‘Mother Knows Best: a Review of Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This’, by Shu-Ling Chua


Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This shimmers with elegance, mystery, and danger. It is a memoir of mothers and daughters, traced through four generations, as well as a study of memory and the stories we tell to create (and preserve) our sense of self. The narrative revolves around the author’s relationship with her mother Françoise Mouly (art editor at The New Yorker), and is a response to her father’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, about his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust.

As a child, Spiegelman puzzles over the tension between Françoise and her parents who live across the Atlantic in Paris. As a teen, her beloved maman’s version of reality threatens to overwhelm her own. The mother who could make her feel invincible accuses her of throwing away all the spoons, of moving her papers, then says the fights never happened. As Spiegelman writes: “I was incapable of apologizing for things I had not done … I knew that to cede even this much ground was to lose all sense of myself.” She takes to marking her diary with a big circled R, a reminder to herself that their fights were “REAL”.

Seeking a road map to her mother, Spiegelman asks permission to write about her coming of age. Françoise hesitates, then holds nothing back. Jealousy. Suicide attempts. Unwanted abortion. Loneliness. Hysteria. Underlying this, her own mother Josée’s dismissive cruelty. “We talked for years … the stories gave me the distance I needed to see her whole,” Spiegelman writes, recognising, at last, the darkness that had shaped her mother.

When she moves to Paris to interview Josée about her relationship with Françoise, Josée’s version of events contradicts her daughter’s. Françoise was sent for an encephalogram, not because she was crazy but because she was gifted. Josée remembers neither the crises de nerfs, nor Françoise scratching her face until it bled. She says they never fought. “I was the unwanted child, not her,” said Josée, recalling her own distant mother Mina.

Cutting between Françoise and Spiegelman’s adolescence brings certain parallels to the forefront. Others, like Françoise’s childhood dream of becoming Joan of Arc and Josée’s casting as the martyr in the school play, I picked up only on the third reading. Memories and conversations, painstakingly selected, trickle like streams into a river, but never too neatly. I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This is calculated in its content and timing but it is constructed rather than contrived. By laying bare her subjectivity, motives, and insecurities, Spiegelman builds trust and intimacy. While Françoise and Josée’s lives are laid out as they tell them, these are the author’s words and the reader shares her gaze: “I was the narrator, giving shape to memories that weren’t my own. And that, I was learning, was a much more violent act.”

We all make decisions about which stories to tell and why. Françoise, for example, sets aside a diary that contradicts the chronology of one story, and tells it as she remembered it. Indeed, she argues that there is no objective reality, no true nonfiction. Even when mother and daughter listen to a decades-old recording, the truth remains opaque:

I had expected it to contain a miraculous and impartial Truth. Yet while it corrected certain facts … the narrative that strung these facts together remained as complex as ever.

Memories also betray us. Young Françoise serenades Josée, “Maman, Maman, c’est toi la plus belle du monde,” only to be pushed away. Decades later, Josée sings while clearing the table. Spiegelman remarks that her mother used to sing the same song, only to be rebuked, “It wasn’t of your mother’s time.” A fact-check later vindicates Spiegelman, illustrating how memories and, by extension, the ‘truth’, shift and warp unconsciously:

Somehow, in her memories, the song her daughter had sung to her had become the song she used to sing to her own mother. And through the haze of overlapping generations, the unrequited love was real.

I liken Spiegelman to an optometrist, slipping discs of carefully cut glass before one’s eyes, bringing the past into focus. “The past [however] was not a fixed place one could visit. It was not static. It was a voyage, constant motion.” In an interview with Signature, she reflects that writing is a recorded past but this does not make it “more true … it’s still a subjective perception of reality”. All memoir is subjective; few admit this so explicitly.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This asks readers to consider whether multiple ‘truths’ can co-exist, not just as differences of opinion between family members, but within individuals. It examines how we twist our memories to fit the narrative of who we are, so that we may make sense of our lives and thus continue to live with ourselves. Its epigraph is from Paul Valéry: “La mémoire ne nous servirait à rien si elle fût rigoureusement fidèle.” [“Memory would be of no use to us if it were rigorously faithful.”]

Unlike the ‘typical Asian mother’, mine encouraged me to go on exchange, and to move to Canberra. I thought she had all the answers; that she could fix anything. Then I grew up.

Telling Mum that I had slept with my then boyfriend was one thing. (My friends think it is incredible that I’ve told her. “Only because I’m writing about it,” I say. “Not because I want to.”) Now, I was telling the world: “I’ve slept with a few more guys since and it’s been okay.” Six months ago, while visiting Melbourne, I showed her the piece, without thinking.

“I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “Why do people write about something so personal, so private?”

“You’re criticising me. You’re always criticising me,” I snapped, though I knew this wasn’t true. “You think I’m immoral.” I cried violently in the shower, then crawled into her bed.

“You moved out too early,” she wept. “I worry what you’re eating, if you’re eating well. I can’t cook for you in Canberra.”

Emboldened by how I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This brought Spiegelman closer to her mother, I asked Mum what she thinks about my writing. She likes the art reviews but not the writing about sex: “Don’t you feel shame? Don’t you feel guilty?” I don’t.

There is, however, one story I want to protect my mother from; that I wish she had never read. I knew that she had read it—“I wanted to give you a hug,” she said, after I blogged the link—but we didn’t talk about the incident until almost a year later. (I started blogging five years ago, while on exchange, for family and friends. Mum continues to read everything; I don’t have the heart to tell her to stop, especially now that it’s public.)

“Maybe Mum didn’t teach you to fight back.”

“It’s not your fault, Mum.”

“Maybe Mum didn’t teach you to be rude.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Mothers always try to protect their children. How could he do this to my child?”

Our conversation echoes the scene in which Françoise recounts her experience of rape. Françoise apologises, to Spiegelman’s disbelief:

“Why?” I said miserably. “Why should you be sorry?”

“Because,” she said, “I’m your mother. I’m supposed to protect you from all this.”

Mothers were daughters too, once. Mine dreamt of studying hotel management in Switzerland. I used to envy her for marrying her first love. I thought she had it ‘easy’—she never had to navigate dating—but this discounts the fact she defied her own mother by marrying overseas and moving to a country in which she knew no one.

Françoise remarks, “It’s your book. I have to think about it as being about someone else, some other girl who shares my name.” How real is the ‘I’ on the page as opposed to the living ‘I’? Perhaps this is why I mind less when strangers comment on my writing. They are responding purely to the self on the page. Unlike my mother, they don’t need to reconcile this self with the daughter they once knew everything about. On top of this, I fear painting her as old-fashioned, draconian, or small-minded: she is none of these things.

Breaking free from our mothers’ influence, seeing them whole, flaws and all, is a prerequisite to growing up and stepping out from their shadow. Violence—whether fighting with our parents or having one’s illusions quietly shattered—is a given.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Canberra-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, The Writers Bloc, Peril Magazine, Seizure and others. She was previously producer of Noted writers’ festival and Voiceworks nonfiction editor. She tweets @hellopollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day.