I’m a sucker for memoirs about troubled childhoods. They seem to provide particularly fertile ground for autobiographical writing – magnifying the pain that comes with growing up and the shadow our adolescence casts on our adult psychology. More than that, I admire those who are brave enough to articulate their painful past, exposing themselves so that readers may find some part of themselves in the tortured history of another.
With or Without You joins Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Jeneatte Walls’ The Glass Castle as one of the best memoirs on this subject, exploring author Domica Ruta’s particularly tumultuous upbringing in a rough suburb of Boston. It centers on the author’s difficult relationship with her drug addicted, drug dealing, hustling mother, Kathi. In oftentimes harrowing detail, Ruta recalls being raised by the type of woman who spends all their welfare checks on cocaine and takes her young daughter to watch as she smashes an ex-boyfriends car and openly insults her appearance. The same woman who, despite raising her daughter in a decrepit, trash-filled house, wants to raise Domenica’s lot in life by sending her to the fanciest private school in the district. The kind of woman who keeps her daughter home from school so she has a buddy to watch The Godfather with and who invites a slew of other drug dealers and criminals to take up residence in their home. A woman who, at times, displays a fierce love for her daughter, while at others a forceful contempt; as Ruta puts it “she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me.”(p5)
Considering the kind of mother she had to contend with, it should come as no surprise that Ruta’s adult life is not all roses. Dysfunction becomes a consistent theme as she falls into her own habits of substance addiction in her adult life. Despite moving across the country to Austin, Texas, her Kathi remains an invisible presence in Ruta’s life with her life mimicking that of the woman who raised her.
While Ruta’s childhood circumstances are extraordinary, her story touches on a common ambivalence in all parent-child relationships. “15. Do you know how much I love you? 16. Do you know how much I hate you?” Ruta writes in an unsent list to her mother after they have become estranged. This push-pull dynamic – at once being repelled from yet fiercely drawn to the one that made you – is something that rang true for me as a reader. Ruta’s willingness to lay bare every violent, angry and emotional detail of her past makes the fraught bond between mothers and daughters incredibly lucid.
Ruta writes with a kind of acute self awareness that seems to acknowledge her own flaws as much as those around her. Although the story is at time scattered, it seems to mirror the way memories return to us – bits and pieces out of chronological order that together make up something resembling a mosaic. I can only guess that through the act of remembering and retelling her story for the reader, she was able to undergo a form of healing the wounds caused by a childhood no one should have to endure.