In her captivating new memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, Nadja Spiegelman explores the lives of her family through four generations of women. She examines their dissonant memories to get to the unsettling heart of experiences that have shaped them all. Sheila Heti describes it as ‘witty, tender, assured and poetic...unexpected symmetries between the generations, as well as the inevitable insults and pains, make this artful memoir feel like the story of every family.’ We’re delighted to present an extract below.
When I was a child, I knew that my mother was a fairy. Not the kind of fairy with gauzy wings and a magic wand, but one with a thrift-store fur coat and ink-stained fingers. There was nothing she couldn’t do. On weekends, she put on safety goggles, grabbed a jigsaw, and remade the cabinets in her bedroom. She ran a hose from her bathroom to the roof to fill my inflatable pool. She helped me build a diorama of the rain forest, carving perfect cardboard birds of paradise with her X‑Acto blade.
“Maman,” I asked her when I was four, “when will I be a fairy like you?”
“When you’re sixteen,” she replied. And so I waited, and I watched her.
Once, during a thunderstorm in Brazil, my mother pulled the rental car over to the side of the highway by a dark, deserted beach. She beckoned to my brother and me. We uncurled from the backseat and leapt out into the electric rain. We followed her, leaving my father shouting her name from the road, his voice barely carrying over the storm. We stripped down to our underwear. My mother held out her hands, one for each of us, and we ran straight into the water. The ocean picked us up and slammed us down against the sand. We screamed with laughter. We ran back in. The sky fractured with lightning, opened, fell into the ocean. The waves reared twice as tall as my mother.
At the car, my father was pale, his voice quiet with awe and anger. “Jesus, Françoise,” he said, shaking his head. We were late now, as usual, and my mother drove the car fast down the highway toward the pitch-black sky. Though we had been in two accidents, I did not know my mother was a reckless driver until I was in my twenties, when friends told me so. The things my mother did not see about herself, I did not see, either. We fell asleep in the backseat, my brother and I, mouths open, gritty with salt and sand, our hair drying in wild curls.
My mother disdained most dangers as American constructs, invented by timid women who washed their vegetables. She was always certain that nothing would go wrong. “No one ever told me it was dangerous to swim in a lightning storm,” she would say when I laughingly mentioned the memory years later. Her voice pitched defensively; she did not like to be teased.
There were other vacations, too—the vacation when my mother, sick of the other moms who complained about the lack of apple juice at the breakfast buffet, absconded from the resort and let me drive the rented stick-shift jeep along the dirt roads, even though my feet barely reached the pedals. The vacation when my mother booked no hotels in advance, just took off driving down the coast of Costa Rica, buying us all the strange fruits that they sold by the roadside. My father rarely came with us. Once, in a forest, my mother scooped the earth into her hand and put some in her mouth and ours while she explained about building immunities. We were often sick as children, and then rarely. We knew, my brother and I, that it was only fear that led to danger. My mother cast around us her conviction that we would always be safe, and it held us like a force field.
My mother disdained most dangers as American constructs, invented by timid women who washed their vegetables. She was always certain that nothing would go wrong.
“Do you know when I finally felt free of my mother?” my mother asked me. It was a story she told several times, more allegory than anecdote.
I was a baby, six months old, and she’d taken me to France to meet her family. This was during the golden years, the ones I’ll never remember: the years when she never put me down. She wore a big coat and me strapped underneath it. We shared a body. In the night, she woke and came to feed me before I’d even opened my mouth to cry.
But on this evening, when she arrived at her friend’s home for a dinner party, she was instructed to leave me in the host’s bedroom. She did so reluctantly. As food was served and wineglasses refilled, I began to cry. My mother leapt up from the table.
“Leave her,” the French friend said. “The noise doesn’t bother us.” My mother continued to move toward the door.
“She’ll never learn to stop crying if you pick her up each time,” the friend said with the tone of absolute authority the French often invoke when imparting wisdom. You’ll catch a cold if you go out with wet hair, bread is more caloric when it’s underbaked, you’ll never sleep if you drink ginger tea in the evening.
