Domenica Ruta grew up in a tough, Italian-American family in Danvers, Massachusetts, where the word whore was a term of endearment. Her volatile, drug-addicted mother Kathi kept her home from school to watch movies, ignored signs she was being abused by a pedophile “uncle” and tried to convince her to get pregnant in high school. But Kathi would also pick up extra jobs to pay for Ruta’s ballet lessons or symphony tickets and believed her daughter deserved a top-notch education, which she got at an exclusive boarding school.
It’s no wonder Ruta emerges into adulthood an angry, insecure alcoholic who cheats on her boyfriends and can’t get her life started. Now in her early thirties and four years sober, Ruta chronicles her past in With or Without You. A story of love, hate, addiction and recovery, this hauntingly written memoir captures a mother-daughter dynamic at its most raw and reaffirms the power of the human spirit to care for itself despite steep odds.
Books for Better Living: You certainly had to dig deep into painful memories in order to write this book. Is writing about your past therapeutic for you? Do you have any advice for people about using writing to deal with pain?
Domenica Ruta: Nothing in the world makes sense to me until I write about it. This is true of painful past memories as much as anything else. My present life is a better reality than any I’ve experienced, and I’m still baffled. Writing is both an intellectual process and an emotional one – it’s where those worlds meet and come to some agreement.
BBL: Despite the odds being stacked against you, you seemed to possess an unstoppable drive to rise above the life you were born into. Where did that strength come from?
DR: My mother, most definitely. She was the first to see my curiosity and intellect, and she knew this would be my ticket out. My mother introduced me to as much of the larger world as she could. I used to love going with her to Cambridge when she was taking classes at Harvard. Education was the most important thing to her, and she made sure I was thoroughly brainwashed so that by the time I was in middle school I would settle for nothing less than an Ivy League school.
BBL: Your grandmother seemed to be one bright spot in your childhood. If she were here today, what would you want her to cook for you?
DR: Anything she wanted! Lately I’ve been craving her pastina. She used both butter and olive oil and just the tiniest sprinkle of romano cheese. It’s like Italian baby food.
BBL: You write about how running played a role in your recovery. What is your running routine like these days?
DR: I don’t run very often anymore. I started noticing this trend among my running friends – basically, no serious runner can escape the need for surgery, and I cannot afford to flirt with the exposure to high-grade painkillers such surgeries bring. So now I do yoga about five times a week. But every once in a while, my dad signs us both up for a 10K benefit run in Central Park, and those are always fun.
BBL: From the way you write about your dog, it sounds like she is like a best friend to you. How did she help you get through your recovery?
DR: Zazy is my soul mate. I don’t care how maudlin or pathetic that sounds, because it is simply true. I learned how to take care of myself by taking care of her. When she is scared or anxious, I speak to her a steady, calm voice. I try to eliminate noise and chaos and create the most peaceful home life for her that I can. Humans need all those same things, especially humans in recovery. I don’t know that I would have learned that so quickly without her in my life.
To learn more, visit domenicaruta.com.