I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This: A Memoir

  • By Nadja Spiegelman
  • Riverhead Books
  • 384 pp.

This heartfelt recollection would benefit from a few more decades of life experience.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This: A Memoir

Nadja Spiegelman’s first book, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, is not an ordinary memoir: It’s also a mystery. In it, she artfully attempts to unravel the compelling but inconsistent stories from two important women in her life, her mother and her maternal grandmother.

During interviews that take place over the course of a few years, Spiegelman explores the challenges each woman experienced growing up in Paris — one during World War II, the other during the turbulent sixties. Yet the truth remains cloaked in disparities, selective memories, and the perceptions of the mother, the grandmother, and the author herself.

Spiegelman’s mother is famed New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly. Her father, something of a heroic but minor character in the book, is artist and writer Art Spiegelman, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus. Together, he and Mouly founded Toon Books, a comic-book company. So it should be no surprise that Spiegelman is drawn to the family business of arts and humanities and, like many twentysomethings, seeks to understand her roots.

After a childhood of hearing only bits and pieces of her family history, Spiegelman yearns to decipher the past of the mother she reveres, and that of her mercurial grandmother, who still lives in Paris. Using her own millennial coming-of-age experiences as both backdrop and lens, she comes to realize that “memories are creative acts.”

Mouly, Spiegelman’s mother, had a tumultuous time as a teenager and young woman, eventually moving to New York City after several traumatizing experiences in France. The author searches for a concrete explanation for her mother’s erratic behavior and reticence to discuss her past with her daughter.  

Like her mother, Spiegelman seems to desire a defining problem to give meaning to the world and herself. Mouly had joined demonstrations when she was in junior high school in Paris, even though she didn’t exactly understand what it was all about. Spiegelman, in turn, describes her own experience as a young girl in New York City during and after the World Trade Center attacks.

And in expressing the discomfort she feels in not being able to identify what exactly is the cause of a lingering malaise, Spiegelman says this about a girlfriend: “I envied her black and blues and bandaged wrists. I envied her clear-cut proof that something had actually happened.”

The book includes descriptions of life’s ups and downs, ranging from the commonplace to the extraordinary. The attention paid to each is at times disproportionate (e.g., the author’s anguish about what hostess gift to bring to dinner at her grandmother’s juxtaposed with matter-of-fact descriptions of sexual assault).

Disturbing scenes are hung like garments on a clothesline in the sun, as if the author hopes the wrinkles will just fall out. In the end, these bare-bones accounts may be as effective and close to the truth as Spiegelman can get to her elusive subjects.

The unfolding of the intertwined stories can be hard to follow, yet the confusing sequences seem intended to portray the author’s own ambivalence and uncertainty about what to believe from the variable accounts of the volatile relationship between her mother and grandmother.

Like the author, I kept waiting for it all to add up to something. But the buildup leads to a disappointing lack of closure, and the suspense withers away. The glimpses into Spiegelman’s own life, while rich in detail, are as emotionally veiled as those relayed by her mother and grandmother.

Despite some unevenness, there are beautiful passages which show how the author appreciates the abstruseness she encounters. Spiegelman describes her mother preparing for a dinner party in the midst of telling Spiegelman about a difficult memory as if she were “unfurling a tablecloth over all that was scratched.” Spending leisurely, if sometimes challenging, days with her grandmother in France, she says, “Time passed quick-slow, waterfalls and dams.”

Spiegelman’s memoir depicts two women who are at once victims and incredibly strong. I only wish she had waited to write this book until she was older. She might have perceived her family and their secrets differently, looking back from the distance they have already traversed. The lives she describes are fascinating, she’s a smart writer, and the linkage between generations is palpable. I look forward to a sequel, for it may unwind more of the mystery and may reveal more about the author herself.

Robin Talbert grew up in a cotton-mill town in the foothills of western North Carolina. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Healing Muse, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and Global Impact, among others. She lives in Maryland and in West Virginia, where the trees and mountains feed her soul.

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