My mother hesitated, then sat back down. My wails grew louder.
“She’ll tire herself out,” another friend declared. But my mother had already left the table again and gone to take me into her arms. As she soothed me, rocking me, pressing me to her body, she heard fragments of the chorus of disapproval from the other room. Now, the baby...When my child...She’s just got to...It will only encourage her...
This is what it would be like, my mother thought as I quieted against her. This is what it would be, if I raised her here. Everything would happen all over again.
She thought of her loft in Manhattan, with its high industrial ceilings. She thought of the streets where we were invisible, she and I, in the jostling Chinatown crowds. And she knew she was free.
“I realized that I could reinvent motherhood,” she told me now. “I was so far from all this in America. I had no blueprint, no rules. And so I invented it. Every piece. I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew that it was going to be different.”
Now, now that I knew her past, I saw both. I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.
My mother ran away from Paris to New York City when she was eighteen. My family had always lived in the SoHo loft she moved into her first year in America, in 1974. I tried to recognize the space as it was in the old photos. It was a jumble then, crowded with furniture she’d hauled up from the street, the rooms partitioned by bookshelves and makeshift screens. Shortly after my birth, my mother created real walls and doors and staircases, leaning ladders to mezzanines and rope ladders to nowhere, trapezes carefully drilled into anchor beams—the floor plan inside which I stored my childhood.
We visited her family in France twice a year: her divorced parents, her two sisters, a cousin. They were all the family I had. Nine people in all, if I counted myself. There was no one left on my father’s side.
My grandmother would not let herself be called Grand-mère, so we, like everyone else, called her Josée (she spelled it sometimes with a final e, sometimes without, and pronounced it joe-ZAY ). Josée lived on a houseboat moored on the outskirts of Paris, where the Seine doubled back to touch the city’s northwestern border. She had purchased it as a shipping barge and transformed it into a luxurious home in a style entirely her own. There were cream-colored carpets and sliding Japanese doors. There was a Jacuzzi in the center of the space beneath an octagonal skylight that opened like a flower, and a table that rose out of the floor at the touch of a remote control. You took off your shoes at the entrance, or, if you preferred, there were little plastic bags that you could slip on over your heels. This houseboat, and the several others she had renovated and sold before it, had been featured in magazines. She kept them in a stack beneath the hanging red lacquer fireplace. In the guest bathroom, the walls were covered in pictures of her travels: in a sari on an elephant, in blackface and leopard pelts, in leather chaps and nothing else (alongside a certificate stating that the “bearer bared her knockers at Mardi Gras 1998”). 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.
There was always a moment of held breath as my grandmother seated us around her table, her choices as deliberate and pointed as a queen’s. Those seated close to her were in her favor, those seated far away were not. Love was a zero-sum game. My mother, because her presence was rare, was often seated close. Her sisters, from the far end of the table, tried not to glare.
Even at a young age, I was aware that my aunts were trapped in their parents’ orbits, like moths with singed wings around a flame, though how I knew this I am not sure. They were grown-ups, yet not grown-ups. They pitched their voices to the same resentful whine in response to their mother as I did to mine. Andrée, six years younger than my mother, felt closer to my own age. She broke her knees in motorcycle accidents, lived in Paris’s roughest neighborhoods, and had wild love affairs. Sylvie, older than my mother by a year and a half, was constantly leaping up to serve and clear the plates, sighing loudly as she did so, the family martyr. But when she talked to the children—her son (our only cousin), my brother, and me—she was capable of great bursts of laughter, the glugging unselfconscious guffaw of a child.
During these visits, I followed my mother’s lead. I knew in my bones that her family was dangerous, and she had taught us to be wary of them, like fast food or crossing Canal Street. She treated her sisters with the polite reserve she displayed toward women she didn’t trust. With her parents, she was as effusively kind and respectful as she would have been with someone else’s parents. I followed suit. My voice went up an octave in Paris. I said mostly merci, oui, merci, s’il te plaît, c’est delicieux, merci. I stood on tiptoe to kiss an endless number of cheeks.
