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

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

by Nadja Spiegelman

Audio CD(Unabridged)

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A Vogue Best Book of the Year

"What Ferrante did for female friends—exploring the tumult and complexity their relationships could hold—Spiegelman sets out to do for mothers and daughters. She’s essentially written My Brilliant Mom." —Slate 

A memoir of mothers and daughters—and mothers as daughters—traced through four generations, from Paris to New York and back again.  

For a long time, Nadja Spiegelman believed her mother was a fairy. More than her famous father, Maus creator Art Spiegelman, and even more than most mothers, hers—French-born New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly—exerted a force over reality that was both dazzling and daunting. As Nadja’s body changed and “began to whisper to the adults around me in a language I did not understand,” their relationship grew tense. Unwittingly, they were replaying a drama from her mother’s past, a drama Nadja sensed but had never been told. Then, after college, her mother suddenly opened up to her. Françoise recounted her turbulent adolescence caught between a volatile mother and a playboy father, one of the first plastic surgeons in France. The weight of the difficult stories she told her daughter shifted the balance between them. 
                It had taken an ocean to allow Françoise the distance to become her own person. At about the same age, Nadja made the journey in reverse, moving to Paris determined to get to know the woman her mother had fled.  Her grandmother’s memories contradicted her mother’s at nearly every turn, but beneath them lay a difficult history of her own. Nadja emerged with a deeper understanding of how each generation reshapes the past in order to forge ahead, their narratives both weapon and defense, eternally in conflict. Every reader will recognize herself and her family in I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This, a gorgeous and heartbreaking memoir that helps us to see why sometimes those who love us best hurt us most. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735205574
Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Nadja Spiegelman grew up in New York City and now divides her time between Paris and Brooklyn.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

chapter one

When I was a child, I knew that my mother was a fairy. Not the kind of fairy with gauzy wings and a magic wand, but one with a thrift-store fur coat and ink-stained fingers. There was nothing she couldn't do. On weekends, she put on safety goggles, grabbed a jigsaw, and remade the cabinets in her bedroom. She ran a hose from her bathroom to the roof to fill my inflatable pool. She helped me build a diorama of the rain forest, carving perfect cardboard birds of paradise with her X-Acto blade.

"Maman," I asked her when I was four, "when will I be a fairy like you?"

"When you're sixteen," she replied. And so I waited, and I watched her.

Once, during a thunderstorm in Brazil, my mother pulled the rental car over to the side of the highway by a dark, deserted beach. She beckoned to my brother and me. We uncurled from the backseat and leapt out into the electric rain. We followed her, leaving my father shouting her name from the road, his voice barely carrying over the storm. We stripped down to our underwear. My mother held out her hands, one for each of us, and we ran straight into the water. The ocean picked us up and slammed us down against the sand. We screamed with laughter. We ran back in. The sky fractured with lightning, opened, fell into the ocean. The waves reared twice as tall as my mother.

At the car, my father was pale, his voice quiet with awe and anger. "Jesus, Françoise," he said, shaking his head. We were late now, as usual, and my mother drove the car fast down the highway toward the pitch-black sky. Though we had been in two accidents, I did not know my mother was a reckless driver until I was in my twenties, when friends told me so. The things my mother did not see about herself, I did not see, either. We fell asleep in the backseat, my brother and I, mouths open, gritty with salt and sand, our hair drying in wild curls.

My mother disdained most dangers as American constructs, invented by timid women who washed their vegetables. She was always certain that nothing would go wrong. "No one ever told me it was dangerous to swim in a lightning storm," she would say when I laughingly mentioned the memory years later. Her voice pitched defensively; she did not like to be teased.

There were other vacations, too—the vacation when my mother, sick of the other moms who complained about the lack of apple juice at the breakfast buffet, absconded from the resort and let me drive the rented stick-shift jeep along the dirt roads, even though my feet barely reached the pedals. The vacation when my mother booked no hotels in advance, just took off driving down the coast of Costa Rica, buying us all the strange fruits that they sold by the roadside. My father rarely came with us. Once, in a forest, my mother scooped the earth into her hand and put some in her mouth and ours while she explained about building immunities. We were often sick as children, and then rarely. We knew, my brother and I, that it was only fear that led to danger. My mother cast around us her conviction that we would always be safe, and it held us like a force field.

