Ah, this book! This is one that is going to stay with me for a long time. While reading it, I was already looking forward to starting it again and again in the future. There are certain books that make me feel so much - I am instantly curious to see if I will feel the same way about them when I’m older.
This is in fact a key theme of Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir: how something – or someone – can make you feel over the years. Nadja is the daughter of Maus creator Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, who – to the young daughter - appeared to have the magical powers of a fairy. Somehow, Françoise always managed to alter reality. As a young mother, Françoise, who is described as a true force of nature, would never put her daughter down, never leave her alone. But as Nadja grows up and into her changing body the relationship between the two women grows tense and distant, prone to passionate arguments. When Nadja finishes college, struggling to find herself in the shadow of her parents, Françoise suddenly opens herself up to her daughter. I’m Supposed to Protect Your From All This is less Nadja’s memoir than her attempt of reconciling her own memories with those of her mother. Slowly, she uncovers the parallels between their complicated relationship and that of Françoise and her mother Josée, a volatile woman living on a houseboat in Paris.
As a young woman Françoise escaped France to New York to create a distance between herself and her parents, to overcome childhood trauma. Now, after uncovering her mother’s memories of the past, Nadja moves to Paris to interrogate her grandmother, hoping she will finally find a love for Josée. Again, the author is struck by the intergenerational parallels: though Josée often contradicts Françoise’s memories, Nadja notices the similarities between their childhood struggles. This new understanding leaves her – and fills the book – with admirable extents of compassion and generosity in the face of pain. By listening to the older women’s accounts Nadja grasps that each generation finds a way to deal with and to alter the past in order to move forward, in order to survive.
I’m Supposed to Protect Your From All is of course a book about mothers and daughters. But more specifically it is about that very protection mentioned in the title. The impossible expectation, on behalf of both generations, that parents are supposed to protect their children from all dangers the world could possibly throw at them. What Nadja learns is that this is not only a utopic requirement, it also inherently carries failure with it as mothers and daughters will inevitably disagree on the protection that is needed. Spiegelman gently draws to our attention all the ways in which we feels powerless and guilty, lonely and misunderstood while we are all just trying to do our best for ourselves and each other.
These relationships are so filled with love, despite all the hurt and heartbreak that has passed between them – and my heart was definitely broken several times but always mended by Spiegelman’s careful narrative. It was truly beautiful to read how the dynamics between the three women evolve, how each finds new levels of understanding, forgiveness and admiration for the others. To me, this project seems so incredibly brave. On Nadja’s part for investigating with endless openness and empathy something so intimately close to her; and there is also the incredible courage of her mother and grandmother for giving of themselves so freely.
I’m Supposed to Protect Your From All is a book about growing up, about mothers and daughters, about family and love, about the fragility of memory, a book about forgiveness and acceptance – and I think we can all use some of that.
I wouldn’t be surprised if every mother or daughter can find something in these pages that rings true and enters the heart. It is also, I believe, the first time the acknowledgements in a book have left me in tears.