When I was young, I watched my mother brace herself before each encounter with her family—the hard looks she gave herself in the bathroom mirror, the lipstick applied like armor. At the table, much of the conversation took place in language too encoded for me to decipher, but I sensed that the banter was laced with barbs, a poison center to every compliment. And I heard the comments that were directed at me—the grave pronouncements of disaster over my newly cut bangs, the way everybody agreed, with knowing nods, that I certainly didn’t need a second slice of cake. I dreaded those dinners, but I adored the cab rides home. In the backseat, I felt awash in the safety of our family, finally shrunk back to its correct four-person size, a rare feeling of unity between us.
My mother was giddy with relief. “The best thing I ever did was move my life an ocean away from them,” she often said in those moments.
“I’m so lucky I escaped,” she said at other times. “It’s the only way I survived. Can you imagine, can you imagine what it would have been like?”
But I couldn’t imagine. The past was always there on her body, but I couldn’t see it. It was in the scars that I traced with a fingertip as a child, in the strange things that set off her anger. It was even in my own body, a feeling of damage and danger that had no name and no explanation. It was underneath everything else: that deep foundation on which we were both built. But like her French accent, which forty years in America could not fade—and which her children, so used to her voice, could not hear—the past was too present for me to see.
How could my mother ever have been a girl? I knew what it meant to be a child, how emotions could knock you flat with their sheer strength, and how adults never seemed to understand. But of my mother’s childhood, I knew almost nothing. Most of her scars were from accidents. A nose that broke four or five times. The place where the sharp metal spike of a fence had pierced all the way through her arm. A gash in her head from a sharp corner in a corridor of her family’s apartment. (“I didn’t know you had a red pillow,” her grandmother Mina said when she found my mother lying down in her room afterward.) Those were the funny stories. It was the scars on her wrists, the scars on the soft hidden places inside her body—those were the scars she didn’t tell me about, and I didn’t ask.
“After the divorce, my father used to come into my room and...,” my mother began once, then caught herself. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” When I told her that my high school girlfriend had cuts all over her arms, she said, “You know, when I was that age...” Then, with a quick sigh: “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” There were moments when details slipped, when she seemed not to realize how strange certain things sounded, or forgot for a moment that I knew how to listen. Her father had wandered the hallways naked, terrifying the young maids. One Christmas, he had preemptively removed her appendix. But when I asked her directly about her life, she told me only the funny stories, the easy ones: the time she and her sister broke the bed and blamed it on their obese grandmother, the time she cut her sister’s hair while she was sleeping. I saw only the edges of the holes, the aftershocks of the explosions. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said when I tried to reach for more. My mother understood: There was room for only one of us to be a girl. There was room for only one of us to be a woman.
As a child, I tried to cast spells of my own invention. I spun my dolls around three times, spat on teddy bears, put pieces of wire beneath my pillow. I lived in awed fear of a faded pink fairy figurine that I believed controlled not only my fate but that of the other toys. The real world was overlaid with a shimmering second world of signs and symbols. I continued to believe in a magic realm long after my friends had stopped. I did not want to grow up. I did not care about my clothes. What stood on the other side of childhood—an uncomfortable awareness of my body, my mother’s growing anger—held no appeal for me. I wanted only to fall out of this world, with its looming dangers, to that other, shimmering place.
I believed many things without question: that my mother could read my mind but chose not to; that the tiny red stinging bugs in the Astroturf on our roof were evil omens; that, while brushing my hair in the morning, I could tune in to the conversations of people I had never met, their banal statements—I told you, it’s all the way in the back—drifting crystal clear through my mind. An upright plastic bottle in my path on the sidewalk would shimmer with importance, as if it were a message I could almost decode. I did not want to accept the random disorder of a world without narrative. That is what magic was for me: meaning superimposed on chaos.
