Growing up in an Italian-American family in Danvers, Massachusetts, Domenica Ruta had a life filled with violence and poverty but also imagination and love. Ruta's mother, Kathi, who "believed it was more important to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one," cycled between welfare and great wealth, helped get her daughter into a prestigious boarding school, and gave her Oxycontin. In gorgeous, inventive prose, Ruta chronicles her coming of age, relationships, and struggles to define herself outside of her family. Darkly funny and painfully honest, With or Without You
is an essential, necessary work.
We whole-heartedly agree with Amy Bloom's assessment: "In the world of memoir, Mary Karr's and Geoffrey Wolff's exceptional books burn and brighten, like actual stars among strings of tinsel. With or Without You is like that. I will read whatever Domenica Ruta writes."
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Jill Owens: How did With or Without You come about?
Domenica Ruta: I started toying around with the idea of writing a memoir. My initial idea was to write linked short essays but not an actual memoir — short essays about my life, but not with any kind of forward narrative thread. I wrote a piece about my stepfather that is remarkably similar to what is in the book in the spring of 2008. And for about a year, I sort of picked up and put down the idea of writing the memoir. I was writing other things. I didn't want to 100 percent commit to it, but I thought maybe I should try and see what happens. Then, later in 2009, it became the focus of my life, and I worked on it thoroughly and with laser-like focus for another two years.
Jill: The structure is loosely chronological, but it also seems subject- and character-based. How did you decide to structure it like that?
Ruta: I let the structure develop organically, and chronological did not seem like the most exciting way to do it. I like to think of it as a series of loop-the-loops that happened to go in a narrative arc, but the thread just loops back to the beginning, and back to the beginning, and back to the beginning, many times along the way. Some of the chapters are character driven and some are theme driven, but I was trying to let each chapter determine its own structure, and then, once I had that for a first draft, the chapters fit in nicely together in the structure that they're in now.
Jill: There are a few places in the book where you speak directly to the reader — towards the beginning, for example, you say, "What else do you need to know about this woman [your mother] before you go on with the story?" How did you decide to introduce her character like that?
Ruta: That's funny. That's a great question, and I'm so glad you noticed that. There was actually a lot more of that in earlier drafts that I eventually cut out. It was getting gimmicky, and it was also representative of... it was me not trusting myself as a narrator to have a strong enough voice. A lot of my direct addresses to the audience were these admonishments to "believe me; listen to me; know this is real..." As I worked through different drafts, I was more confident in the story and the voice as it was, and so I cut a lot of that out.
I come from a background in fiction. I've written short fiction. I've published short fiction and I'm working on a novel now. I tend to write in the third person. Writing in the first person about a character that is me was so surreal that I had to be talking to somebody. This is not happening in a vacuum. I'm not just telling my life story. I'm telling my life story to readers, and I don't know who they are yet, but I did want to somehow acknowledge that relationship.
Jill: At a certain point, you say about the nature of memory, "If you can remember anything, it's already wrong. The image or event has changed, just as you have — minutely, chemically, through the passage of time between then and now. Something happens to you, and it's gone." I was thinking about that passage when you were saying that you were telling readers, "Believe me, this is real." You're pretty up front about some things being hazy and possibly not true, but then there's a lot of wonderfully specific dialogue and details. Did you just trust your experience of things? Did you go back and ask for corroboration of anything?
Ruta: I trusted my experience of things, and as I was writing this memoir, I was also getting sober, and so my memories were coming back to me. As I talk about at the end of the book, memories were flooding back and feelings were flooding back. Feelings I didn't know I had, grief I hadn't gotten rid of yet, anger as well as experiences. Little pieces of dialogue, little flashes of scenes from my life were returning. It was a little bit like recovering from a head injury. It was just the long, slow, self-induced head injury that is alcoholic drinking. [Laughter] And that was happening as I was writing. I was warming up those memory muscles and those narrative muscles, and as I was warming them up, they were getting stronger and stronger and more things were being generated.
