Book review: Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir explores agonisingly strained mother-daughter relationships
Twenty-nine-year-old Nadja Spiegelman’s mother Françoise Mouly – the French-born art director of The New Yorker and children’s publisher – was a formidable but unconventional caregiver.
She decried “timid women who washed their vegetables”, took her children (Spiegelman has a younger brother) swimming in the ocean during thunderstorms and made them eat dirt to build up their immune systems.
Luminous and magnetic, she held her offspring safely in a “force field” of love. As Spiegelman hit puberty, however, the dynamic between them abruptly shifted. Unconsciously, mother and daughter replayed scenes from Françoise’s own traumatic adolescence – the details of which Spiegelman eventually uncovered in her 20s when she interviewed her mother about her life before her emigration to the United States, marriage and motherhood.
As Françoise’s narrative unspools, we’re treated to the first indications that this is going to be a project of considerable astuteness. The crisp lucidity of American writer Spiegelman’s prose in I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This and the ease with which she flits between the present and the past; between the woman she’s interviewing – described intimately as “my mother” – and the as-yet unknown girl this woman once was – the unfamiliar “Françoise” – disguises the intelligence and elegance she has employed in the intertwining of the two.
Françoise fled France to escape her family. Her beautiful but cruel mother Josée, her creepy father Paul – one of the country’s leading plastic surgeons, who cherishes an “unhealthy” attraction to his daughter – and her two siblings, with whom she was in constant competition.
It’s a remarkable story, but is made even more effective by just how seamlessly Spiegelman interlocks episodes from her mother’s past with memories of her own childhood.
Françoise lovingly bakes her family a lemon pie but the end result is inedible and everyone laughs at her efforts. “My mother’s mouth became very small as she told me this story,” Spiegelman says. “She cast her eyes downward, her voice hollow with hurt. I could see on her face the same expression she must have had that evening, the little girl under the thick eyeliner.”
To hear, immediately afterwards, that Spiegelman remembers her mother always relishing each and every slice of disgusting “cake” her children concocted from a mishmash of ingredients, finds its true meaning in this contrast. This, however, is not a straightforward story of good and bad. Juxtaposed with such examples of a mother par excellence are those that depict a very different woman. One who (falsely) accuses a daughter struggling with her weight of binge eating on the sly; who shrugs off her uncomfortable teenage cries for help; and often favours her brother.
From Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments (1987) and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), through Alison Bechdel’s “comic drama” Are You My Mother? (2012), to Meghan Daum’s searing essay Matricide (2014), agonisingly strained mother-daughter relationships have provided the raw material for some of the very best memoir (“mom-oir”) writing.
Daum explains that the origins of her fraught relationship with her mother nestled in a previous generation of upset: “For my mother’s entire life, her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body; sharp, rusty debris that threatened to puncture an organ if she turned a certain way.”
When describing her mother in the present-day, Spiegelman depicts a woman who, although no longer in regular danger of being injured, clearly bears the scars of similar psychic shrapnel. This, however, is far from the end of the story. Having heard her mother’s version of events, the author decides to excavate further, relocating to Paris in her mid-twenties to spend time with her grandmother Josée.
What she hears is a different version of Françoise’s youth, a different account of Josée as a mother and a story of another troubled relationship: that between Josée and her mother Mina – a woman who bore her own pain and shame, including having her child out of traditional marriage and being jailed after the Second World War on charges of collaboration.
“I was the unwanted child, not her,” the aggrieved Josée protests, berating her daughter.
What elevates this already beautifully written, cleverly plotted prose narrative is the way in which Spiegelman doesn’t just present the conflicting narratives she uncovers but rather she uses the moments where they clash to interrogate memory itself. Every memoirist worth their salt knows that their endeavour involves just as much storytelling as writing a piece of fiction – “If you’re going to publish a memoir, it needs to work as a book,” A M Homes, author of The Mistress’s Daughter (2007), explains in Meredith Maran’s Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (2016).
But Spiegelman probes deeper, referring to the discoveries of neuroscience to establish the unreliability of memory. Once disturbed, she explains, long-term memories float unstably in our consciousness for a mere three hours before they slip back beneath the surface, “re-encode[d]” with new details added to fill in the blanks. Yet at the same time its intrinsic truthfulness – “There’s no psychological difference between what you experience and what you imagine,” Mouly informs her daughter, having read research on the topic.
Likening it to a physical violation, Spiegelman describes “the violence” of what she’s doing prying into her mother’s life like this. Then later, her father insightfully describes having a writer as kin as “like having a murderer in the family”.
He’s referring, of course, not only to his daughter’s actions but also his own, for, if you haven’t already put two and two together, memoir writing is in Spiegelman’s blood: her father is Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir Maus, which told the story of his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz and which is also dedicated to her.
“I’m doing something parallel and yet it’s completely different,” says his daughter, acknowledging the similarities between her and her father’s work – each tells the story of their parents’ past by means of a depiction of the interviews with the subject in question each author/offspring conducted.
As such, there’s a graceful symmetry between the two projects, and together they provide a full 360 degrees, panoramic portrait of a family and its heritage.
Any suspicions one might harbour of Spiegelman resting on the laurels of such an illustrious literary inheritance are immediately swept aside as you read her work. She proves herself more than worthy of comparison with her father, fully grasping the risks and the rewards of her chosen genre.
“I have always known what it means to be a character in someone else’s story,” she explains, having made appearances in Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), her father’s book that processes his experiences of 9/11. And when it comes to her paternal grandparents, to her they “were a book,” people she got to know “only in its pages”.
I haven’t read a better memoir all year.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.