As daughters, do we become echoes of our mothers and grandmothers? And if our mothers failed us as role models, are we doomed to fail in the same way? These are the haunting central questions of With or Without You by Domenica Ruta, lifting it above other recent examples of the dysfunctional “mommy and me” memoir.
Nikki grows up working class in Danvers, Massachusetts, in a rickety house on the river she shares with her mother, Kathi, and her Sicilian grandmother. Kathi is a drug user and dealer with pretensions toward art, a mother who would keep her daughter home from school to watch the Godfather trilogy on TV. The opening sequence of the book sets up the mother-daughter dynamic beautifully: Kathi drags her young daughter along while she bashes in the windshield of another woman’s car. “Don’t look at Mummy right now, OK?” Kathi asks.
But Nikki does look. What she sees and experiences as a child—drugs, abuse, neglect—she learns to repress. It didn’t happen. This is how she survives: by compulsively cleaning her mother’s house, organizing its chaos and blotting out the adults cutting lines of drugs on the coffee table. Kathi’s aspirations for her daughter eventually provide an escape hatch: scholarships to boarding school, a liberal arts college and an MFA program. But cutting ties with her toxic mother doesn’t free Nikki from Kathi’s echoing influence. It’s only after freeing herself from her own alcoholism that Nikki—now Domenica—begins to remember and process her childhood.
Memory is as central a theme as mothers in With or Without You. The storyline is episodic, flashing back and forth between scenes and characters and timelines. This can feel awkward in the early pages until Ruta’s method becomes clear: In sobriety, her memories of childhood and Kathi emerge in fragments. Because it acknowledges these gaps in memory, this memoir feels honest, like it has hit a bedrock truth—that we both love and hate our mothers, and that this ambivalence lingers long after we’ve left them.
“Write me a letter,” Kathi asks her daughter. In this stunning new memoir, Domenica Ruta writes a love letter to the woman she had to leave behind in order to live.