They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They might not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
‘This Be the Verse’ – Philip Larkin
For the first half of Domenica Ruta’s memoir, it seems that Larkin got it wrong. Kathi, Ruta’s mother ‘was a hair taller than five feet and…a screamer’.
But volume was never an accurate herald of my mother’s mood; loud was simply the who and the what of her. That voice, those big dangling earrings, the long red nails and skintight jeans and shirts slit open a few inches below the cleavage of her enormous breasts…Her hair was almost black, but she insisted on bleaching it Debbie Harry blond. She had one tattoo, a small but regrettable crab on her left finger.
Ruta, on the other hand:
…had a wrinkled forehead and perpetual dark circles around my eyes…With my black, bushy unibrow, the faint scribble of a mustache on my upper lip, and my greasy, unbrushed hair, I looked like the bastard child of Frida Kahlo and Martin Scorsese.
“Honey,” [Kathi] asked me in a plaintive voice, “why do you always look like a fat forty-year-old lesbian?”
Ruta does her homework as soon as she gets home and ‘was born with a wolfish appetite for the printed word’.
Kathi veers between working three jobs to buy Christmas presents, staying in bed all day getting high or sleeping.
The house seems to be full of Kathi’s latest circle of friends – whether that be other junkies or recovering food addicts, while Ruta has no friends, content to do her homework while the other kids on her street run around outside ‘shrieking’.
There’s no doubt that Ruta’s childhood was grim. Besides her mother’s endlessly changing moods, her step-mother, Carla, sees her as a burden; her father tries to choke her mother, and one of her mother’s friends sexually abuses her. It’s no surprise that her Nonna describes her as ‘lonesome’, a label that she chooses to accept:
It was a shadow sewn to the soles of my feet that followed me everywhere I went, something as inexorable, dark and magical as death.
It’s also no surprise that by the time Ruta had settled in at boarding school, she was regularly smoking pot – ironically bringing her a friendship group, although she describes them ‘more like business associates’ – and that this became the beginning of a hefty downward cycle.
This is a well-written memoir but, midway through, I found myself wondering what I wanted from the genre. If I’m reading a ‘celebrity’ memoir, I’m probably already interested in who they are and some of the things they’ve done. I want to know how they got into their profession; where it’s taken them; who they’ve met; what they’ve got up to. Basically, I want a good old nosey around their lives. And to some extent, I want the same from a memoir by someone ‘unknown’. As with fiction, I want to experience a life I haven’t and possibly will never lead, or I want to have some part of my own existence validated. I want to reflect on the human condition and why we do what we do. And I think that this is what the first half of With or Without You is missing. There are glimpses of it – a beautifully written paragraph every so often:
It becomes a memory that becomes schrapnel. Shards of experience still hot with life singe the brain wherever they happen to get embedded. Sometimes I swear I can feel the precise location of my memories like warm, tingling splinters under my scalp. Pictures with no sound, feelings with no pictures, the lost and found, mostly lost.
but not enough to keep me really engaged. And that’s a shame because Ruta’s story is an interesting one – her mother, in particular, is fascinating – and the book seems to develop more in the second half. Maybe I’ve read too many childhood ‘misery lit’ tales to handle another and the choices that adults make for themselves and their children have become more interesting to me.
Having said all that, Ruta can write, as I hope the quotations I’ve chosen show, and I would have no hesitation at picking up another book by her. Perhaps some fiction next time?
Thanks to Spiegel & Grau for the review copy.