hope she continues to write and stay on the wagon.
Here are some of the noteworthy quotes.
“Pride like this is both tyrannical and tragic, for the chief function of pride is to usher in the fall” (p. 23).
“[B]ut I can’t ignore that simple fact that she is a mom, and therefore a little bit insane, as every woman who has or will ever raise a child becomes” (p. 163).
Domenica: “We eat like refugees, Dad. Have you never noticed that other people let their food digest a little? They breathe between bites. They even talk sometimes.”
Dad: “Who cares what other people do” (p. 188).
“The Buddhists believe that every human life is like an ornament made of glass, something precious, beautiful, and bound to be destroyed. The trick is to see the world as a glass already shattered, freeing yourself from a life exhausted in dread of the moment of breaking” (p. 204).
Of resolution to family conflicts: “It sounds lovely and sometimes it’s even true, but not for us. My family does not magically repair itself. . . . Progress, not perfection” (p. 205-206).