BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, August 2016
Nadja Spiegelman’s brilliant excavation into four generations of her maternal line is nothing short of astonishing. The daughter of Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Françoise Mouly (art director of The New Yorker), Spiegelman would have a compelling coming-of-age story to tell simply on the basis of her parentage and her upbringing among artists. I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, however, is unusually sensitive to the transmission of family secrets and wounds between generations. Rather than tell the story of an individual daughter, this elegant, beautifully structured memoir tells the story of four generations of daughters locked in painful battle with their mothers.
The focus of the narrative, at first, is the glamorous and frightening Mouly. Her sudden rages and overt favoring of her son over her daughter could—in other hands—be grounds for a revenge memoir. Her maternal cruelty, particularly concerning food and weight gain, is honestly depicted by her daughter. Despite these clearly painful experiences, Spiegelman’s drive is to understand her mother, not condemn her. Alternating chapters that focus on each woman’s adolescence show how both were targets for their mothers’ anger. In Mouly’s case, she fled from France to New York at age 18 to escape the mire of family life.
Spiegelman’s desire to learn the truth about her mother’s childhood takes her to Paris and her grandmother Josée, yet another strong-willed and sharp-tongued woman. As she pursues Josée’s childhood story, as well as her mother Mina’s story, she learns that certain patterns and connections have haunted each of these pairs of mothers and daughters, even when they recall events differently.
A meditation on memory and the nature of truth as much as a family history, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This introduces a stunning new voice in the field of memoir.