Joan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi. They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.
Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.
Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated. Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life. Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.