I’m Sup­posed to Pro­tect You from All This

Nad­ja Spiegelman
  • Review
By – June 30, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism atThe Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

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