In her new memoir, Domenica Ruta recounts growing up on two very different sides of the North Shore. By Alexandra Pecci // Photograph by Meredith Zinner
Danvers native Domenica Ruta witnessed two North Shores, but she didn’t seem totally at home on either of them. One was rough and often cruel, pockmarked by abuse, neglect, poverty, and addiction. The other was blue-blooded and bucolic, nestled in the pretty enclave of Hamilton and the storied halls of Phillips Academy. Pushing and pulling Ruta in and out of both those lives was her drug-addicted, welfare-abusing mother, Kathi, the “you” in With or Without You, Ruta’s bracingly funny, vividly recalled, and compulsively readable new memoir.
“I was blessed with a really amazing mother, and I was also cursed with a really, really destructive mother,” Ruta says. “She was loving and supportive and nurturing in ways that are extraordinary. But she was also abusive and neglectful in ways that were criminal.”
Ruta was brainy and very much unlike the rest of her “thuggish” family—even her grandmother dealt drugs. Kathi sent her daughter to the best schools, but sometimes sold cocaine to afford the tuition. She pushed her daughter into Phillips Andover, but also dragged her into addiction, leaving marijuana in her Christmas stocking and numbing her pain with OxyContin. Kathi worked on a degree from Harvard Extension School, but her trash-strewn house had a revolving door of drug-using “aunts” and “uncles,” one of whom sexually abused Ruta.
Ruta says it’s still hard for her “to reconcile that those two things were happening side by side.” Kathi, to whom Ruta no longer speaks, “loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me,” Ruta writes. “Love and hate live really close to each other, in the same region of the brain, in the same region of the heart, and one spills into the other,” she says. “You can only have so much heat before you melt away the borderline between love and hate.”
Ruta eventually spiraled into alcoholism. But now, at 33, she is sober, happy, and living her “dream life” as a full-time writer. And she says the North Shore is never far from her heart or mind. With or Without You recalls other North Shore stories, such as Andre Dubus III’s memoir, Townie, and the film The Fighter, with their grittily vivid characters and places. It’s a comparison that thrills Ruta.
“It is the coolest club I never thought I would be a member of,” she says. “We come from such an interesting, fascinating, amazing place. I love the North Shore. I’m going to write about it for the rest of my life.”