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'The Past Is Malleable': A Memoir About Mothers And Daughters Examines Reinvention

Nadja’s Spiegelman’s new book, "I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This," is not your typical memoir. It tells not just her own story, but also the stories of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother — four generations of women.

Spiegelman grew up seeing stories about her forebears depicted in books. Her father is Art Spiegelman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel "Maus," which was based on his own father's experiences as a Holocaust survivor in Poland. 

Now Nadja is the one using her family's story as material, as told by the women. 

“It began about my mother, because I think mothers are the primal and primary beginning of all things and all stories,” Spiegelman says. “Then, when I learned about my mother, it became about her mother, and then her mother's mother, and then her mother's mother's mother, and this sort of Russian nesting doll — within every mother there is a daughter.”

Spiegelman approached her book in part as a formal journalistic project: She recorded more than 100 hours of interviews with her mother and grandmother, transcribing them from French into English. 

“I was really interested in the space between fiction and non-fiction, 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,” Spiegelman says. “So it was both journalistic and a real exploration of how constructed these narratives of ourselves are.”

Spiegelman’s mother is Francoise Mouly, who for years has been the art director of the New Yorker. She is by all accounts a brilliant, daunting and intimidating personality.

“One of my favorite stories about my mother is that when they moved the New Yorker’s offices, she saw the floor plan and saw that she had an open office,” Spiegelman says. “So she went in on a Sunday — just walking past the security guards — and built walls for her office. She’d been to architecture school and knew how. So, in her high heels, she just brought what she needed.”

Mouly was tough on Nadja, in many ways. Their dynamic was seemingly a case study of the stereotypical, fraught relationship between mothers and daughters — with a father off in the distance who gets to be a beloved character.

“That's my life as it's portrayed here, because I didn't want to write an objective biography,” Spiegelman explains. “If I had, I would have included as many peoples’ perspectives as possible. I could have talked more about my father. I could have talked to my aunts, who had very different memories of their own childhood. Instead, I kept it very pared down to my relationship with my mother, my mother's life, and my mother's relationship with her mother.”

Mouly’s mother, Josée, was no less a force of nature than her daughter. “She was made to be a character in a story,” Spiegelman says. “She’s so witty and has these amazingly cutting [comments] — she's mean, but in a way that's so smart. She’s impressive and larger than life in so many ways, which is why it was fascinating to me to discover her experience of her childhood, when she had once felt lost, confused and not powerful.”

Writing about her was difficult, because “she is very much a self-constructed human who created her own creation myth,” Spiegelman says. “She knew she wanted to be in a certain social circle in France that precluded acknowledging her own past, so she recreated herself as somebody who could fit into that world. She continues to recreate herself all the time.”

As Spiegelman found during one interview with her own mother, that kind of reinvention runs in the family.

“[My mother] was telling me a story that she had in diaries she had kept, and she looked in the diary, and she was like, ‘Oh, well, this contradicts my narrative. But, you know what? It's not important. What's more important is how I remember it.’ So she put the diaries aside and kept telling me the story the way she remembered it," Spiegelman says.

"That’s what was most interesting to me — the way in which we we construct ourselves and construct each other. ... The past is this incredibly malleable thing that is always being changed in order to lead up to the present moment.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.


From Studio 360 ©2016 PRI 

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