With or Without You

Kathi, the monster-mother who looms large over each page of this gut-wrenching memoir, embodies every dysfunction that’s ever been the focus of a reality TV show: She’s been a drug addict, a dealer, a shopaholic, a hoarder, a corrupt business owner. She thinks nothing of bashing in someone’s windshield with an iron poker as her young daughter watches.

As a writer, Domenica Ruta should thank her lucky stars that she was blessed with such a character for a mother. As a daughter, not so much. Kathi is a study in fascinating contradictions. The same woman who jumped around screaming, ”Free Money Day! Free Money Day!” when she received welfare checks was a snob about brand-name clothes and Scorsese films. The same woman who encouraged Ruta to get pregnant as a teenager also helped her get into Phillips Academy. Not surprisingly, the relationship between mother and daughter began to deteriorate as Kathi’s drug use escalated and her behavior became ever more erratic.

Of course, no one escapes an upbringing like Ruta’s with only a stunning memoir to show for it. The last quarter of the book, which focuses on Ruta’s own substance-abuse battles and failed relationships, breaks the hypnotic spell of the pages that came before it, which are infused — despite their horror — with a hazy, unexpected beauty. In contrast, Ruta’s present-day struggles sting with the raw immediacy of anger and self-pity. With or Without You comes across as a bleaker, funnier, R-rated version of The Glass Castle and marks the arrival of a blazing new voice in literature. Ruta has written both a love letter and a goodbye note to the mother who inspired her — and almost destroyed her. A-

Memorable Line:

”She used to bend down to scream directly into my face, and I would get lost staring at the black fillings in her molars, the heat of her breath touching my skin like a finger.”