Nadja Spiegelman’s moving memoir I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This is a surprisingly wise account of her multi-generational quest for forgiveness and understanding.
Spiegelman’s pedigree (her father is Maus creator Art Spiegelman and her mother is The New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly), combined with an early-career book about her own identity make for an easy target. Naturally a 20-something woman who has been advantaged in nearly every way would think her life is worth disseminating in a memoir. But if Spiegelman’s life is charmed, it’s also literary — as are the lives of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. The passages of unacknowledged privilege are overshadowed by sheer readability. Writing a memoir in your late 20s may be indulgent, but an artistically indulgent woman is a rebellious one, and Spiegelman uses her project to honor the women in her life whose lives are complex and compromised, resulting in a book that is stranger than fiction and difficult to put down.
As Spiegelman herself points out, she takes a parallel but necessary approach to writing, given her father’s success. She’s investigating her maternal family history in ways that mirror his work, but she cannot get to know her paternal side no matter how badly she might want to. In one of the brief scenes illuminating her parent’s relationship, she tells how her father gives her mother credit for getting things done while he’s off being creative. It seems fortunate for their entire family that Mouly put part of her own creative nature aside to deal with practicalities her husband disdained.
In many ways, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This is hardly a memoir at all. Spiegelman’s own recollections reframe certainty, showing how memories shift and bend across generations, and how the veracity of an event is hardly its most important feature. Her own person is revealed only as a way to offset her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences. Each member of her family believes that their version of the truth is the truest, and they suffer terribly in order to be right. Readers may find themselves anxiously trying to confirm their own childhood memories and second-guessing their staunchest grudges.
It helps that Spiegelman treats her subject with grace, instead of vindictiveness. She could have stored a lifetime of pain and unleashed it against her mother and grandmother. (Considering some of their venomous remarks, that approach would not be surprising.) Instead, she chooses to make herself as vulnerable as possible in order to probe the depths of these mysterious women. She opens herself up to the people poised to hurt her the most.
As her mother and grandmother relive the past, they re-write it. Their recollections contradict each other at nearly every turn, just as Spiegelman disagrees with her mother about her own childhood. Perhaps it is a family trait to be stubborn, but none of these women seem capable of admitting they might be wrong. The next layer to this saga, which goes relatively unexplored in I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, is why the need for extreme self-possession and self-protection has lingered with the women in Spiegelman’s family. Many women have endured hardship, yet many are also capable of softening themselves to uncertainty and failure. In even attempting this project, Spiegelman may be the first in several generations of her mother’s family to even try.
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