There are places where it's hazy and I felt compelled to admit that, but there are other scenes in which these are direct quotes or things that my mother has said or other people have said that I wish I could forget. [Laughter] But that's exactly how it was said.
There are other moments that are crafted — where I don't know exactly what happened. Like, Was I eating cereal that time? I probably was. I need my character to come into the kitchen for some reason, so I can have this moment with my mother that is absolutely a solid, concrete memory of her saying a very specific thing to me. I don't know precisely why I walked into the kitchen, so I'm creating a motivation for my character which is, Pour a bowl of cereal.
There are little moments like that in which narrative construction is part of the architecture, and a necessary part. For the most part, yes, I have a strong memory, I guess. I don't know how it is with other writers. I think memoirists in general have really good memories or else they would never endeavor to do such a painful, painful project.
Jill: Several times — about Uncle Vic's smell or the word avuncular or other examples — you describe sense memories really flaring in the reptilian part of your brain while writing this. How did you deal with that?
Ruta: It was really hard. The hot air balloon chapter in particular, whenever I would work on that chapter, I would immediately fall asleep and take a three-hour nap afterwards. Even if I was only working on it for an hour and a half, I would be so exhausted by the end. It's physically draining to revisit those places. A lot of my memories are body memories. When it comes to physical trauma, it's true that the body remembers better than the mind does. Those were the places where I had to actually feel it to write about them. It was definitely really, really hard. I would always be really gentle to myself on days when I was working on that material.
Jill: How did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the book as a whole?
Ruta: There are many ways I could answer that question. One is being faithful to the material as a reader, being the steward of the story and trying to get across what happened into the mind of the readers. A lot of the time, I let the material dictate it. I took it chapter by chapter, story by story, scene by scene, and I let each one of those kinds of moments dictate what it wanted to be and then I would do what was best as a writer in service of the material. That made a lot of the decisions for me. It wasn't a very emotional process. It was more of a logical and artistic or aesthetic process, deciding what to include and what not to include.
Also, as I was writing this, I was changing a lot as a person, and I was dealing with a lot of feelings and finding places for them and realizing, okay, some scenes that are in here are in here purely out of rage, and they don't serve the larger narrative, and they actually distract the reader. And this is information that is going to bog down a reader who's just trying to get through the story. So I would cut those things.
Those were the two guiding principles, one which is sort of my own maturation as a person, like I was becoming an adult while I was writing this, and that helped me decide what needed to be there, what didn't need to be there. And two, approaching it as a writer and making aesthetic choices of what needed to be there and what didn't need to be there; that was also part of it.
Jill: Are there any stories that you would want to share here that didn't make it into the book for whatever reason?
Ruta: There are so many. There's one that I cut out because it was weighing down the story. It was great and it wasn't angry; it was funny. But it didn't serve a purpose. I was in a dance recital with my cousin who I call Fafa in the book, and we danced a duet wearing lime-green spandex leotards. We were 11 and 9 years old, so you can imagine how incredibly awkward our bodies were at this point, and we were wearing skintight lime-green body suits dancing to Michael Jackson's "Pretty Young Thing." [Laughter]
When I think about that now, I cringe in horror, and I don't think anybody saw the irony in it or even just the sick dark wit of it. But yeah, so that whole saga of my life, my dance recital days, are not in there. And that story doesn't really have a point other than we were in a dance recital together, and it was a well-observed, funny moment, but there wasn't any kind of beginning or end to it.
Jill: Your description of yourself physically in the book is really well written. It's funny and it also feels painfully honest. How did you think about tone, about having that distance but also the emotional resonance there?
Ruta: That's something that came out organically in day-by-day, sentence-by-sentence writing. I mean, that's sort of my perspective on life in general. That comes out in my voice. That comes out in this book, and that will come out in the fiction that I'll write the rest of my life — you know, this sort of looking at this bleak and beautiful world with acceptance and humor. That stuff sort of defines who I am as a human being, as an observer of this world. That comes out in my writing for sure.