“Do you know when I finally felt free of my mother?” my mother asked me. It was a story she told several times, more allegory than anecdote.

I was a baby, six months old, and she'd taken me to France to meet her family. This was during the golden years, the ones I'll never remember: the years when she never put me down. She wore a big coat and me strapped underneath it. We shared a body. In the night, she woke and came to feed me before I'd even opened my mouth to cry.

But on this evening, when she arrived at her friend's home for a dinner party, she was instructed to leave me in the host's bedroom. She did so reluctantly. As food was served and wineglasses refilled, I began to cry. My mother leapt up from the table.

"Leave her," the French friend said. "The noise doesn't bother us." My mother continued to move toward the door.

"She'll never learn to stop crying if you pick her up each time," the friend said with the tone of absolute authority the French often invoke when imparting wisdom. You'll catch a cold if you go out with wet hair, bread is more caloric when it's underbaked, you'll never sleep if you drink ginger tea in the evening.

My mother hesitated, then sat back down. My wails grew louder.

"She'll tire herself out," another friend declared. But my mother had already left the table again and gone to take me into her arms. As she soothed me, rocking me, pressing me to her body, she heard fragments of the chorus of disapproval from the other room. Now, the baby . . . When my child . . . She's just got to . . . It will only encourage her . . .

This is what it would be like, my mother thought as I quieted against her. This is what it would be, if I raised her here. Everything would happen all over again.

She thought of her loft in Manhattan, with its high industrial ceilings. She thought of the streets where we were invisible, she and I, in the jostling Chinatown crowds. And she knew she was free.

"I realized that I could reinvent motherhood," she told me now. "I was so far from all this in America. I had no blueprint, no rules. And so I invented it. Every piece. I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew that it was going to be different."

Now, now that I knew her past, I saw both. I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.

My mother ran away from Paris to New York City when she was eighteen. My family had always lived in the SoHo loft she moved into her first year in America, in 1974. I tried to recognize the space as it was in the old photos. It was a jumble then, crowded with furniture she’d hauled up from the street, the rooms partitioned by bookshelves and makeshift screens. Shortly after my birth, my mother created real walls and doors and staircases, leaning ladders to mezzanines and rope ladders to nowhere, trapezes carefully drilled into anchor beams-the floor plan inside which I stored my childhood.

We visited her family in France twice a year: her divorced parents, her two sisters, a cousin. They were all the family I had. Nine people in all, if I counted myself. There was no one left on my father's side.

My grandmother would not let herself be called Grand-mère, so we, like everyone else, called her Josée (she spelled it sometimes with a final e, sometimes without, and pronounced it joe-ZAY). Josée lived on a houseboat moored on the outskirts of Paris, where the Seine doubled back to touch the city's northwestern border. She had purchased it as a shipping barge and transformed it into a luxurious home in a style entirely her own. There were cream-colored carpets and sliding Japanese doors. There was a Jacuzzi in the center of the space beneath an octagonal skylight that opened like a flower, and a table that rose out of the floor at the touch of a remote control. You took off your shoes at the entrance, or, if you preferred, there were little plastic bags that you could slip on over your heels. This houseboat, and the several others she had renovated and sold before, had been featured in magazines. She kept them in a stack beneath the hanging red lacquer fireplace. In the guest bathroom, the walls were covered in pictures of her travels: in a sari on an elephant, in blackface and leopard pelts, in leather chaps and nothing else (alongside a certificate stating that the "bearer bared her knockers at Mardi Gras 1998"). My grandmother was beautiful long after she was beautiful. She carried and dressed herself in a way that left no question. She had blue eyeliner tattooed around her eyes. She never asked me about myself.

There was always a moment of held breath as my grandmother seated us around her table, her choices as deliberate and pointed as a queen's. Those seated close to her were in her favor, those seated far away were not. Love was a zero-sum game. My mother, because her presence was rare, was often seated close. Her sisters, from the far end of the table, tried not to glare.

