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.