I read a Tweet recently along the lines that memoirs need not be the “Olympics of tragedy.” I apologize for my inability to credit the source, but the phrase stuck with me. I had just finished reading With or Without You, a new memoir by Domenica Ruta, whose life seems like the 1600 IM of tragedy and abuse.
The daughter of a drug addict, albeit a high-functioning and dynamic one, Ruta writes about coming of age among drugs, sexual abuse and addiction. But, remarkably, that’s not really what the book is about. The story derives its drama from the unusual mother-daughter relationship (another prevailing memoir theme).
It is the declaration of every thinking woman at some point in her life, a manifesto that crosses all barriers 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.”
The drugs, sex and neglect of her childhood seem almost like minor details compared to the agony of her painful mother love. It took me a while to understand that, in my horror at her upbringing, I was missing the main point of this memoir.
Understanding how much Ruta wished she, and not addiction, were the center of her mom’s universe was heartbreaking. Kathi is a flamboyant, intelligent, (formerly) beautiful, larger-than-life character, at least in Ruta’s retelling. As a reader, as angry as I felt at her actions, I couldn’t help but like, and sometimes even admire, her.
In this way, Ruta provides an unusual tension in the story-telling. Over the course of her life, you can almost see the logical part of brain, which writes almost clinically about her mother, fighting with her heart which writes with emotion and longing.
Ruta wisely includes a great deal of self-deprecating humor to break up the pathos.
Kathi and I were the two most outrageous snobs ever to receive public assistance.”
“Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time in which you never lived? I’m sure there is a word for this phenomenon in German — beautiful, absurd, and twenty letters long.”
She also shines the harsh spotlight on her own flaws and addiction, but perhaps I wanted even more in terms of soul searching. I was horrified throughout, but I never came to love her (which I want in an Olympian…oops…I mean a memoirist).
I received an Advanced Reading Edition of this book as part of the Random House Reading Circle. Please note that the quotes included in this review are not taken from the final edition. Expected publication date is February 26, 2013.