One milestone on the road to growing up: the realization that your parents had lives before your arrival on the planet, that their time held joys, traumas, triumphs, fears, bad haircuts, weird pants, a whole human range of experience that you had no part of and know nothing about. To us, a mystery, but one that we come to understand has helped shape us nonetheless.
In her sensitive, probing memoir, Nadja Spiegelman, daughter of cartoonist and “Maus’’ creator Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly, positions herself in the midst of that mystery, focusing on her French-born mother and her Parisian, houseboat resident grandmother. She excavates the lives that lead to hers, to understand what came before, to understand herself.
Spiegelman grew up with a sense that there was danger surrounding her mother’s family, a family her mother had fled, leaving Paris for New York before she was 20. Through the years, Mouly would hint at darkness and strain in her past but catch herself before revealing too much to her young daughter, telling her that these were tales for when she was older. After Spiegelman enters adolescence, the strands that connect her and Mouly take on a complicated tension.
In one raw moment, the teenage Spiegelman admits to her mother that she’s been ripping out her pubic hair, disgusted at her body. The scene raises the recurring idea of the crossing of personal boundaries: “I could not seem to learn where she stopped and I began,” she writes of her mother, “what I should and should not share.” Mouly is cold and dismissive in response, reacts with a distance that doubles Spiegelman’s shame. It’s only after Mouly begins unspooling her story to her daughter after she graduates from college, that some of this tension begins to make sense.
Mouly talks of a cruel and distant mother, a philandering plastic surgeon father, still sensitive scars, unwanted and forced sex, and Spiegelman deftly weaves in her own coming of age — watching the Twin Towers fall as a high school freshman in New York City, her explorations of her own sexuality — so that the two stories both touch and veer from one another.
To further understand her mother’s past, Spiegelman reverses her mother’s journey, leaving New York for Paris to spend time getting to know her glamorous grandmother. The development of that relationship proves one of the most satisfying parts of the book. The two achieve a closeness that seems elusive between both mothers and daughters. As Spiegelman notes, “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 in between.” The tales Spiegelman unearths about her mother and grandmother are difficult ones to hear, ones that violate boundaries, that show how hard it is to love right, that raise more questions than they answer.
So striking, over and over, is Spiegelman’s bravery, her willingness to dig in.
“Did you ever . . . caress yourself?” she asks her grandmother in a candid conversation about sex. It demands the reader consider what it would be to ask these questions, to hear the answers, and it makes an unspoken argument that stepping over these lines, despite the discomfort, can foster understanding, and with that, perhaps, greater capacity for love.
How to determine what should and should not be shared, how to divide the world into acceptable and unacceptable truths, proves the book’s main thrust. As her grandmother tells her stories, Spiegelman finds they often contradict her mother’s versions. Truth proves elusive, but in the end it appears that trying to determine what really happened may be less relevant than how it lives on in the mind.
Spiegelman approaches her subjects with sensitivity, wisdom, generosity, and honesty, with an acute sense of the responsibilities and risks involved with sharing other people’s stories. There are moments that sound a little like the revelations that come from the therapist’s couch (“Perhaps I wasn’t afraid of my own death but of the loss of my youth. Perhaps I wasn’t afraid of my mother’s death but that I would be able to keep living without her”), but more than anything, the book shows us, in intimate detail, what a strange thing it is, to have a mother, how painful, how powerful.
I’M SUPPOSED TO PROTECT YOU FROM ALL OF THIS
By Nadja Spiegelman
Riverhead, 372 pp., $27
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..