A Vogue Best Book of the Year
"What Ferrante did for female friends—exploring the tumult and complexity their relationships could hold—Spiegelman sets out to do for mothers and daughters. She’s essentially written My Brilliant Mom." —Slate
A memoir of mothers and daughters—and mothers as daughters—traced through four generations, from Paris to New York and back again.
For a long time, Nadja Spiegelman believed her mother was a fairy. More than her famous father, Maus creator Art Spiegelman, and even more than most mothers, hers—French-born New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly—exerted a force over reality that was both dazzling and daunting. As Nadja’s body changed and “began to whisper to the adults around me in a language I did not understand,” their relationship grew tense. Unwittingly, they were replaying a drama from her mother’s past, a drama Nadja sensed but had never been told. Then, after college, her mother suddenly opened up to her. Françoise recounted her turbulent adolescence caught between a volatile mother and a playboy father, one of the first plastic surgeons in France. The weight of the difficult stories she told her daughter shifted the balance between them.
It had taken an ocean to allow Françoise the distance to become her own person. At about the same age, Nadja made the journey in reverse, moving to Paris determined to get to know the woman her mother had fled. Her grandmother’s memories contradicted her mother’s at nearly every turn, but beneath them lay a difficult history of her own. Nadja emerged with a deeper understanding of how each generation reshapes the past in order to forge ahead, their narratives both weapon and defense, eternally in conflict. Every reader will recognize herself and her family in I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This, a gorgeous and heartbreaking memoir that helps us to see why sometimes those who love us best hurt us most.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Nadja Spiegelman is the author of the memoir I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This. The daughter of Maus author Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly, she grew up in New York City, and now divides her time between Paris and Brooklyn.
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Excerpted from "I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This"
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"I have always known what it means to be a character in someone else's story," Nadja Spiegelman writes in her memoir, I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This. Her famous father, the graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, immortalized her in some of his own work. Her mother, Françoise Mouly, is the art director for The New Yorker and a publisher/editorial director at TOON Books. Nadja says that one of her mother's strengths is "a certain shaping of reality and a certain force of narrative and of will that also felt like a rewriting of things that I had lived through." Both of her parents, then, formed stories out of her own life.
Nadja started interviewing Françoise for her creative writing senior thesis at Yale, when she was twenty-one. She was scared about life after college and frustrated that her mother "couldn't possibly understand." In her daughter's eyes, Françoise was a sophisticated, successful, worldly woman who always knew what she wanted. But that, of course, wasn't true.
"It was really humbling to realize how little I knew of my mother," Nadja says. "You think that your mother belongs to you, and on some level I think that most people tend to believe that your mother's life starts with your life, and there's not that much to know."
Nadja started recording their conversations in French. As she talked to her mother about her childhood in France, she wanted to know about her maternal grandmother, too a woman with a "strong force of will . . . an indomitable woman." So she traveled to France to spend time with Josée, her grandmother, and learned that daughters searching for their mother's love is "a pattern that keeps repeating itself through generations."
I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This is a memoir, but what makes it stand out from so many other books in the genre is the process of uncovering family history, examined on the page. Nadja recorded hundreds of hours of informal conversations with her mother and grandmother. She had them recount the same anecdotes three separate times just to see how the versions differed. And it wasn't until much later on that she realized she needed to add her own story to the narrative. In doing so, Nadja uncovers a strong, hidden strand linking multiple generations of women. Times may change, but the desire to control one's own personal history does not. There's a surreal moment as Nadja is on the plane to Paris to interview Josée. She thinks of her mother first arriving in New York City as an eighteen-year-old. "Perhaps a ghost of her plane crossed mine," she writes. "Perhaps, for just an instant, we overlapped in the silence over the black water."
I chatted with Nadja recently over Skype, as she smoked a cigarette in her Paris apartment. (She splits her time between Paris and New York.) The memoir emerged from her own questions about the conflicting versions of family stories. Who decides what the truth is? Who owns a story? It's these questions that Nadja wanted to explore. "Within families there often isn't any kind of historical record, but there often is a real battle for who has the truth."
In writing her own account, Nadja stakes a claim on her own version. "There's power in being the narrator, and there's power in being the one who controls the story," Nadja says. "And everything is constantly shifting. Our relationships to the people that we love are constantly writing over themselves in real time, so that when you look back on your journal entries or on your diary entries or even on old emails, I think most people are often surprised by how they used to feel because in the intervening years, things have either gotten better or gotten worse in a relationship with a certain person, and you allow the present state to color the entirety of the past. And that's powerful. Being able to change reality in those ways, being able to constantly change the past so that it fits the present and the present makes sense, that's a real kind of magic."
It's no surprise that she thinks of the process as a kind of conjuring. When she was a child, her father would tell her stories about a magical anything shop. If she found a penny on the ground, she could redeem it at a shop that would appear or disappear in alleyways. She started to tell these same stories to her brother. Then she wrote about a magic pencil anything you drew with it could come to life. "I really wanted there to be magic in the world, and telling stories seemed like a way to create that and have that," Nadja says.
The enchantment, however, ran uncomfortably into the distinctly real details that emerged from her mother's life. "I ended up feeling a lot of it in my own body, strangely," she says. When her mother told her about attempting to slit her own wrists at one point, for instance, Nadja's own wrists ached as she typed the words.
The difficulty in telling and hearing those sometimes painful stories gave Nadja her title, a phrase that captures the paradoxical demands at the heart of her memoir. "In all the conversations I had with my mother and my grandmother, after they had read the book, about what it would mean for me to be publishing such intimate stories about their lives, often they both said to me: 'You were supposed to protect us from this.' You were supposed to protect us from this being weird. You were supposed to protect us from this being uncomfortable . . . there's a certain moment when things flip, and when you do need to be protecting your parents from certain things, or when they stop needing to protect you from certain things."
The twenty-nine-year-old author spent seven years working on the memoir. "I really feel like I grew up through writing this book," Nadja says, " . . . and through sort of taking my place among [my mother and grandmother] by becoming the narrator of their stories."
The role reversal, she says, allows those family stories to become building blocks rather than boundary markers. "We're creating a real sense of narrative and of cause and effect throughout our lives that in a way life mirrors art. Stories exist with the kind of logic they have because it's a logic that we need in our own lives in order to make sense of them," Nadja says.
"Pure memories are like dinosaur bones . . . discrete fragments from which we compose the image of the dinosaur," Nadja writes in I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This. "They are only flashes: the examining room table in the nurse's office, the soft hand against the forehead. But memories we tell as stories come alive. Tendons join the bones, muscles and fat and skin fill them out. And when we look again, our memories are whole, breathing creatures that roam our past."
Michele Filgate: August 3, 2016