WHAT I’M READING: A kick-ass memoir. Plus amusing anecdotes for comic value.

The Tyrant likes to leave me love letters around the house, like Hi mom I mist you and I love you soooooo muck. 

When she does that, my maternal instincts blossom and I think I know exactly what I’m doing in this here domestic situation.

But when the Pterodactyl uses the crank from my antique butter churn to punch a hole through the sea creature mural we paid an artist to paint on his wall, I feel less like a mom and more like the giant squid which now is missing a piece of its tentacle.photo

NOTE: I do not use the antique butter churn to make actual butter, as we are dairy-free. Duh.

Most of us find it easy to be good parents when our children behave. I even manage to find it adorable when they get the giggles over the size of my butt. (They don’t mean it, right? Right?) But when the baby girl uses a broomstick to sweep everything off the kitchen counter in a fit of rage, I’m all ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING GOSHDARN MIND? I know that I’m supposed to take her gently by the hand and help her take deep yogini breaths until she realizes how destructive her anger can be. But you might as well tell me to eat a cockroach. Sometimes my kids just get a big fat bite of crazy cake from me.

So it always surprises me to learn that some parents have really good kids and they still manage to be bad parents. What’s up with that? Well, poverty is up, for one. And drug addiction. And mental illness. And the fact that if you’re stuck with the first, the second and third are hard to overcome.

In the memoir With or Without You, Domenica Ruta opens up the veins of her childhood, and the resulting hemorrhage of words is part literary gift, part painful understanding of how definitively nurture can overcome nature when it comes to shaping human beings. Domenica – Nikki to her family – was raised by her mother, Kathi, in Danvers, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. Her teenaged parents split when she was young, but not before exposing her to a world of domestic violence that included multiple episodes of choking and beating. After that it was just Nikki, Kathi, and a string of bad boyfriends until Kathi married a cab driver she met when he brought her and Nikki to the hospital one day.

Kathi’s love for her daughter is perhaps the worst kind of devotion – she nearly craves her child, wanting things from her – but not for her. She keeps Nikki home from school so that they can watch movies together. She urges her to get pregnant in high school so that Kathi can have a grandchild. She introduces the teenage Nikki to prescription drugs, and teaches her how to use them. And though she knows a beloved uncle has sexually abused Nikki, she asks Nikki not to talk about it because she doesn’t want to think badly of the guy.

The verbal abuse Ruta endured is nearly unthinkable. Consider this passage:

“This was how I know when Mum was really, really, really mad. She called me so many things, but this Grand Dame of words she saved for special occasions, those singular episodes of rage that carried on from sundown and well into the next day. ‘You cunt, you no-good cunt, you no-good miserable little cunt….,’ she would say in a tired malevolent hiss, like an infant having screamed herself into exhaustion. At times like these I clung to the word little. It suggested a seed of affection, a promise that when this mood blew over, she would love me again.”

I think I read that paragraph three times before I could fully fathom the effect it would have on a little girl to hear such vituperative spew coming from her own mother’s mouth.

Ruta’s story is remarkable – this tale of growing up surrounded by narcissism, abuse, drug addiction and a pervasive lack of stability, both physical and psychological. At one point, even the very floors of her house begin collapsing. But what’s even more impressive is Ruta’s ability to strip her story of any implicit plea for sympathy. It’s as though she has taken a long, awful train ride through hell, but now, safe and secure, has the ability to recount her journey without the histrionics a less talented writer might be tempted to add. She also – and this is key – has the phenomenal perspective to understand that despite her faults, her mother left her with both a toughness and a tenderness that have shaped her.

Ruta has suffered mightily from her chaotic upbringing. She struggled with addiction herself, and often found herself lost, broke, and unable to maintain a relationship. She will likely struggle at some level for the rest of her life – don’t we all keep buried inside of us a small version of the scared children we once were? But this woman can write, and if nothing else brings her salvation, this ability to turn words into truth should sustain her spirit for a very, very long time.

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