Surviving her mother — and telling the tale

Author delves into a painful childhood in recovery memoir ‘With or Without You’

Charles McGrath / New York Times News Service /

Published Mar 3, 2013 at 04:00AM

DANVERS, Mass. — Domenica Ruta’s “With or Without You” is a recovery memoir in which the most vivid character doesn’t recover. She is Ruta’s mother, Kathi, a lifelong drug user and occasional dealer — a “narcotic omnivore” as Domenica calls her in the book.

Flamboyant and impulsive, Kathi Ruta raised her daughter as a single mother on welfare and was both a good parent and a very, very bad parent rolled into one. She was the kind of mother who allowed her daughter to eat ice cream for breakfast and urged her to stay home from school and watch movies.

She encouraged Domenica’s artistic bent, paid for parochial school (by helping someone sell a brick of cocaine) and persuaded her to apply to Andover, the exclusive prep school. Yet she suggested that her daughter should get pregnant and drop out, and was so overjoyed when Domenica, a late bloomer when it came to drugs, finally began smoking pot that she gave her a bag of it for Christmas. Later she shared unstintingly from her seemingly inexhaustible stash of OxyContin pills, or Oscars as she called them.

Domenica Ruta’s own drug of choice proved to be alcohol. She began drinking a lot at Oberlin College; and during graduate school at the University of Texas, where she studied at the Michener Center for Writers, the problem grew worse.

“I lied to myself for a long time,” she said recently. “I had the CV (curriculum vitae) of someone who was doing well, even though I wasn’t.”

She got sober, as she describes in the book, by moving back to the North Shore of Boston, but also, painfully, by severing her connections to Kathi, who by then was using heroin and in a self-destructive spiral. For now at least, her life is without her mother, not with.

Return to Danvers

In person, Domenica, 33, is a lot like her book. She’s sharp, intense, funny in that darkly sarcastic way that working-class New Englanders so often are, and given to bursts of strong feeling. She now lives in Brooklyn, but last week she came back to Danvers, where she grew up. Turning off the highway, she suddenly said: “My heart always beats really fast right here. I don’t know why.”

A few moments later she became ironic and added, “Welcome to the mean streets of Danvers, those hardscrabble streets.” In fact Danvers is an unfancy and mostly unremarkable North Shore suburb, whose greatest distinction is that in the 17th century it was where the Salem witches came from.

It’s still the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, and probably it was no secret that the little house at the end of Eden Glen Avenue where she lived with her mother and eventually a stepfather was a hangout for druggies and so neglected it eventually had to be condemned. On the site is now a modern colonial, with a wide porch and handsome stonework, that Kathi built during a brief period of financial prosperity. But she soon lost it, and Domenica said she no longer felt much connection to the place.

“I didn’t notice, or maybe I preferred not to care,” she said about growing up in a chaotic household and without many friends. “I preferred to be alone, thinking my little thoughts.” She added, “I did a lot of sad-girl journaling, and wrote sad-girl poetry — lots and lots of sad-girl poetry.”

Victimhood

Another trait Domenica has in common with her book is relentless self-criticism. Brian McGreevy, the author of the novel “Hemlock Grove,” went to graduate school with her and said recently, “I always felt that, given her almost Dickensian background, the self-deprecation was a survival mechanism.”

Their cohort at the Michener Center included Philipp Meyer, the author of “American Rust,” and Kevin Powers, whose “Yellow Birds” was recently nominated for the National Book Award.

“Even in that group it was understood by everyone that she was one of the most talented writers there,” McGreevy said. “But with Domenica compliments go in one ear and out the other.”

He knew she was a drinker, he added, but that was hardly remarkable. “To be honest, our entire social group consisted of functional alcoholics,” he said. “And so for someone to be dysfunctional was not something you’d ever think of intervening about.”

Domenica said that during this time she was mostly writing “Connecticut divorce stories,” knockoffs of Cheever and Updike. “I was writing about wealthy people leading lives of quiet desperation,” she said. “I had no idea what I was talking about.” Every now and then, to add a little life to these stories, she would inject something drawn from her mother or some detail from her own history and those, she recalled, were what her fellow students objected to most.

“They’d say people in real life don’t talk that way,” she said, laughing. Even so, she began to think, “Well, if nobody likes my fiction, maybe they’ll like my real story.” McGreevy encouraged her, saying, “You’re not there yet, but you will be.”

Domenica said it took her until the last draft of “With or Without You,” which Spiegel & Grau is publishing, to figure out the proper voice and tone. “I didn’t want to write another sad, lost-girl memoir,” she explained. “But I had only a limited idea of what a memoir could be. I associated memoir with victimhood, and I don’t think of myself as a victim.”

Driving around the North Shore, she pointed out the Peabody Institute Library, a haven when she was a child and also where she wrote part of the book; the bar where she took her second-to-last drink; the beach where she took early-morning sobriety walks. She dropped in on her father, Jeff Citroni, who still lives in Danvers, in the house he grew up in and where Domenica spent a lot of time, especially when life with her mother got out of hand.

‘The painful, honest truth’

She and her father went out to lunch in Essex, a picturesque seacoast town nearby. The restaurant, a seafood place called The Village, is a sort of family landmark, because Citroni is a plain-spoken New England type — an Italian Puritan, his daughter calls him — who doesn’t really see the point of eating out. But in the book he and his daughter go there twice, once after she halfheartedly tries to kill herself in the eighth grade and once while she tries to get sober.

On this visit, Citroni regarded his daughter with evident affection and a certain amount of wonder, as if unsure just how a writer had landed in the family. A little later in the afternoon Domenica reminded him, teasingly, that he had once said to her, “Nikki, who the hell would ever want to read a book about you?” Citroni grinned and said, “I’ll admit to that.”

Kathi Ruta still lives in Danvers, but Domenica has not spoken to her mother since 2006. “She has a spiritual autoimmune disease,” Domenica said. “In my head that’s how I make sense of it. It attacks everything in the body, including self-preservation, spiritual connection, love, friendship. There’s miracles, but I’m not holding on to that.”

Kathi, reached by telephone Tuesday, said of her daughter’s book: “She lied about nothing. She told the painful, honest truth.”

Domenica said: “I miss her and would like her in my life, but I don’t know that I would be able to do that right now and stay sane. It’s something I do want to try. We’ll see.”

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