Nadja Spiegelman Comes From a Long Line of Self-Made Women

Email a Friend
Nadja Spiegelman

Seeing her family’s story in the pages of a book is nothing new for Nadja Spiegelman. She’s the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman — who transmuted his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor into the landmark graphic novel "Maus." Now, Nadja’s the one using her family’s story as material. Her new memoir, "I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This," tells the stories of four generations of women on her French mother’s side of the family: from her great grandmother, to her mother Françoise Mouly, the art director of The New Yorker.

Nadja Spiegelman: It began about my mother. Because I think mothers are the primal and primary beginning of all things and all stories. And then when I learned about my mother it became about her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother, and this sort of Russian nesting doll, endless regression, within every mother there is a daughter.

Kurt Andersen: She was rough on you in many ways. It also strikes me as a case study of the stereotype that mothers and daughters have. While the father gets to be this beloved character off in the distance. That is the stereotype, and that’s sort of your life. Wasn’t it?

That’s my life as it’s portrayed here. Because I didn’t want to write an objective biography. Instead, I kept this very paired down to my relationship with my mother, my mother’s relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with hers. I have plenty that I could have said about my relationship with my father, it just didn’t feel like this was the place to do it. And I don’t plan on writing about it. My dad keeps joking about the Daddy Dearest that’s coming, but I promised him I’m not planning it.

You worked on this a long time. You’re 29, so most of your twenties you’ve been writing this book.

I started when I was 21.

What you were writing when you were 27, 28, did that feel very different than what you’d written at 21, 22?

In the beginning of the project, it was very much just about my mother and my grandmother. There were no parts of it about my own adolescence. And it was only when I got to the end of the project that I realized if I was demanding this intimacy from my mother and grandmother, I owed it to show those parts of my own life as well. And those parts I think I only could have written at the later part of my 20’s.

You treated this like a formal journalistic project. You interviewed and recorded the interviews with both your mother and your grandmother.

It was journalistic, but at the same time what I was really interested in was the space between fiction and nonfiction and the idea that, at least when it comes to our own memories and to family memories, there’s not one truth, there’s not one objective past. And so it was both journalistic, but also a real exploration of how constructed those narratives of ourselves are.

Do you feel as though there’s some hereditary tradition of mothers being cruel to their daughters that you were born into?

When you ask any adolescent girl about her mother you’re going to get a story of cruelty, of anger, of hurt. And there are definitely extremes within that, but I think what I came away from this with was an understanding that each of these women was doing their best without any kind of blueprint for how to become a mother, and there was actually something really beautiful about how well they had succeeded. This was an incredibly useful book to write. I began it thinking “How could I forgive my mother?” and I ended it thinking that is really the wrong question.

Music Playlist

  1. The Path

    Artist: Zoe Keating
    Album: Into The Trees
    Label: 020202 Music