Glancing through the opening pages of “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This” by Nadja Spiegelman, the reader will be forgiven for wondering who Nadja Spiegelman is and what this conspicuously average 29-year-old from New York City has done to merit a memoir.
Though a competent writer, Spiegelman presents herself as an affable and unambitious “everywoman” with a quirky mother and absolutely no claim to celebrity — until she reveals that her mother is the longtime art editor of The New Yorker and a highly respected book publisher. From that moment on, “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This” swiftly morphs from a memoir about Spiegelman’s own admittedly mediocre accomplishments to shine a spotlight on her mother, the formidable and frightening Françoise Mouly.
Spiegelman’s humility elevates “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This” above its “poor little rich girl” roots to shine as a complex exploration of the fallibility of memory and the conflicting narratives that families create to absolve themselves of the mistakes of the past.
Spiegelman’s father, Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist, met her mother in New York City in 1976 and later they founded the underground comics magazine RAW. Beyond this basic fact, there is little else presented in “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This” that the reader can hold onto as “truth.” There is no clear villain in any of the day-to-day domestic tragedies that make up the bulk of the narrative. Perspectives are permitted to shift and alternative ways of seeing each painful situation are presented, sometimes hundreds of pages later.
The result is a nuanced and sensitive look at a series of strained mother-daughter relationships, first that of Spiegelman and Mouly, then that of Mouly and Spiegelman’s vain and vicious grandmother. Eventually even the fragile bond between Spiegelman’s grandmother and her mysterious, cypher-like great-grandmother is examined.
The experiences of each woman with her mother are gradually revealed to be parallel and nearly identical, to the point that it becomes difficult at times to tell which daughter is experiencing which cruelty from which mother. Though this is confusing, it is an effective reflection of the legacy of maternal narcissism and emotional abuse that Spiegelman is only the latest to experience.
Though “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This” is a captivating piece of storytelling, it is not without flaws. At times, the tone of the text skates dangerously close to the self-indulgent camp of the 1978 tell-all “Mommie Dearest.” Spiegelman’s woes under her mother’s thumb are frequently tinged with teenage self-aggrandizement more appropriate to a weepy social media post or fan fiction written about her own family.
Though Spiegelman worked on her memoir for more than six years, “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This” never reaches the caliber of a tour de force exploration of the fungibility of memory like New York Times journalist David Carr’s masterful “Night of the Gun,” due to its lack of investigative rigor.
“The separations between fact and fiction are ones we create, and the better we control our fictions, the better we can control our reality,” Mouly opines late in the text, adding that though she does not recognize herself in her daughter’s descriptions of her life or personality, she is resigned to being presented as a character in a story. “There were so many moments where I wanted to say, ‘That’s not true, that’s not true.’ But it’s your book. I have to think of it as being about your fictional mother.”
To her credit, Spiegelman includes her mother’s objections to her portrayal, and even acknowledges her own weaknesses as a researcher. At one point, the author finds a diary her mother kept, “a diary that contradicted the chronology of the story she was telling me. She’d put it aside and continued to tell me the story as she remembered it.” Speigelman was unable to confirm the veracity of either the diary or her mother’s recollection of events years later, so she includes both versions — and this is only one of many dueling histories presented throughout the memoir.
The author alternates between admiration and condemnation of the mothers who share a legacy of flawed maternal instincts and unflinching personal integrity in the face of tremendous struggles. Spiegelman’s mother moved to New York at age 18 to escape her domineering mother. Spiegelman, on the other hand, lounged around her grandmother’s Paris property for long stretches, unemployed, “being a writer” while never putting a word down on paper.
“If my mother had been here, she would have been on the phone to New York by now. She’d have set her laptop up on the desk in the hall. She’d have been running final edits through a book or correcting proofs for a cover. She was hard and tight as a metal coil, and I was shapelessness and mush,” Spiegelman admits. “I did not open my laptop once.”
As flawed and prone to falsehood as all the mothers and daughters are in “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This,” their emotions are genuine and moving. There is never a moment when each woman, in turn, proves any less than fascinating. In the end, each mother’s self-delusion about her own history seems rooted in a desire to save her daughter from the pain of the past. As Mouly emphasizes when her daughter skates dangerously close to painful truths, “I’m your mother. I’m supposed to protect you from all this.”