SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Family stories get passed between generations. And like a lot of cherished possessions, they sometimes get nicked, smudged, frayed or otherwise changed. Nadja Spiegelman has written a memoir of a mother she thought she knew, which resonates through the recollections of the grandmother she might have misunderstood. Her mother is Francoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker. Her father is Art Spiegelman, the graphic novelist. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel "Maus" is dedicated to Nadja Spiegelman. Her memoir is called "I'm Supposed To Protect You From All This." And Nadja Spiegelman, who's written graphic novels for young readers, including two "Zig And Wikki" stories, joins us now from France. Thanks so much for being with us.
NADJA SPIEGELMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: You're in your late 20s. Did you grow up thinking that there were missing pieces in your family history?
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah. I grew up knowing that there was a life my mother had left behind in France and a reason she had wanted to get away, understanding that there were hidden dangers and certain things in our relationship that, to me, had no explanation. But my mother's a very private person by nature, and also very French parent in some ways, where she never wanted to be friends with her children. She was always my mother.
And so there were strict boundaries between us and many things I couldn't ask.
SIMON: Well, what things did you notice?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, I'd noticed how she reacted when we would go for Christmas dinners in France. And her anxiety would skyrocket and she would suddenly revert to a version of herself that was so different from the powerful woman who I saw every day going to the New Yorker offices and making her own children's books. And there were also things that happened when I started becoming a woman that were tensions I just didn't understand.
SIMON: There's a particularly uncomfortable moment in the book when - your grandfather, your mother's father, was an esteemed plastic surgeon, a member of the French Legion of Honor and may I say a bastard?
SPIEGELMAN: You may. It's certainly how he's portrayed in the book. My grandfather was a very renowned plastic surgeon in France and constantly had women coming up to him and lifting up their tops and saying, what do you think, doctor, can you fix me? And therefore really didn't have a clear understanding of boundaries, even when it came to the women in his own family, and crossed a few of those with me.
And - on the other hand, having gotten the chance to get to know my grandmother so well and gotten the chance to get to know my mother so well, I do regret that my grandfather passed away before I started working on this book and that this is an incredibly one-sided vision of him in which he doesn't get to speak for himself. I don't think anybody is black and white. On the other hand, I was trying to make a story that was very focused on just the subjective memories I, my mother, my grandmother had of our own lives. And in that subjectivity, he does not come off very well.
SIMON: There's a startling moment in the book when your mother tells you why she had a second child.
SPIEGELMAN: The moment you're referring to is a moment on the plane when I say something about how - that even though I feel like my mother favored my brother, perhaps it wasn't for the best for him. And she says, did I ever tell you why I decided to have a second child? And then tells me that she loved - when I was a baby, she loved my bath time because it was the only moment where she was able to have a second to herself. I loved being in the water, and she could smoke a cigarette or read a book or do whatever it was that she wanted to do, but that one afternoon I insisted, no, no, don't leave me. Stay with me.
And so she stayed, but felt very trapped by me (laughter). And the force of how trapped she felt scared her. And she left, slamming the door, letting me cry, and decided to have a second child to break the intensity of the bond between her and I. It's a difficult story to be told. On the other hand (laughter), whatever the reasoning was, I am so grateful to have had a brother. I think I would not have been the kind of person I am today. And I think that there - that need to break the intense bond between mother and child is something that allows the child to grow.
SIMON: You know, a lot of the pre-publication reviews have - of this memoir have seen a theme of forgiveness. I'm struck by an exchange, though - you probably know what I'm suggesting - when your mother expresses herself about that. I wrote it down. It's when she says - she tells you, I don't need your forgiveness.
SPIEGELMAN: And she doesn't. I mean, my mother was such a ferociously powerful mother. And I, at this point, having learned so much about her life and what she has been through, I don't feel a need for her to apologize or a need to forgive her either. I just feel this very profound understanding. I - there's a moment in the book when my mother gets into a fight with her mother and relates it to me later, saying, my mother snapped at me, shut up. And I was so grateful because I felt like a child again. And I felt like I hadn't invented that mother who had hated me when I was a girl. And I was so grateful to see that she still existed.
When my mother told me that story, I couldn't understand what she was talking about. But now I do because the past has the same quality as dreams in the sense that as soon as it's over, they're hazy and murky, but while you're living through them they're so vivid. Our adolescence feels so vivid to us while we're living through it. But then we constantly are rewriting the relationships that we have with people, we're growing. And by the time you're a little bit older, even just outside of that intense moment, your adolescence feels like a dream and it's hard to remember that there was ever that intensity there.
SIMON: Nadja Spiegelman. Her book is "I'm Supposed To Protect You From All This." Thanks so much for being with us.
SPIEGELMAN: Thank you so much, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.