Even at a young age, I was aware that my aunts were trapped in their parents' orbits, like moths with singed wings around a flame, though how I knew this I am not sure. They were grown-ups, yet not grown-ups. They pitched their voices to the same resentful whine in response to their mother as I did to mine. Andrée, six years younger than my mother, felt closer to my own age. She broke her knees in motorcycle accidents, lived in Paris's roughest neighborhoods, and had wild love affairs. Sylvie, older than my mother by a year and a half, was constantly leaping up to serve and clear the plates, sighing loudly as she did so, the family martyr. But when she talked to the children—her son (our only cousin), my brother, and me—she was capable of great bursts of laughter, the glugging unself-conscious guffaw of a child.

During these visits, I followed my mother's lead. I knew in my bones that her family was dangerous, and she had taught us to be wary of them, like fast food or crossing Canal Street. She treated her sisters with the polite reserve she displayed toward women she didn't trust. With her parents, she was as effusively kind and respectful as she would have been with someone else's parents. I followed suit. My voice went up an octave in Paris. I said mostly merci, oui, merci, s'il te plaît, c'est delicieux, merci. I stood on tiptoe to kiss an endless number of cheeks.

When I was young, I watched my mother brace herself before each encounter with her family—the hard looks she gave herself in the bathroom mirror, the lipstick applied like armor. At the table, much of the conversation took place in language too encoded for me to decipher, but I sensed that the banter was laced with barbs, a poison center to every compliment. And I heard the comments that were directed at me—the grave pronouncements of disaster over my newly cut bangs, the way everybody agreed, with knowing nods, that I certainly didn't need a second slice of cake. I dreaded those dinners, but I adored the cab rides home. In the backseat, I felt awash in the safety of our family, finally shrunk back to its correct four-person size, a rare feeling of unity between us.

My mother was giddy with relief. "The best thing I ever did was move my life an ocean away from them," she often said in those moments.

"I'm so lucky I escaped," she said at other times. "It's the only way I survived."

But I couldn't imagine. The past was always there on her body, but I couldn't see it. It was in the scars that I traced with a fingertip as a child, in the strange things that set off her anger. It was even in my own body, a feeling of damage and danger that had no name and no explanation. It was underneath everything else: that deep foundation on which we were both built. But like her French accent, which forty years in America could not fade—and which her children, so used to her voice, could not hear—the past was too present for me to see.

How could my mother ever have been a girl? I knew what it meant to be a child, how emotions could knock you flat with their sheer strength, and how adults never seemed to understand. But of my mother's childhood, I knew almost nothing. Most of her scars were from accidents. A nose that broke four or five times. The place where the sharp metal spike of a fence had pierced all the way through her arm. A gash in her head from a sharp corner in a corridor of her family's apartment. ("I didn't know you had a red pillow," her grandmother Mina said when she found my mother lying down in her room afterward.) Those were the funny stories. It was the scars on her wrists, the scars on the soft hidden places inside her body—those were the scars she didn't tell me about, and I didn't ask.

"After the divorce, my father used to come into my room and . . . ," my mother began once, then caught herself. "I'll tell you when you're older." When I told her that my high school girlfriend had cuts all over her arms, she said, "You know, when I was that age . . ." Then, with a quick sigh: "I'll tell you when you're older." There were moments when details slipped, when she seemed not to realize how strange certain things sounded, or forgot for a moment that I knew how to listen. Her father had wandered the hallways naked, terrifying the young maids. One Christmas, he had preemptively removed her appendix. But when I asked her directly about her life, she told me only the funny stories, the easy ones: the time she and her sister broke the bed and blamed it on their obese grandmother, the time she cut her sister's hair while she was sleeping. I saw only the edges of the holes, the aftershocks of the explosions. "I'll tell you when you're older," she said when I tried to reach for more. My mother understood: There was room for only one of us to be a girl. There was room for only one of us to be a woman.

As a child, I tried to cast spells of my own invention. I spun my dolls around three times, spat on teddy bears, put pieces of wire beneath my pillow. I lived in awed fear of a faded pink fairy figurine that I believed controlled not only my fate but that of the other toys. The real world was overlaid with a shimmering second world of signs and symbols. I continued to believe in a magic realm long after my friends had stopped. I did not want to grow up. I did not care about my clothes. What stood on the other side of childhood—an uncomfortable awareness of my body, my mother’s growing anger—held no appeal for me. I wanted only to fall out of this world, with its looming dangers, to that other, shimmering place.


