With or Without You arrived this week, the next book in my Indiespensables subscription (complete with my extra gifts! Just like Christmas all over again!). Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been pretty light – this memoir definitely is not. This has been a hard review for me to sit down and write, although thoughts of the book fill my head, getting them out in some organized fashion has not been simple.
Nikki (the author’s nickname) grows up in a trash-filled rundown house with her wild, unpredictable, and drug-addled mother, Kathi, in Danvers, Massachusetts, north of Boston. The memoir travels through Nikki’s childhood and early adulthood, jumping around chronologically, and focuses largely on her relationship with her mother and her own struggles with addiction.
While the story is dark and oftentimes disturbing – Kathi provides Nikki with Oxycotin for her headaches at a young age, leaves her with a known pedophile, encourages her to get pregnant in high school, and gives her high-quality pot for Christmas – it is not as depressing as it sounds. Ruta’s telling of her story layers caustic humor with love and the beginnings of forgiveness. There are times when Kathi does try to be a good mother, although her methods may be unconventional – selling coke to pay for Nikki’s schooling, working three jobs to buy her outlandish Christmas gifts, doing whatever is necessary to ensure Nikki can go to dance lessons, French lessons, and the symphony.
In spite of the horrors Kathi subjects her daughter to, there are moments of affection and love and spunkiness and don’t-mess-with-us attitude that make you smile, laugh, and actually hope for Kathi’s redemption, and for her own sake, not just for Nikki’s. As Nikki struggles with recovering from her own addiction she ultimately needs to cut her mother out of her life in a quest for sobriety and sanity.
Ultimately, this memoir is about a complicated mother-daughter relationship, filled with codependency, anger, hate, and love. Ruta indicates that this book is largely a letter to her mother and the dedication heartbreakingly reads simply “To Her”. The ending is real, not fiction, so there is no tidy resolution, just an ongoing struggle and the possibility of hope.
Title: With or Without You
Author: Domenica Ruta
Publication: Spiegel & Grau, February 2013