Domenica Ruta on 'Divorcing' Her Drug-Addicted Mother
Domenica Ruta had an intense, decades-long love affair with a woman who was as brilliant and passionate as she was vicious, destructive and manipulative: her mother. Growing up in Danvers, Mass., Ruta idolized her mother, who turned a failing taxi business into a million-dollar enterprise, all while slinging coke and heroin on the side. As she describes in her new memoir, "With Or Without You," Domenica was one of her mother Kathi Ruta's younger customers: Kathi introduced daughter Domenica to OxyContin when she was 10.
Ruta describes for Bookish how she escaped her mother's clutches to attend Andover, yet would frequently return home to "restock on pills, money, manipulation" and other "homespun comforts." In the last few years, Ruta has battled her own addictions and moved away from sources of destruction--namely, alcohol, drugs and her mother. As Ruta says, she had to "divorce" her: The two no longer speak. Ruta also tells us about inheriting her mother's "fire" and how coaching young cheerleaders to scream louder is "the best thing [she] has ever done with [her] spare time," and reveals which books she'd recommend to recovering addicts--and to her mother.
Bookish: When did you first know that you were a writer?
Domenica Ruta: I always wrote: Poems were my first love. I was an exceptional rhymer--what a heartbreak it was for me to realize, around 15 or so, that serious poetry in the modern world is not supposed to rhyme. So I had to find another genre--I am what I am today because I failed at poetry.
In high school I read Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son," and here was this man, this poet-warrior who got high like me! What I didn't realize at the time was that those stories were written in sobriety, as all good writing must be. But, that was when I got the idea that I would like to write stories, and I did [so] throughout my 20s while working at other jobs to make a living.
When I was teaching [English as a second language], I never had time to write. I taught six days a week and spent as much (if not more) time designing creative lesson plans at home as I did standing in front of a classroom--and I was only getting paid for classroom time. I've never been so irritable in my life, and it was because I never had time for real writing. It pissed me off in the depths of my soul. It was like water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink--all this gorgeous language I got to examine through the microscope of grammar and translation but no time dive in and play.
Bookish: What's the most memorable feedback your mother ever gave you about something you wrote?
DR: I wrote her a sonnet for Mother's Day when I was 10. I used a gold pen and drew roses around the periphery. I gave it to her in bed and she read and said, "Oh, honey. That was so nice. Now where's my present?" An expensive moisturizer from Lancôme was the thing she had asked me for. She pointed out that I had made good money from babysitting and could have afforded it, too. The rest of that day is blur…. I didn't share any more poetry with her after that.
Bookish: You and your mother are not on speaking terms for reasons you reveal in "With or Without You." Is this book a way for you to communicate with her? Do you want to know what she thinks of it?
DR: So much.
Bookish: As you describe in the book, your mother was a brilliant businesswoman and yet she could be self-destructive, enabling (not only was she a drug addict, but she introduced you to drugs at age 10), vicious and manipulative. Which of her qualities do you recognize in yourself--and how does that make you feel?
DR: My mother suffers from a spiritual autoimmune disease, and so do I. There is a destructive voice inside our heads that makes us attack the best and brightest around us, which inevitably leads to isolation and death. But I have her fire, too, and use it to fight off these sabotaging impulses. I have also accepted that there is something in my DNA that makes me call strangers on the street "honey." Middle-aged cab drivers, hipster baristas, alpha-moms and suits on the subway--they all become "honey" if I am forced to address them directly. I'm choosing to embrace it, since I am powerless to change this habit.
Bookish: Would someone who met you now be more surprised that you were an addict and an alcoholic--or that you were a cheerleader and class president?
DR: It's funny you ask, because last year I got to volunteer as an assistant coach to a little girls' peewee football cheerleading squad, and whenever I told friends and family that I was doing that, they laughed in my face. Like, paroxysms of laughter. I still don't understand what's so comical. As long as there is no equipment involved or balls to be chased, I'm pretty strong and controlled, physically. I loved working with little girls, encouraging them to scream louder, move their bodies with more confidence. It was pretty much the best thing I have ever done with my spare time as an adult.
Alcoholics are a perfectly diverse sample of the population. For every gutter drunk and limping wet-brain there are just as many doctors, politicians and kindergarten teachers. Many, many of us have skated to extreme ends of the spectrum and back again throughout our drinking careers.
Bookish: Your mother pushed you to go out and conquer the world; at the same time, she urged you to get pregnant while you were in high school and stay in Danvers, Mass., where both of your parents have lived their entire lives. You left home for college--what do you think would have happened to your relationship with your mother had you stayed nearby?
DR: I not only looked back all the time, I went back as often as I could stand it--to restock on pills, money, manipulation, self-hatred, rage--all those homespun comforts. It was not until after I moved to Texas for graduate school, when I decided to "divorce" my mother, that I truly separated myself from my place of origin--I was in my mid-20s by then, a late bloomer.
If I had dropped out of Andover, chose another of the paths [my mother] offered me, I would be on social security now, too f*cked up to make a living, a spectacular failure, if I even lived that long.
Bookish: You've had quite the series of jobs: operator at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, activities coordinator in the Alzheimer's and dementia unit of a nursing home, teacher of English as a second language. What's behind you doing all of this disparate work?
DR: Part of that is the reluctance to commit, which many people struggle with in their post-college 20s. There was also a fear of success--what if I get a real job and have to actually perform well all the time? Irresponsible drinking made those kinds of jobs really untenable. At the Michener Center for Writers, I realized what I loved and needed most as a writer was time. I got used to the writer's life in Austin and decided I would prioritize ample time over ample money if meant I could write more and work less. So, I chose jobs that allowed me to do that.
Bookish: Which books have helped you understand or cope with your tumultuous relationship with your family?
DR: Anything and everything written by Pema Chödrön. She writes with a poetic clarity that is a joy to read and resonates for a long time after you've finished. She has an incredible gift for translating Eastern philosophy for Western readers. Also, she is brutally honest and intellectually fearless. In one book, "When Things Fall Apart," she tells the story of the day her husband announced out of the blue that he was divorcing her for another woman. Chödrön describes with startling beauty the limitless sky above her, the steam rising from her tea cup. Then she sees a rock on the ground, picks it up, holds it her hand for a moment--just feels it, the weight of it, this discrete object in the world--then she hurls the rock at her husband. That is Zen perfection. That is a writer and a teacher I can trust!
Bookish: What's the novel or memoir every recovering addict should read?
Bookish: What's the memory from your childhood you most frequently return to? Is there one in particular you wish you could rewrite?
DR: Watching movies with my mother, with my grandmother, with my stepfather--we were our best selves getting lost in the stories of others. We let ourselves be closer, intimate, I think, because engaging in a movie lets you leave your real life for a while. I think about that sometimes and it makes me so happy.
Bookish: What book would you recommend to your mother?
DR: I remember my mother was reading "Women Who Run with the Wolves," by Clarissa Pinkola Estes during her Harvard years. Actually, she was listening to the audiobook, and she gave the hardcover to me. It is part ethnography, part feminist self-help. Estes is a Jungian psychologist who reinterprets myths from across the globe and mines them for tools we can use in the real world to reclaim our authentic lives. It’s full of ghosts and bears and princesses, my favorite archetypes. I devoured it, naturally. I would recommend she reread that book.
Domenica Ruta was born and raised in Danvers, Mass. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, Jentel and Hedgebrook.
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