Jill: One example of some of that distance might be when your stepmother asks your father why he never hits you: "Why was not an interrogative adverb in this sentence; it was a modal of suggestion, as in, Why don't we invite the neighbors over for supper? Why don't we go apple picking this weekend? Why don't we try to be more egalitarian with our violence?"
That's both chilling and accurate but also somehow funny. Something about that kind of encapsulates the tone in the rest of the book to me.
Ruta: I'm so glad as a writer to hear readers being able to let themselves experience the different levels of emotion that go with a scene or a moment or a paragraph like that because, of course, it's not quite funny, but it is a little bit funny. And it's dark and it's painful, and it's also the truth. I feel like, for me, that's the only honest way to talk about the world as I see it, and I can't shut out any one element because it's like getting rid of the color red. It's like, No, red is a part of the spectrum, and we can't have the full richness of all the colors in front of us in this world without red being a part of it.
Jill: There's a striking and really sort of beautiful moment when you see your stepmother and sister asleep together in the same position that you describe as the beginning of your future life as a writer.
Ruta: That's one of my favorite memories. There was some writer that I read a long time ago when I was a young teenager — I want to say it was Douglas Coupland — who talked about having an earth memory, which is that your life on earth is going to end and you get to take one thing with you, or you get to beam out one memory for aliens to see. I have memories that I enjoy reliving, but if there's anything for me that really captures being a human being in this world, it was that — seeing my sister and my stepmother and just realizing how strange and wonderful a phenomenon it is to be a member of a family, the biological reality, the spiritual reality.
Jill: At one point, you write, "At the time it seems as indulgent to protest as it does to poeticize now." I was wondering how you thought about that, since your prose is so lyrical, while you were writing about such disturbing things.
Ruta: Right. I think there are plenty of moments during which poetry is the only language capable of capturing reality. Then there are other moments when all language fails to capture an experience. Like language is just a clumsy, striving way to capture something. There are some moments in which it's like, This is where the visual artists have us. It seems like they can do this, but we can't. Or, This is where classical musicians reign supreme, because they can capture this feeling or this moment in this way that we simply can't do with words. Although as a writer, it's sort of my job to always at least try, and try my hardest, to do that.
But in my life, there were some moments that were just abjectly horrible and violent and awful; to try to be elegiac about them is insulting to the people who were there and to people across the world who can resonate with these experiences.
I'm also trying to give readers who didn't grow up with this kind of violence the concept that when you live in this world, this is what life is like. You know something is horrible and scary, but you don't think to protest about it because it goes on all the time. The pain is poignant, but the acceptance of it... it's just this numb thing that you live with.
Jill: Your mom's the main character in With or Without You, in some ways. But your grandmother and your stepmother and your father have great stories in their own right. It's interesting that you said the first essay was that relationship with your stepfather, because that is such an incredibly moving and sweet and sad story.
Ruta: It's funny, because I've returned to my journal. After I sold the book, I recovered a lot of my old journals that were in storage at an ex-boyfriend's parents' house in Washington, DC. I finally had the money to make the trip and to go down and say, "Hi guys, can I take you out to dinner and get all of my storage stuff in your attic?" I went back and I double-checked just for emotional accuracy what was going on in my journal. And through so much of my childhood, I hated my stepfather. He was the scapegoat; he was completely a scapegoat in my journals. I blamed him for everything. I blamed him for all of my mother's bad moods. I blamed him for every fight my mother and I had, whether or not he had anything to do with it.
It's funny what some time and distance can do to you. Because it was his story, my relationship with him, that was one of the first stories to come out in this memoir. It was immediately so tender and compassionate and so different from the way I used to feel about him.
That just shows, with time and maturity, in the process of writing and writing and writing, both in journals and in creative nonfiction, how that can change the way you look at things.
Jill: One of the things that your mom did was work really hard in various ways along with you to get you into a good school. I was really moved by the description of you and all the other girls at Andover watching Pulp Fiction. (I watched Pulp Fiction when I was in early college and did not have the same empowering experience.) That felt like a turning point for you growing up in a lot of ways.