On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, I stared into the mirror opposite our kitchen table in profound disappointment. I had not quite realized that I had still been waiting to become a fairy, but I had been. My mother walked in, wearing the faded pink nightgown that had belonged to her grandmother. I saw her for an instant the way you rarely see the people you’ve known your whole life. I saw the purple under her eyes, her olive skin growing thin and soft with wrinkles, the gray roots of her hair that had been going gray for years. And yet I knew, still knew, that she was a fairy. I knew it from the way she could make me feel invincible with just the right words. I knew it from the way she called my cell phone three seconds into each first kiss. I knew it from the way she took one look at my face that morning and asked me if I could fly.
When I was six, and my brother a year and a half old, my mother accepted the position of art editor at The New Yorker. It was the first job she’d ever had for which she needed to wear nice clothes. She hired us a string of babysitters, ambitious French-speaking young women who were guaranteed to leave within a year or two and whose names I can now barely remember. She woke at six-twenty each morning to drive us to school, ripping up the FDR Drive to Twenty-Third Street before bringing the car back to SoHo and heading off to her office high above Times Square. She was home for dinner each night, even if the babysitter cooked, even if it meant that we ate long after the sun had set.
When I was sick or school was closed, my mother took me to work with her. I sat on the couch in her big office and watched as artists came with their sketches for magazine covers. She circled the pictures with her red pen, climbed on a chair, steady in her short leather skirt and heels, and tacked the sketches to the wall. She pulled proofs, ran down to the printing department, corrected colors, told the fact-checkers (who checked every image with shocking literalness) that rabbits could be pink when it was Easter. Sometimes she gave me scissors and I made crazed snowflakes from her scrap paper, trying to imitate her constant motion. I gave my creations to every person on the floor, running between the offices, never doubting their gratitude for a second. When I was with my mother, I felt invulnerable.
But when my mother drove us to school in the morning, the air was charged with a different energy. She slapped the steering wheel in frustration. Her French exhalations, her arghs and pffs, crowded the air like comic book sound effects that left no room for speech. And yet she insisted on driving us. She didn’t want us to be made to go to school alone, as she had. It seemed strange, once I knew the full story, that this was the only part of her childhood that she allowed herself to resent.
I tried to picture her young, but I saw her exactly as I knew her. I’d seen not a single photograph of her between eight and eighteen. As far as I knew, none had been taken. She’d told me she drank coffee as a child. I tried to imagine her making it for herself in careful silence in the gray light of a Paris morning while the rest of her family slept. Seeking a road map to her, I petitioned for years to be allowed to drink coffee as well.
Outside our home, my mother’s name was almost always appended to my father’s. “An impressive woman in her own right,” the articles said. My father’s graphic novel Maus about his parents’ experiences in the concentration camps, won a Pulitzer Prize when I was five. The spotlight of his fame projected a larger-than-life version of him to the world that even he often struggled with. But inside our home, it was my mother who loomed large.
“Françoise takes care of reality and I take care of everything else,” my father often said, jokingly. And even though it was true that my mother handled the finances, the plumbing, the carpentry, our education and our vacations, while my father often disappeared for weeks at a time to his studio, I saw her wince when he said this, not taking it as the compliment he intended.
“My girlfriends and I talk about how much we hate you,” a friend of my mother’s once told her. “You’re French, you’ve got the best job in New York, you’ve married a successful man, you’re beautiful, you’re thin, you’ve got two wonderful children. It’s not fair. You’re perfect.”
My mother wasn’t perfect. My mother was intense. Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would. She once fit a couch through a door frame that was several inches too small simply by pushing with all her strength and saying, “Couch, go in!” But, as anyone who has read a fairy tale knows, all spells come with a cost. The magic pulled on hidden sources. My brother referred to her exertion of will as “the fireball technique.” She could set the universe aflame, but she used herself as fuel. Somewhere inside, the earth was scorched.
One afternoon, when I was eight years old, my mother caught me sharply by my wrist as I wandered back to my room from the kitchen. She was furious. I stared at her in surprise.
“You can’t walk around naked when the plumbers are here!” she said. The bathroom door was still open and the plumbers working there could hear, though they didn’t speak French. I spent a lot of time naked as a child. I had never been scolded for it before. But now I burned with a sudden and vivid shame. “It’s indecent!” she said, and I could see in her eyes the real shock that I had not already understood this. I understood it then, all at once.
