In March of 2013 this book was Powell’s Indiespensible selection, which is how I first learned of it. The choice surprised me since all the other books Powell’s had sent me were fiction, and this is a memoir. The choice also disappointed me a bit: some modern memoir about a chick and her addict mom? I’d joined Indiespensible expecting to get books that would later win The Morning News Tournament of Books, and I got a modern memoir about a chick and her addict mom? If I’d wanted to read Lit I would have bought Lit, you know? But when it came up in my queue a few days ago I picked it up and started reading, like a good organized reader of books, especially one who is in the midst of blog-post-a-day February. Especially since this book cost me $39.95. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by With or Without You, though perhaps “pleasant” is not a word one should use to describe this account of Ruta’s complex relationship with her mother, Kathi. Powerful, yes. Harrowing, yes. Deeply sad, yes. The only parts of this book I found truly pleasant were reading about Ruta’s dog Zazy and reliving the music and fashion of the eighties and nineties with her (Ruta is about two years younger than I am). Ruta has what many critics call a “lyrical” voice, and I definitely found her prose very readable, even though the content of her prose bordered on the unpleasant.
Domenica Ruta was born in 1979 and lived until she went to college in the Boston suburb of Danvers, Massachusetts. Danvers is not an affluent suburb, and made me think of Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in The Departed (not the cop version, the hoodlum version). I got the impression that the entire town was addicted to some drug or another, or maybe that was just the Ruta family. Nikki’s parents were teenagers when they had her, were not married, and did not elect to remain together to raise her, though they were both around. We may not all remember back to the late seventies, but this was something of a scandal then. Especially in a town like Danvers that is full of Italian- and Irish-Catholics. And so Nikki is born into this family of degenerate alcoholics, or as she calls them “a band of lunatics who lie even when the truth would do just as well (9).” And she’s smart. So her family makes fun of her for being smart (I can relate), and the kids in school make fun of her for being smart (I can relate), and they make fun of her for coming from a family of degenerate alcoholics (I can’t relate).
Kathi and Nikki have a very complex, convoluted, codependent relationship. Even though Kathi is married to Michael, Nikki’s stepdad, for most of Nikki’s life, they still seem to relate to each other like a single mother/only child. In fact, there are certain characteristics of their relationship that I see in mine with my own mom. My parents are married now, but they divorced when I was very young, I didn’t see much of my dad, and it was just the two of us for a long time. There is much that is not the same, thankfully, like everything in the following paragraph: “Kathi and I were the two most outrageous snobs ever to receive public assistance. My mother had grown up middle-class and, despite the succession of menial jobs she held, she refused to let go of certain standards. No matter how broke Mum was, she would find a way to outfit me in designer clothes. The telephone was sometimes cut off for nonpayment, but you’d better believe she paid that cable bill on time. Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not (12).” We did not have cable, and Calvin Klein clothing did not exist in either of our closets until Mr. Klein opened an outlet store. But here is the kernel of similarity between these two mother-daughter relationships. Strip away the drugs and alcohol and welfare, the Catholic schools, the yelling and screaming and what’s left? Nikki and Kathi go for a drive into a storm. “It did not occur to me to be afraid. I was with my mother. We were in a Cadillac. What on this small planet had the power to hurt us (84)?” I still feel this way about my mom. Not the Cadillac part, though. We had a 1982 Nissan Sentra when I was a kid.
So Nikki navigated her childhood, doing well in school, reading voraciously. She went to catholic school through eighth grade, and then started public high school. Then she and Kathi got it into their heads that she could get a scholarship to a boarding school. And so she does. Tenth through twelfth grades she spent at Philips Andover Academy. I hear that’s a pretty good school. Not that it comes as a surprise living in Nikki Ruta’s world, when she was fifteen or sixteen (just done with tenth grade), she started smoking pot. And when she told her mom, Kathi called all of her relatives to tell them the glorious news. “From then on my mother made sure to stuff a nickel bag of pot, always green, sticky, and fragrant, into my stocking at Christmas. She didn’t smoke pot herself…. Mum remembered fondly the pleasure potheads found in salty and sweet snack foods, so once I started getting high she made sure the cabinets were stocked with good ‘munchables….’ Kathi was my first drug dealer, and without a doubt the best one I ever had…. My mother didn’t fuss over me much once I started smoking pot. She seemed relieved (102-103).” Isn’t that sweet? From weed Nikki graduates to pills, the most frequently mentioned being OxyContin, and various things that she can put up her nose, and ultimately makes alcohol her drug of choice, though she dabbles in pills and pot (and probably other stuff too, though she seems to gravitate towards these particular things). She goes to college (on scholarship to Oberlin), finishes, works for a while, then goes to graduate school in Austin. She manages to maintain a long-term relationship with her college boyfriend Dave throughout this time, who at one point tells her that her mother is a “flesh-eating virus (149).” While Nikki is in Austin, her life begins to hit bottom. She drinks daily, all day, loses her boyfriend, and severs ties with her mother. Actually the severing ties with Kathi part may be the only smart thing she does during her Texas years. She ultimately moves home to Danvers and starts getting her head on straight—after a few missteps she gets sober, and then starts writing a book. This book. At the end, which I assume brings us to the present day, she and Kathi still aren’t speaking.