"I have always known what it means to be a character in someone else's story," Nadja Spiegelman writes in her memoir, I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This. Her famous father, the graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, immortalized her in some of his own work. Her mother, Françoise Mouly, is the art director for The New Yorker and a publisher/editorial director at TOON Books. Nadja says that one of her mother's strengths is "a certain shaping of reality and a certain force of narrative and of will that also felt like a rewriting of things that I had lived through." Both of her parents, then, formed stories out of her own life.

Nadja started interviewing Françoise for her creative writing senior thesis at Yale, when she was twenty-one. She was scared about life after college and frustrated that her mother "couldn't possibly understand." In her daughter's eyes, Françoise was a sophisticated, successful, worldly woman who always knew what she wanted. But that, of course, wasn't true.

"It was really humbling to realize how little I knew of my mother," Nadja says. "You think that your mother belongs to you, and on some level I think that most people tend to believe that your mother's life starts with your life, and there's not that much to know."

Nadja started recording their conversations in French. As she talked to her mother about her childhood in France, she wanted to know about her maternal grandmother, too — a woman with a "strong force of will . . . an indomitable woman." So she traveled to France to spend time with Josée, her grandmother, and learned that daughters searching for their mother's love is "a pattern that keeps repeating itself through generations."

I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This is a memoir, but what makes it stand out from so many other books in the genre is the process of uncovering family history, examined on the page. Nadja recorded hundreds of hours of informal conversations with her mother and grandmother. She had them recount the same anecdotes three separate times just to see how the versions differed. And it wasn't until much later on that she realized she needed to add her own story to the narrative. In doing so, Nadja uncovers a strong, hidden strand linking multiple generations of women. Times may change, but the desire to control one's own personal history does not. There's a surreal moment as Nadja is on the plane to Paris to interview Josée. She thinks of her mother first arriving in New York City as an eighteen-year-old. "Perhaps a ghost of her plane crossed mine," she writes. "Perhaps, for just an instant, we overlapped in the silence over the black water."

I chatted with Nadja recently over Skype, as she smoked a cigarette in her Paris apartment. (She splits her time between Paris and New York.) The memoir emerged from her own questions about the conflicting versions of family stories. Who decides what the truth is? Who owns a story? It's these questions that Nadja wanted to explore. "Within families there often isn't any kind of historical record, but there often is a real battle for who has the truth."

In writing her own account, Nadja stakes a claim on her own version. "There's power in being the narrator, and there's power in being the one who controls the story," Nadja says. "And everything is constantly shifting. Our relationships to the people that we love are constantly writing over themselves in real time, so that when you look back on your journal entries or on your diary entries or even on old emails, I think most people are often surprised by how they used to feel — because in the intervening years, things have either gotten better or gotten worse in a relationship with a certain person, and you allow the present state to color the entirety of the past. And that's powerful. Being able to change reality in those ways, being able to constantly change the past so that it fits the present and the present makes sense, that's a real kind of magic."

It's no surprise that she thinks of the process as a kind of conjuring. When she was a child, her father would tell her stories about a magical anything shop. If she found a penny on the ground, she could redeem it at a shop that would appear or disappear in alleyways. She started to tell these same stories to her brother. Then she wrote about a magic pencil — anything you drew with it could come to life. "I really wanted there to be magic in the world, and telling stories seemed like a way to create that and have that," Nadja says.

The enchantment, however, ran uncomfortably into the distinctly real details that emerged from her mother's life. "I ended up feeling a lot of it in my own body, strangely," she says. When her mother told her about attempting to slit her own wrists at one point, for instance, Nadja's own wrists ached as she typed the words.

