I am supposed to protect you from all this
I love reading non-fiction and lately I have been reading a lot of memoirs and autobiographical books (Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”, Dave Eggers “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, Julie Doucet’s “My New York Diary”, etc.) and it is clear to me that part of their success stems from them one or two very well defined underlying concepts or themes. Now, I am currently reading Nadja Siegelman’s “I’m supposed to protect you from all this” and, yesterday I started writing this brief text about how much I was really enjoying how there seemed to be no clear or well defined underlying motif or topic. I think it makes it feel more life-like, more chaotic and therefore, more human. On its surface, one might think that its underlying topic is the mother-daughter relation, as it manifests in the relationships between Nadja and her mother, Françoise, and the relationship between Françoise herself and her mother, Josée. It is very tempting also to think of it as the female response to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”, giving voice to the women excluded from Spiegelman’s story: just as Art’s work uses Art’s father’s memories to frame his own reflections on fatherhood and sonhood, Nadja tries to use her mother (Art’s wife) and her grandmother memories to frame her own reflections on motherhood and daughterhood. But that barely scratches the surface of all that is happening in the book. You see other strong currents underneath the surface: a reflection on class and Bohemia here, a love letter to New York (and Paris) there, etc. Front and center, there is also an interesting treatment of the function of memory and storytelling; on reliability and identity. But any topic or theme one might think bundles all the stories together disappears almost as soon as one tries to trace it across more than a dozen pages or so. Yet, instead of making the text seem like a failure, I think it makes it more honest, closer to how life really is; for in real life, things happen with no reason and no plan, they lead nowhere. I was starting to admire Nadja Spiegelman for respecting the randomness of her story and her history.
However, today I kept reading chapter eight and suddenly realised that I was wrong: THERE IS an underlying theme to the book! and it is not even hidden. On the contrary, the theme was right there staring at me the whole time on the book’s title. So, yes, the book is about mother-daughters relations, as one might easily suspect, but it is also about something more specific than that. It is a book about the protection expected from mothers to daughters (and perhaps, also the other way around, in later years). It is about the burden and the expectation of mothers caring and looking after their children, but specially looking after their daughters, for the dangers of the world are heavily stacked against them. Furthermore, it also about the neurosis of knowing that, no matter how much you love them, how much you care for them, how much you devote to their well-being, you can never protect them from it all. things will happen to them, and you will feel powerless, you will feel guilty. You will also try to minimise some of it, and even deny it; it is normal. It is normal to keep thinking “I am supposed to protect you from all this”.