Dark secrets

Nadja Spiegelman digs into her mother’s and grandmother’s past and comes away with painful truths.

Family walking  (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Family walking
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
I can’t help being a tad skeptical when someone under the age of 30 writes a memoir. However, Nadja Spiegelman’s first book for adults (she wrote three graphic novels for children) is a multilayered work in which she examines the lives of four maternal generations in an effort to better understand her mother and herself.
She comes by her craft genetically, as the daughter of graphic cartoonist Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Françoise Mouly (art editor of The New Yorker and publisher of Raw Books and Toon Books).
French-born Françoise’s shocking childhood and adolescent memories, shared with her daughter only after Nadja graduates from college, serve as the catalyst for the young woman’s quest. Nadja’s focus turns to her estranged grandmother, Josée, who lives on a houseboat in France.
“She’s only ever been cold to me, and so cruel to you,” Nadja says to her mother. “How did you forgive Josée?”
“It’s not about forgiveness,” Françoise replies. “I just stopped needing her to love me.”
Nadja isn’t content to leave it at that. After interviewing her mother extensively, she takes up temporary residence in Paris with the aim of recording her grandmother’s version of the past and making some sense of what happened.
What she discovers is that while Josée readily admits to being “a bad mother,” her memories of events are miles apart from her daughter’s. Some of Josée’s claims are easily proved inaccurate, yet Nadja comes to realize that it is not a simple matter of which woman’s version is closest to truth. Perception and memory are shaped by many forces outside of truth in its absolute form.
Nadja herself recalls a traumatic incident in which her mother accused her of surreptitiously gobbling all the household snacks and even put her in therapy when she refused to admit to the crime, which in actuality was committed by her younger brother. Though Nadja knew she wasn’t guilty, Françoise’s assertion caused her to question her own sanity.
“I believed my mother more than I believed myself,” she writes.
Nadja learns that truth is impossibly elusive. Memory, like a secretary’s shorthand, consists of “symbols intelligible only to the one who held the key.”
In contemplating the lives her great-grandmother Mina, her grandmother and mother – all touched by rejection, rebellion and rape – Nadja understands that she is only “the narrator, trying to interpret memories that weren’t my own.”
Yet contrary to her mother’s point of view, she learns that forgiveness and love are relevant, necessary and powerful. Over the course of many hours spent with Josée – and a growing understanding of her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s darkly troubled past – Nadja and Josée form a loving if imperfect bond.
This isn’t a fairy tale, of course. Although Nadja, Françoise and Josée eventually achieve varying levels of rapprochement during time spent together through Nadja’s efforts, the painful past is a leaden weight preventing them from reaching happily-ever-after. There are too many scars, too many unanswered questions.
For instance, did Françoise’s father, a notorious skirt-chaser, have a vaguely incestuous relationship with his favorite daughter? Françoise denies it, Josée suspects it and Nadja can believe it based on her own uncomfortable teenage encounters with her grandfather, Josée’s ex-husband.
On a flight from Paris to New York, Nadja apologizes to her mother for pulling her back into remembrances perhaps best forgotten.
No, Françoise insists: “It was useful because we survived it. It’s all still there – she’s the sweet aging mother whom I can take on vacation and try to please. I’m the adult daughter who built her life an ocean away. And she’s also still that person who can destroy me. I’m also still that little girl with no resources. And now we know that we can go there and return, the fire isn’t going to burn us alive. We can touch those things, and we can survive.”
Nadja thinks about this, not fully convinced.
“I hoped that there was some benefit to all of this, and was not sure.”
As a reader, I felt the same way. If, indeed, there is some benefit to returning loved ones to the scene of difficult memories, does the benefit extend to a public airing of their dirty linens?
On one hand, the beautifully written prose conveys a universal message concerning memory, forgiveness and love to which nearly everyone can relate. On the other hand, I felt a sense of uncomfortable voyeurism as I read, and moreover questioned why anyone else needs to know this family’s secrets.
The title of the book is a quote from Françoise, uttered after recounting an episode of sexual assault when she was an architecture student in Paris. “I’m so sorry. My poor girl,” she says to Nadja, her confidante. “I’m your mother. I’m supposed to protect you from all this.”