A woman’s body was a private thing. My body was a private thing. My body was a woman’s body. My mother was a woman. My mother was a private thing. There were dangers. There were secrets. There was something to guard.
I had thought that my shame had seared the memory deep only for me. But when I brought up this incident twenty years later, my mother nodded in recognition. I felt a small thrill. There were so few memories that we actually shared.
My mother wasn’t perfect. My mother was intense. Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would.
“Yes, there were these big men in the house that were strangers, and you...,” she said. “That was when I knew that something was really off. You never had...modesty.” I burned with shame all over again.
My mother was a ferociously private person. She did not gossip and never betrayed secrets. She did not easily forgive these things in others, either. She did not go through my drawers or read my diaries. It never occurred to me that she would. She never asked questions of my friends or tried to remember their names. She talked disdainfully of American mothers who put themselves on the same level as their children. The boundaries between us were clear: the parents in the front seat, the children in the back. They were the source of her power. I tried to break them. I told her too much about myself. I told her about my crushes and my petty fights with friends. I told her all the things she would never ask.
I knew she expected me to respect her privacy in return. The older I got, the more difficult it became. When she wasn’t home, I spent hours in her walk‑in closet, touching her clothes and going through her boxes. I found her old diaphragm, her love letters from my father, her lingerie. I felt guilt only about how little guilt I felt. It wasn’t until I read the papers in her desk, letters from long ago, that I stopped, sleepless with questions I could not ask.
As I hit puberty, and my body began to change, a dangerous new tension arose between us. My mother thrust Rollerblades at me in the morning and insisted I get myself to school, get some exercise, while she drove my brother and his friends. On weekday evenings, when the huge industrial skylights went dark and night fell in our living room, I knew better than to be on the couch when she came home. I gathered my books and comics and went to my room. I knew in the way one knows the things that can never quite be said that it made her furious to see me sitting still. I would listen for her “Bonsoir!” hurled from the door like a warning flare. It was only a matter of moments before my bedroom walls shook with the sound of my name. “NAA DJAAA!” Two guttural cries of frustration. I sat braced for this and yet I jumped each time. My heart raced. “Can you at least help set the table?” she would say, tears of exhaustion in her eyes, when I appeared in the kitchen doorway. And if the table was already set, if the dinner was already made, then it was a sock I had dropped in the bathroom, or shoes I had left in the hall, or something else I had done or not done that sparked her fury. Sometimes I roamed the house before her return, trying to guess the thing that would set her off and correct it. But the patterns were etched deep and felt inescapable. I felt it was not the sock or the shoes or the house but my body itself that refused to meet her expectations.
We were not allowed television (ours played only VHS tapes), so I escaped into books. I read in the bath, in the car, walking down the street, in the corner during adult dinner parties. Mostly I read books about ordinary girls in ordinary worlds who suddenly discovered their magical powers. But there was one book that I read often and kept hidden on my highest shelf. I had not wanted to return it to the library and so had paid the fine from my pocket money. Don’t Hurt Laurie! It was a slim pink book with too-big type about a girl who was abused. Laurie’s mother’s anger was vicious and unpredictable. Laurie’s mother told the nurses at the hospital that Laurie had fallen down the stairs. I knew my mother would never hurt me. She had left tiny pitchers of milk and bowls of cereal in the fridge when my friends slept over when we were five. My mother kissed me good night each evening and praised the stories I wrote. But I recognized something familiar, though grotesquely exaggerated, in Laurie’s mother: the outbursts that made the house tremble and just as quickly disappeared. And I envied Laurie. I envied her black-and-blue marks and her bandaged wrists. I envied her clear-cut proof that something had actually happened.