There are very graphic passages of drug use and abuse in this book that very much glorify drug use, and make it obvious that Ruta is still working on some things. No one could describe the feeling of the first time she took OxyContin so beautifully if she didn’t miss it a little. Don’t you think? “The moment the pill kicked in, there was a warmth in my stomach that spread to my arms and legs. I could feel my heart pulsing in my hands, and every beat seemed to pump a new surge of contentment and hope into my veins. I floated from my bedroom down the hall to the bathroom, where I knelt on the filthy tiled floor and vomited a day’s worth of food in less than thirty seconds. Puking violently, I swear I have never felt so good in my entire life. I had an overwhelming urge to tell my mother how much I loved her, but there I was, hugging the toilet bowl for Act 2 of my own private opera (107).” That just isn’t right. I’ve never ever wanted to try OxyContin, except for about fifteen seconds right after I read this passage.
Probably my favorite parts of this book were when Ruta talked about stuff from the eighties and nineties that I also enjoyed. I just love nostalgia. That I am old enough to feel nostalgic for anything is somewhat surreal to me. T5deTake this quotation for example in which Nikki tries to explain nineties adolescent fashion: “Wool socks could be worn with Birkenstocks, but only with flared leg jeans; dyeing your hair magenta was a good move regardless of your skin tone, but bleach blondes were tacky unless they pierced their faces in at least three places, as this transformed peroxide into anti-aesthetic rebellion (88).” I was sad that flannel wasn’t mentioned more often. Ruta also mentions U2 as one of her favorite bands (hence the name of the book), and who didn’t love U2 in the early nineties?
It wasn’t until Ruta got to the point of her recovery that I felt like the book fell apart a bit. She just doesn’t seem as able to document her sobriety as she is able to document her earlier life. I just don’t feel the emotions of her recovery phase as strongly, and I think that must be because she hasn’t figured it all out yet herself. Perhaps once she’s gotten a bit further into recovery she can write another memoir. The last chapter is about Nikki’s relationships with her dogs. Amazingly, Kathi and Nikki manage to care for canines. This concerns me on many levels, especially when I learned that while Nikki was trying to drink herself to death in Austin she had a dog, Zazy, who she seems to love a lot. This dog actually travelled with her from Boston, to Austin, and back to Danvers. Why she was not mentioned prior to page 195 out of 207, I have no idea, but then my pets have a very prominent spot in my life, and I would be hard-pressed to have a conversation with anyone for longer than a few minutes in which I don’t mention some current, former, or future pet of mine. But that’s just me. But my point in saying all this is not to reveal that yes, I am one of those pet owners, but to say that it seems like the chapter about the dogs was added as an afterthought: like Ruta needed to fill some pages and was like, “Whatever should I write about for the next 15 pages? Oh, wait! We have dogs! People like reading stories about dogs! I’ll write some stuff about the dogs. And it would have been more realistic to just intersperse stuff about the dogs in with the rest of it, like “mom and I snorted some OxyContin, then we fed Zazy, and took her out to potty,” than to have them just show up unannounced at the end.
So, summary. I did enjoy this book, and I feel like some of the negative comments I saw on amazon were a bit nitpicky. A lot of people said she didn’t present the vignettes in any particular order, but I thought the book proceeded in an approximately chronological order, with occasional jumps forward or back as befit the overall storyline. I do agree that it would have been better if she had put more distance between her drug/alcohol use and the writing of a memoir—it would have given her story more depth if she’d had more time to live as a sober person and reflect on things, but at the same time it was nice to read a memoir about this sort of thing where the author doesn’t have it all figured out yet. The immediacy makes it more raw, and probably more true. I would for sure read more books by Ruta; her style appeals to me even though her writing voice is young still. And I always enjoy supporting writers who are my age. That being said, I suspect Bethany would find lots of stuff wrong with With or Without You, and I don’t know that I’m going to have my boss read this one, so I recommend it with reservations. But if you are a fellow child of the eighties and nineties, enjoy pop culture references, and have a fascination with addiction and/or mother/daughter relationships, then you would enjoy this book.