My Brilliant Mom

Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir about four generations of charged mother-daughter relationships.

Nadja Spiegelman
Nadja Spiegelman.

Sarah Shatz

Every woman is shaped by her mother, but some mothers exert a stronger force than others. Of Françoise Mouly, the glamorous and intense Frenchwoman who’s helmed the New Yorker’s art department since 1993, daughter Nadja Spiegelman writes: “Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would. … She could set the universe aflame, but she used herself as fuel. Somewhere inside, the earth was scorched.”

With her memoir I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This, Spiegelman has mapped not only her own inner landscape, with all the mom-shaped craters and streaks of ash, and not only Mouly’s, but also that of her maternal grandmother Josée—an equally fascinating, tempestuous figure. The book draws on hundreds of hours of interviews with both women. (After speaking to Françoise, Spiegelman flew to Paris to get Josée’s side of the story.) It shares DNA with Maus, the Pulitzer Prize–winning comic by Nadja’s father, Art Spiegelman, Part II of which is dedicated to then-baby Nadja. It is extremely similar to and extremely different from that work in the exact, vexing way that children are at once deeply like and deeply unlike their parents.

Maus recorded the informal interview process by which an alienated son came to understand himself and his father. It presented the memories of a Holocaust survivor (Vladek Spiegelman) as they swirled, unspoken, into his relationship with his family. It then documented how conversation and comics helped Vladek and Art surface the subterrestrial forces that molded both of their lives.

I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This only lightly grazes the Holocaust. The stakes appear to be much lower. But Spiegelman reveals that her mother’s submerged history also tugged at the family dynamic: “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.”

In Françoise’s telling, Josée was unspeakably cruel to her daughter; in Josée’s version, she was a loving mother, wronged by Françoise. That the accounts set forward by mother and grandmother rarely line up means that Spiegelman’s memoir must address not only the therapeutic pain of memory but also, as in Maus, its unreliability, subjectivity, and elusiveness.

The first section, centered on Nadja’s childhood and adolescence in New York, paints Françoise as a ferocious, angry, one-dimensional presence, whirling through a thousand tasks at once. Then Spiegelman starts to filter in detailed scenes from her mother’s early life: the boarding school in France where she suffered hysterical fits, her precocious romance with a local boy (originally Aunt Sylvie’s beau), her fishy relationship with her playboy father, and finally her desperate flight to the States.

Meanwhile, Josée, now a merry divorcée, lives in a houseboat on the Seine, her eyes tattooed with permanent blue liner. She’s “capable of saying things so terrible they blacked out the sun,” Spiegelman writes. (One gets the sense she would be flattered by this sentence.) Josée still nurses the wounds inflicted by her own mother, Mina, a distant socialite imprisoned after World War II for consorting with a Nazi sympathizer.

US comic book writer Art Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly at the Angouleme world comic strip festival, on January 29, 2012 in Angouleme, France.
Nadja Spiegelman’s parents, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, in 2012 in Angouleme, France.

Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images

Four generations, four matching sets of Freudian grievance. With this fiercely female chain of stories, Spiegelman has decided to plunge right into the most intimate and radioactive psychic material most women have on hand. Show her a mother, and she will show you a thousand body-shaming criticisms, irrational accusations, and acts of sexual one-upmanship. She will also show you, within that mother, the daughter-who-was, still smarting from her own savage inheritance.

“She hated me. Hated me,” Françoise tells Nadja, of Josée. Later, Josée protests: “Non! … I was the unwanted child, not her.” To be a mother in the Mouly/Spiegelman line is to inflict pain. To be a daughter is to absorb it. It sometimes feels as though the book is working not in characters but in types; not in defined episodes but in recurring myths. According to Spiegelman, thin Françoise was preoccupied with her daughter’s weight—at one point Françoise grows so convinced that Nadja is sneaking snacks out of the cupboard at night (she isn’t) that Nadja’s sense of reality starts to bend. At the same time, the author’s own flesh is enacting another betrayal. “My body was whispering to the adults around me in a language I did not understand,” Nadja recalls, noting the glances she is beginning to attract in her parents’ drawing room. As both her mom and her pubescent body turn against her, Nadja makes Françoise into a symbol of all that she is not: “It seemed to me that in those years my mother only became more and more beautiful. My heart swelled with pride on the rare occasions when she came to school. Short skirts and black turtlenecks, tailored red skirt suits with padded shoulders—everything hung perfectly on her frame.”

It’s such an impossibly complicated skein of specific and relatable feelings. The heady, obsessive way a child can worship her mom; the rivalry; the terror of being abandoned, perhaps because you’ve inadvertently broken some secret law. Spiegelman is masterful at loading up her language with more meaning than is at first apparent. Often that fantastical tendency—that rush to interpret—imbues her words with a kind of elliptical peril, as when she writes of her mother: “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.”

This uncanny sense of history, significance, or trauma waiting to erupt evokes no one so much as Elena Ferrante, another author acutely conscious of the forces coiled tight as a spring within people and objects. 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. But the veiled or freighted quality to her language serves another purpose, too. At the heart of I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This lie two overlapping mysteries: the mystery of the past, which memory can never accurately conjure, and the mystery of other people, whom you can never truly know. Those paired lacunae expand to fill the space between Spiegelman’s sentences, so that each page feels charged, weighted down with suggestion, but also teasingly remote.

Francoise Mouly
Nadja Spiegelman’s mother, Françoise Mouly, in 2015 in New York City.

Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

On the subject of memory, Spiegelman is remarkable—mature, wise, and richly expressive. “Pure memories are like dinosaur bones,” she writes, “discrete fragments from which we compose the image of the dinosaur. 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.”

It is one of many passages in which the author tries to account for the vast differences between what she, her mother, and her grandmother remember. If Spiegelman seems especially charitable toward women who may have more self-serving reasons to shade history, this generosity is typical of her, the appointed mender of the frayed matrilineal thread.

But elsewhere, Françoise goes farther, insisting that “there’s no psychological difference between what you experience and what you imagine … When I tell you I don’t remember if something actually happened or not, it’s because for me it’s the same thing.” At a moment like this, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This appears to pull back some perceptual curtain and expose “the twist”: that the dinosaur has no bones, that we all dwell in worlds entirely of our own making. If that’s so (and the memoir does seem to entertain the idea that life is literally art), then Spiegelman’s endless interpreting—What happened? What does it signify?—represents her effort to turn a certain vision of Françoise into reality. By the end, it has worked: Three generations of Mouly women summit happily at a Deauville resort.

Yet the suspicion that a form of literary reverse-childbirth has taken place lends some poignancy to Spiegelman’s claim, in an interview with the Michigan Quarterly Review, that she wanted to pen not “a tell-all but rather a very shaped telling.” Has the author rendered the mother she remembers or the one she wishes she had? For that matter, the pronouns in the title are odd: Who is the I and who is the you? Why would Spiegelman, writing in the first person, be doing the protecting? On earth, of course, we get the mothers we get, and they do or don’t discharge their maternal duties. But on the page, the writer directs the paths of enchanted dinosaurs. Time flows backward and daughters recreate their parents. With her memoir, perhaps, Spiegelman has found a way to protect herself.

I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman. Riverhead.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.