Over time, family stories calcify into mythology: They are repeated, enshrined, made emblematic. Moments that, in retrospect, predict character. Fights that become the fights. The time you threw up, crashed the car, found mom's pot.
"The stories we use to create our sense of self — the stories we tell new lovers at five a.m. so that they can understand who we are — are also the ones over which we have most heavily embroidered," Nadja Spiegelman writes. "They have been altered by the moods and settings in which we have told them. They have been altered by what we needed them to mean each time."
We always shape stories to suit ourselves, but stories about our families are especially fraught because they reveal us. "The precursor of the mirror is the mother's face," wrote Donald Winnicott. Spiegelman's memoir, based on her own memories and interviews with her mother and grandmother, investigates the complicated, contested mythologies of her maternal family. She looks into their faces to find her own. Spiegelman's father is Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus. Her mother is the publisher and New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly.
As a child, Spiegelman sensed in her mother "a feeling of damage and danger that had no name and no explanation."
"I'll tell you when you're older," Mouly tells her, over and over again, when Spiegelman spots a vulnerable patch in her graceful mother's armor.
So she sets off for France, and begins the process of interviewing Josée, her grandmother. On first impression, Josée is a capital-C character, rendered with crisp precision: "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." But, over the course of their conversations, she becomes human — flawed, but loving and very much interested in her granddaughter's life. A person from real life, not mythology. That is the book's arc: The transformation of characters into people, of myth into something more complex.
The memoir's most arresting pages describe September 11, 2001, when Spiegelman saw the towers fall from her high school a few blocks away. "There was the World Trade Center, half a mile away. There was only one tower. And then the grey of it peeled off, infinitely slowly, gathering on itself as it rolled down. As the grey descended it revealed a skeleton of red beams. They hung in the air, shimmering. And then they too became powder, became particles, became the air and fell, and everything fell, everything fell." It is the book's most powerful passage, but it is also no longer hers. She's told the story so many times it "ceased being a memory" and moved into myth.
Spiegelman is insightful about the malleability and power of memory and eloquent about the hidden currents in her family's mythology. But I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This suffers from aggressive, artificial poignancy: Laden ashtrays and meaningful silences and figures forever disappearing portentously into the night. Just a little bit of humor or self-awareness would dispel the lingering and sticky too-muchness of these moments, the heaviness of lyricism for its own sake. Poignancy has to be natural, not created by fiat through suggestively incomplete thoughts. This mars an otherwise sharp memoir, but it's also an understandable flaw. After all, nothing makes us take ourselves more seriously than our mothers.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.