The difficulty in telling — and hearing — those sometimes painful stories gave Nadja her title, a phrase that captures the paradoxical demands at the heart of her memoir. "In all the conversations I had with my mother and my grandmother, after they had read the book, about what it would mean for me to be publishing such intimate stories about their lives, often they both said to me: 'You were supposed to protect us from this.' You were supposed to protect us from this being weird. You were supposed to protect us from this being uncomfortable . . . there's a certain moment when things flip, and when you do need to be protecting your parents from certain things, or when they stop needing to protect you from certain things."

The twenty-nine-year-old author spent seven years working on the memoir. "I really feel like I grew up through writing this book," Nadja says, " . . . and through sort of taking my place among [my mother and grandmother] by becoming the narrator of their stories."

The role reversal, she says, allows those family stories to become building blocks rather than boundary markers. "We're creating a real sense of narrative and of cause and effect throughout our lives that in a way life mirrors art. Stories exist with the kind of logic they have because it's a logic that we need in our own lives in order to make sense of them," Nadja says.

"Pure memories are like dinosaur bones . . . discrete fragments from which we compose the image of the dinosaur," Nadja writes in I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This. "They are only flashes: the examining room table in the nurse's office, the soft hand against the forehead. But memories we tell as stories come alive. Tendons join the bones, muscles and fat and skin fill them out. And when we look again, our memories are whole, breathing creatures that roam our past."

Michele Filgate: August 3, 2016

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I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This: A Memoir 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly reciommend to all mothers and daughters!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extolling the magical virtues of mothers in a way formerly exclusive to Jewish sons.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“My mother wasn’t perfect. My mother was intense. Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would….but, as anyone who has read a fairytale knows, all spells come with a cost. The magic pulled on hidden sources. … she could set the universe aflame, but she used herself as fuel. Somewhere inside, the earth was scorched”. I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This is a memoir by American graphic novelist and author, Nadja Spiegelman. Nadja is the daughter of cartoonist Art Spiegelman (author of the graphic novel Maus) and Françoise Mouly (art editor of the New Yorker since 1993), and this memoir is dedicated to her mother and grandmother. Nadja decides to write about her mother’s coming of age: the process, naturally enough, requires input from her mother, Françoise, and her maternal grandmother, Josée, who had a career as a ghostwriter. “My mother did not agree right away. She thought about it carefully. And then, having decided, she held nothing back. The boundaries between us fell, and fell suddenly. She let me in. there was nothing I couldn’t ask. She answered me with a searching honesty rare even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. She made time for me in her crowded life” At times, the narrative from Françoise’s perspective is so intimate, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that the words are Nadja’s: “’Don’t talk back to me,’ Josée replied. She was capable of saying things so terrible they blacked out the sun. ‘No one will ever love a girl like you,’ she might say. ‘How could you expect them to? A disagreeable, insolent, unpleasant girl like you?’ The words shot darkness over Francoise’s future and blotted out all hope. She was miserable. She would always be miserable. There was no escape” Nadja finds that nothing is straightforward when dealing with memories: “According to neuroscientists, when we stir up a long-term memory, it floats in our consciousness, unstable, for a window of approximately three hours. During this time, the memory is malleable. The present infiltrates the past. We add details to fill in the gaps. Then the brain re-encodes the memory as if it were new, writing over the old one. As it sinks back down into the depths of our minds, we are not even aware of what we have gained or lost, or why” She spends a year in Paris, eventually connecting with Josée, learning more about her grandmother and her great-grandmother, Mina, who worked as a secretary. “Secretary, ghostwriter, editor – I called upon the three generations like muses. But I was none of these things. I was the narrator, giving shape to memories that weren’t my own. And that, I was learning, was a much more violent act” She finds there are parallels in the lives of mothers and daughters: “And then my frozen moment sprang back into motion. Josée’s car pulled off into the road. Françoise fell into Mina’s arms. Mina took Françoise, Josée’s least favorite daughter, and loved her ferociously. I saw a pattern forming, like a series of skipping stones that sent ripples through the generations: all the granddaughters and grandmothers who loved each other, all the mothers left stranded between”. “The past shaped the present, but the present also reshaped the past” is something Nadja discovers applies to what she hears from her grandmother, her mother and herself: “Neither my mother, my father, nor my brother remembered things the way I did. I tried to remind myself that we could each have o
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im suppoused to protect you from this books boredom :)