The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?
I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.
Well then, sweetheart, who the hell do you think you are?
A mistake made flesh? A bundle of nerves squirting hormones and lipids and whatever bullshit that activates the series of actions that make up a human life, actions that I can never decide whether or not are random or predestined or stupid but sometimes accidentally great or just stupid? A sentient machine that churns energy into waste? A unique child of god, capable of infinite love? A writer?
No, but a memoirist? I mean, really.
Listen, it’s an innate human instinct to mold our every life experience into the shape of a story—the world we live in quickly begins to feel baffling and unbearable unless we give it this form. In the crudest terms, our lives come to us prepackaged in the arc of a story—we are born, we grow up, we die. Aristotle came up with this, not me. So if our lives are stories, then naturally we are the protagonists. This is really basic stuff we all do in the womb—like self-absorption of our own minds. It’s not only comforting, it’s a psychic necessity. However, you are right—to sit down and actually write it all down is an act of exceptional narcissism. To sit down and rewrite it a million times until each sentence hooks artfully into the next is an act of narcissistic insanity. If you have a story, you are not obligated to tell it, but if you do, tell it as well as you can. That’s all I tried to do.
It’s obvious what you were trying to do. You just weren’t particularly graceful about it. Sometimes you have these passages where you clearly think you sound smart. Then you have scenes where the handicapped guy you’re taking care of shits his pants at Walden Pond. And a whole chapter about your dog. And jokes about your unwanted facial hair. If there was an award for bathos…
I was and still am deeply ambivalent about what tone, what voice, is the most authentic for me—the literary or the profane. This is probably the defining conflict of my entire professional, emotional and spiritual life. I grew up in a demographic that is largely invisible because it is not fashionable to pity or politically worthwhile to empower. My people are not the noble poor. They are triumphantly vulgar and highly suspicious of culture. This is one strand of my intellectual DNA. The other half of the helix is the very thing the first half fears—the world of books, art and critical theory and third wave feminism and Eastern philosophy, things I find fascinating and have worked very hard as an adult to afford the luxury of thinking about them. So when I was writing this book, I thought the truth of my experience had to include it all. To write a purely literary memoir where only the safe, ponderous, enlightened, dinner-party-with-your-boss-appropriate moments were explored would be a lie. Vulgarity is not a linguistic lapse or admission of intellectual laziness but a genuine expression of life on life’s terms, a way for people to destroy taboos, which isolate us from each other through silence and shame, and truly connect. But to privilege the vulgarity of my life, to write a purely funny, populist, chick-lit kind of memoir, would mean suppressing another, more poetic, abstract-thinking voice that is just as real to me.
So you tried to do both and succeeded at neither.
I guess part of me wanted to become the white trash poet laureate. You can’t blame me for dreaming, for trying. Isn’t it better to fail spectacularly then to slip by adequately? But now, thinking about it honestly, I suppose that I hide behind my sense of humor in the book, that I do that now, still. It’s not necessarily because I so desperately want to be funny, or to make you laugh and like me, though I do want those things. It’s because my own life experiences—which include all categories of abuse, existential terror, regular old-fashioned longing, transcendent loneliness—are too scary for even me to confront without a joke ready to protect me. And out of sincere empathy for my future readers, I didn’t think it was right or fair to present those same experiences for you without some safety net. Humor is the most resilient natural resource I know, and I used that.
By the way, the term “white trash” is racist.
It’s totally racist. It implies that trash ought to be colored, more specifically, brown, and that when it’s not, it needs to be qualified, to set it apart as something different. Which is a capitalist lie we continue to perpetuate so that the agents of oppression can continue raping the earth and destroying generations of human lives because we are all too busy fighting about what kind of trash is the trashiest. And trash is what I am. Or was. Or always will be. It would hurt my dad’s feelings a lot to hear me say this, because he tried very hard to instill good working-class values in his kids. But I didn’t grow up with him; I grew up with my mother, who taught me, explicitly, how to manipulate the system. Part of me feels like all the success I’ve had has been a slightly more elegant version of welfare fraud. Writing maudlin personal statements that made admissions officers feel sorry for me and give me scholarships to good schools. Even my book felt a little like I was exploiting my chaotic childhood to win a book deal.
Don’t you think there’s something else you could be doing with your time that’s more useful?
I have lots of ideas. I could write scripts for one of those reality shows about the new-money Italian women who are always screaming at each other. But then I think I would get too lofty, and become to the writing team of that show what Rust Cohle (á la True Detective) is to the Louisiana Police Department. But I’m good with kids. They don’t find me threatening because I’m so short and immature. I would be a really great nanny. I would love more than anything else to have my own kids and be the greatest mother I can be, the kind who bakes cookies with avocados instead of butter and every night reads The Hobbit using a variety of dramatic voices instead of watching TV. If there were a Pulitzer for house cleaning I would win it so many times I would have to withdraw my name from the running because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.
DOMENICA RUTA, author of With or Without You, was born and raised in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She was a finalist for the Keene Prize and has been awarded fellowships to Yaddo, MacDowell, Blue Mountain Center, Jentel, Hedgebrook, and the Tisch School for the Arts. Her short fiction has appeared in Epoch and the Indiana Review. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. With or Without You was released in paperback on March 11.