Throughout my adolescence, my mother’s reality threatened to overpower my own. One evening might pass without incident, then the next she would call me to the kitchen, shaking with fury, and accuse me of opening a second container of milk. It did not matter that the first had spoiled. It did not matter that I hadn’t. When my mother was angry, the anger consumed her. Her gray-green eyes turned a lethal black. “Just apologize,” she would say. And yet I was incapable of apologizing for things I had not done, no matter how small. I could not admit to throwing away all the spoons, to moving her papers, to hiding the mustard. I knew that to cede even this much ground was to lose all sense of myself. I would go to my room and scream at the top of my lungs, hoping that she would hear the intensity of my pain, how wronged and innocent I was, and come running with apologies. But my room, which had once been my father’s office, was soundproofed, and my mother could not hear me from the other side of the loft.
Soon afterward, those fights had never happened. “You’re exaggerating, Nadja,” she would say, a week later. “How could I have kicked you up the stairs?” I’d wonder, shakily, if she was right. I developed a code in my sporadically kept diaries—a big circled R on each page that detailed a fight with my mother, a reminder to myself that these events were “REAL.” Often, it was easier to allow the past to become a blur.
Most families retell anecdotes, reinforcing their legends to draw closer: that time she overturned the game board, that time he gave the dog a haircut. We did not. Instead of anecdotes, we had narratives. My mother condensed whole swaths of our shared past into a sharp tool with which she explained and ordered our present. Reminiscing led to bitter arguments. Memories that contradicted my mother’s narrative were picked apart in their details. That babysitter had not worked for us during the summers. We had stopped visiting that cabin in 1998. I felt myself clinging to my version of reality as if some essential part of my selfhood might get washed away. But when proof could be produced—a restaurant receipt, a map, a diary entry, a Google search—my mother simply shifted the subject. Like many couples, my mother and father could not tell a story about their shared past without arguing about which street corner they had been standing on. Once, during a particularly drunken dinner with the writers Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster, Siri attempted to diffuse an argument between them with an anecdote of her own.
“One morning in the country, while Paul was still sleeping, our daughter and I saw a bird—it was a vision—through the window. A heron, majestic. I held her and we watched it in silence,” Siri said. “Later, I overheard Paul tell the story at a party—but now he had seen the heron. He had held Sophie. I hadn’t been there at all! Because of course we had told him all about it.”
“I really thought I had seen it,” Paul said with a gravelly laugh, an open sweep of the cigarillo in his hand.
“And I believe him,” Siri said, leaning forward, her blue eyes wide and earnest. “And it doesn’t matter. The point is: the heron was seen.”
I served myself again from the Chinese takeout cooling on the table, even though I was no longer hungry. My mother was the only other one still eating. She never ate, then she ate like a wolf. I put the food in my mouth without tasting it. The heron was seen. How blissful to be able to find that kind of peace with the past.
“I have a terrible memory,” my mother said then. She sounded tipsy, which surprised me. She drank wine every night, but she rarely got drunk. “All of my memories,” she continued morosely, “all of my memories have my children in them. Even the ones from before they were born.”
“So your life began twenty-three years ago,” Paul said. That was my age at the time.
“I guess so,” my mother said.
“But that’s very sweet,” Siri said.
“Is it?” my mother said. “It seems a bit sad to me.”
But I do not think my mother meant that she remembered only her life after my birth. I think she meant what she said: that we were in all of her memories, even though we could not be. The narratives were part of my mother’s power. The past shaped the present, but the present also reshaped the past.
Our relationship changed abruptly when I went away to college. It was as if my mother had been molding me my whole life, and now suddenly she stepped away, as if I were complete, as if she liked what she saw. The absence of her anger terrified me as much as the anger itself had. I still felt far from complete. The year I left, my mother added a second full-time job to her first. She began her own children’s book publishing company in the ground floor of our building. She told me she knew my brother would be leaving a too-short four years later, and she refused to allow her life to feel empty without us. She made time for me whenever I called but very rarely called me first. Sometimes we went two months without speaking. I felt the free-floating horror of freedom. It took two years before I stopped jumping up from my seat in my too-quiet dorm room, hallucinating her screaming my name.
My junior year, I moved off campus at the last minute and found myself in an apartment with no furniture. The school year hadn’t yet begun, and other people’s parents were driving them to Ikea in their SUVs. I called my mother in a panic.
