“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).
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Thanks for your post! Addiction is usually most painful to those who love an addict.
That is an astute statement. I never thought of it that way, but you are absolutely right.
this story is really painful, but I like the motto of progress and all
Yeah, there is some good to come out of the bad.
I’m glad you enjoyed the book! I felt the same way about it as you did – it certainly wasn’t uplifting, but I liked Ruta’s voice and I couldn’t help cheering for her, hoping for the best for her as I am not sure what she is up to now. I really felt for that struggle she went through, missing her mother terribly and yet not knowing how to go on having her in her life. It’s a heart wrenching decision and a shame that any child should ever have to be in that position.
Exactly. Such a shame, and I was pulling for her too. It was hard to read but so interesting. I truly hope she is well.
Wow — this sounds intense! I’m not sure I could read this — I can rarely do memoirs like this, I find it too upsetting. In fiction, I don’t know, there’s more of a buffer? But I admire a well-written memoir that can offer some places for the reader to relate (and I’m sorry you could relate to some of her plight!).
I agree. There’s something less upsetting about fiction because we know it isn’t real, even though the stories could be very real.
Wonderful review, Emily. I’m not sure I could stomach the book as it rings a bit too close to home for me, as well, but it does seem to be incredibly well-written and a definite achievement. I appreciate these types of memoirs because I think they can really help others who are still struggling with their own familial wounds. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and for such a heartfelt response.
Thanks, Angela. Yes, these types of memoirs do some good with allowing others to identify, but I wonder as well if they cause more harm in that particular family unit. I can’t imagine that her relationship with her mother is any better after having published this, but I’m sure it was cathartic.
It reminds me of some of the discussions we have in the Wives series and the idea of illusion and disillusion, also your comments on deception. I suppose some one needs to stand up and stop the madness, the deceit, the lies. It can be done within the unit, as with your example of confronting your mom and deciding not to remain silent; for other people, I suppose the healing path may take them through a more public path. Cathartic — absolutely, and likely at some cost. But also perhaps these works act as an impetus for others in the family unit to open up to change and healing as well. One hopes so….
That is a perspective I hadn’t thought of, mostly because in my situation, if one speaks up then they are shunned. It would be interesting to see how Ruta is getting along with her mother now. I agree that hopefully some good has come of this book.
It is different for everyone, right? You and I probably share more similarities than not with our situation, which is why it is so hard for me to speak up now… But from what I’ve heard from memoir writers, these are all things they have to take in to account — what to tell and how to tell it. Not a problem, maybe, if the memoir is innocuous. But that is not the case here. Perhaps the mother is deceased? I’ve heard of other people not having the courage to write until the person they were harmed by was gone, or in some way no longer in their life…… It is all so interesting, and so removed from anything I could see myself doing.
I’m not sure I could do it either, other than with friends and here on my blog where I feel “safe.” I asked my friend Josh about this with his memoir, and he seemed more happy about getting to talk with his mom about good memories than concerned about what some of the minor people in his life would think of his thoughts about them in print.
Emily, this is pretty powerful stuff. We share with our kids openly about the alcoholism that is in their genes and they need to guard against it and please, please don’t drive if you do. Yet, I can only do that now as I don’t drink anymore. Before, I would be a hypocrite to counsel them. We learn both good and bad from our parents, sometimes learning more from the latter. Terrific post, BTG
Thanks, BTG. What a wonderful insight you have about learning both good and bad from our family members. There’s a lesson in everything. I was touched by your post on alcoholism and I suspect that you are doing a lot of good by telling your experiences and by trying to live in a way that is exemplary to your children.
The last quote makes a great point as does your whole review. Progress, not perfection is a great place to focus. This book sounds tough but not tragic, which perhaps makes it bearable. I’m left wondering where forgiveness fits into the process of progress also.
Ooh, that is a good insight. Forgiveness would have to be part of that progress, or nothing can really move forward, at least in a relationship. Perhaps progress also refers to the author’s own work on addiction, and moving on without her mother may be a form of progress, even if somewhat emotionally trying.
Yikes. I think it would be too much for me, too, but now I feel even more grateful for my own mother.
No kidding, right? I wish I could say the same! 🙂
I’m so sorry, Emily.
I have great respect for those who can create a healthy life after suffering the emotional abuse of self-centered and/or addicted parents. I’ll have to respectfully that every woman ends up chanting the opening mantra. My mother was the most unselfish and caring person I’ve ever known. When I think of her, I feel I come up short of her example. The important thing for all of us is to find the right mental/spiritual model for ourselves and cling to it, whether it’s exemplified by our parents or not. You can rise above your circumstances. In that regard, it could be seen as a book of hope.
Yes, there’s definitely hope. I like what you say about mothers and how your own view is living up to yours. I guess that relationship and our trying to emulate it (or not) as we age is problematic no matter which side of it we come from.
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I think many women can relate to the fear of becoming their mother; I know I can.
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This sounds like an overwhelming read. You’ve made me want to read this one. Thank you for being honest about your own family struggles – that is very brave.
Thanks, Victoria! I am still terrified of certain things and people, but it feels good to tell the truth, too.
I feel like reading this book!
I respect how the author took all the negative aspects of her life and not only overcame them but also made a good thing out of them (the book).
I hope you like it. It isn’t all positive, but it certainly looks like her life is headed that way. 🙂