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"The Past Transforms into Whatever We Need it to Be": Nadja Spiegelman on "I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This"

NadjaNadja Spiegelman--daughter of Maus creator Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly--is no different from many daughters out there who have fraught relationships with their mothers. But not many mothers would agree to do what the Mouly matriarchs did—be interviewed for a book about their lives, a project Nadja hoped would answer some painful questions, and begin to bridge the emotional divides between them. The result is the poignant I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This*, not just a memoir about mothers and daughters (and grandmothers), but a story about stories and the malleability of memory. Here, Spiegelman talks about the genesis of the book, and how the process of writing--and remembering--brought them closer together.

SpiegelmenI'll tell you when you're older," my mother used to say, whenever I asked about her past. There was so much about her that I did not know and could not guess. And yet the past — hers, her mother's, her grandmother's — was with us from the start. It pulled us into formation like a deep ocean current, from so far below we did not know we were not moving on our own. Though we lived in New York, she retained so much of Paris inside her. It showed through in her accent, in her disdain for peanut butter, in her approach to her children. The boundaries between us were firm. I admired her and I was terrified of her. If she was a woman, how was I ever to become one? I did not even understand how she had become herself.

Then, when I was in my early twenties, she agreed to tell me everything. She answered my questions with a searching honesty rare even in the privacy of one's own thoughts. I came to see her as the vulnerable young woman she had once been, and she in turn came to see me as an adult ready to listen. We pulled each other out of ourselves.

I've spent the past seven years writing this book, and it has not been easy. I've had to stop to hold my aching wrists, feeling scars on my mother's body as if they were fresh wounds on my own. But it's brought us so much closer. The past transforms into whatever we need it to be. It changes as we tell it.

*I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This is a Best of the Month selection for August.

Photo credit: Sarah Shatz


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