“What do I do? I don’t even know where to start!” I said.
“You figure it out, Nadja,” she said. She was busy, she had deadlines, she had an artist sitting in her office. “It’s not that hard. You don’t need much.”
“But where will I sleep tonight? How does one even buy a mattress?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Borrow an air mattress. Sleep on the floor a few nights. I have to go.” I wound up on a friend’s doorstep in hysterical, self-serious tears. The next weekend, my mother stopped by on her way to the country. She had strapped a sofa bed to the top of the car. She furnished my apartment in two hours flat.
While other people joked bitterly about becoming their mothers, I longed to. I didn’t even understand how she had become herself.
The winter before my last semester of college, my mother and I were having dinner in a sushi restaurant in Paris. I was anxious about my upcoming graduation, unsure what I would do next or who I would become. My mother met every worry with an unshakable certainty that I would be fine. Right then, I wanted only her sympathy.
“Well, of course you don’t get it,” I said bitterly. “You’ve always known who you were.”
My mother shook her head. And then she began to tell me about a time, a time before. I scrambled for my digital camera, hoping to use its movie function to record her voice. I didn’t want to miss a word.
“I think,” I told her a few weeks later, unsure how to broach the topic, “that I would like to write about you. About your coming of age.”
“I’m flattered, but...are you sure?” There was a sadness in her eyes that I couldn’t place. She wouldn’t meet my gaze. I told her that I was ready. I wanted her to think so. I didn’t want to be protected anymore.
My mother did not agree right away. She thought about it carefully. And then, having decided, she held nothing back. The boundaries between us fell, and fell suddenly. She let me in. There was nothing I couldn’t ask. She answered me with a searching honesty rare even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. She made time for me in her overcrowded life. We talked at our kitchen table, in her downstairs office, on the couch. We talked until early-morning light streamed through the skylight and the cars started honking again on Canal Street. We went away together, just the two of us, to a country cabin and talked for days. I graduated from college, I moved into my parents’ house, I moved out of my parents’ house, I took my first job and then my second. We talked for years.
Early on, my mother prodded me carefully. “You know...what we’re doing, it’s a lot like Maus. Like what your father did when he interviewed his father.”
“Of course,” I replied, surprised that she thought I had not noticed. “That’s part of it. I want to write, and I can’t do it until I address what he did. I’m doing something parallel and yet it’s completely different. And also, I suppose, I’m doing the one thing he could never do.” My father’s own mother had killed herself when he was twenty. His father had burned her diaries.
“That was the moment,” my mother told me later, “when I knew I could trust you. I trusted you to know you were ready.”
At first I used my laptop, the waveform spiking up and down on the screen as she spoke. Then technology changed and I used my iPhone. I didn’t trust myself to remember. Many of the stories were so difficult to listen to that I would wake up disoriented the next day, a vague blackness in place of our conversation.
My mother and I spoke in French, the language so natural to me with her that I only noticed I’d shifted to it when I spoke to her on the phone in front of my friends. When I was three, she’d urged me to go join the children in a playground in the Jardin du Luxembourg. “Mais Maman!” I’d replied, wrapping myself in the wings of her long coat. “Je ne parle pas français!” It took me years to realize that the private language I spoke with my mother was a language other people could understand. But although I could speak French, I never learned to write it properly. So I transcribed our interviews in English, translating as I typed. My mother’s words rolled through my head in her language and out through my fingers in mine. Her memories became my own. One evening, she told me that there was no one else she could talk to this way. Not my father. Not her friends. By that point, she could reference any moment in her life with barely a hand gesture. I sometimes felt I knew her past so intimately that I could read her thoughts.
“But with you,” she said, “you’re so close. Like when you were a baby. I don’t...I can’t worry about how you’ll see me. You’re a part of me.”
For her, the stories dissolved us into one. I was the infant she’d never put down, whose cries she heard before my mouth had opened. But for me, the stories gave me the distance I needed to see her whole. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she’d said, and now I was old enough. It would take a long time before I would understand the sadness in her eyes when I’d first asked.