Ruta: Absolutely. I didn't necessarily find my best friends at Andover, but I found evidence of my tribe. I do have some friends from that time in my life that I'm still very close to. It was the first time in my life I realized, Oh, there are others like me, because I wasn't the kind of girl who fit in back in Danvers. I didn't quite fit in at Andover either, but I did a lot more than ever before. It was because I was around these bright, curious, really witty, really funny, really darkly accepting, mature young women. Definitely, it was an intellectual turning point if nothing else.
Jill: I'm fascinated with the idea that hallucinogens basically make it possible for teenagers to play like children, which they still want to do. I've never heard anybody describe it that way, and I think that feels really accurate.
Ruta: Yes. You get to be silly again. Teenagers are trying so hard to be cool, and it's so sad because they're still little kids. They still definitely want to play on a playground, but it looks really weird, unless you do it with detached irony, which is what the hipsters have contributed to our world. But I didn't have hipsters when I was a teenager. I had drugs. [Laughter] It's sort of like it gives you permission to be the little kid that you still are.
Jill: How did you choose your epigraph: "You were sick, but now you're well. And there's work to do," by Kurt Vonnegut?
Ruta: I had a friend who knew that I loved Kurt Vonnegut and was constantly sending me random quotes as they came. I think he was on Twitter and I wasn't, and he followed Kurt Vonnegut. He was sending me all these quotes, and they were probably culled from Twitter. I had one of those startling, heart-stopping writer moments when he emailed that one to me. I was like, Oh, God, that's the epigraph.
Because that's what recovery is. It's a lot of work. You forgive yourself for being sick. You embrace how difficult and painful and wonderful it is not to be sick anymore, and then you do the work.
But that's true of life in general. You don't have to be recovering from an addiction or substance abuse problem or whatever, or an illness or a trauma, to know that that's true, that that's true for all of us.
Jill: What are you reading and enjoying now?
Ruta: One of the best things about being a writer is people send me boxes and boxes of free books all the time, and it's so cool. I would work for this; I would work for free books. The fact that I get a living wage on top of that is great. But I have Claire Messud, I have the advance reader's copy of The Woman Upstairs. I'm reading that and I'm enjoying that very much. I'm reading Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, which is gorgeous. It's so stunning and gorgeous. It's a short book but I have to read it really slowly because it's just burning. It's so burning with heat that I can only take it in little sips. I just mixed a whole bunch of metaphors in one horrible sentence, sorry. [Laughter]
That's what I'm reading for fiction right now. Then I'm trying to teach myself some things about the universe. I'm reading Bang! The Complete History of the Universe from Brian May. Brian May was one of the dudes from Queen and he's also an astrophysicist. It's a really well-written book on the origins of the universe.
Every book about cosmology, they claim that, "Oh, this is for the layman!" and it's always really, really hard for me to understand. Apparently those books are for the layman who did really well in physics, and I am not that layman. [Laughter] But this one is good because there are lots of big, bright pictures and little, incredibly nerdy jokes and asides. I'm enjoying that.
Jill: That sounds really great. I hadn't heard of that book, but I will check it out.
Ruta: Oh, it's so good. I love it. It's worth it for the pictures alone. The pictures are just stunning. It traces the history of the universe from before the Big Bang to the Big Bang to the balls of mud and balls of fire that are swirling around us now.
Jill: Is there anything you want to say about your book that we haven't talked about?
Ruta: I don't know. I'm in this weird place right now where I'm just starting to get through interviews. I'm just starting to become aware of readers' experiences of this book. What I hope people take away more than anything is, it's a story of love. It's a story of mother-daughter love. It's a story of self-love. It's a story of love for life and for health. It's about family and friends.
My hackles go up when people say, "It's a story about her monstrous childhood and her bitch mother." If that's what you're taking away, that's fine. Every reader's experience belongs to each reader, belongs to you. It's not something I can control. But I really hope that what readers take away at the end of this book is just this profound, imperfect, complicated love that we have for each other.
I spoke to Domenica Ruta by phone on Feburary 15, 2013.