12: Nadja Spiegelman
I usually don’t conduct interviews outside of someone’s living space. Though I wouldn’t say that visuals are our primary mode of storytelling, Mythos would be telling a different story about women without them. Our self-regard is developed in large part by how our personal lives physically compare to the images of femininity that we’re exposed to every day, and I’d like to think that vulnerability of body, space, and opinion help normalize alternative femininities as well as allow readers to contextualize their own expressions of womanhood. Not identification alone (That woman looks like me), but identification coupled with criticism (That woman looks like me and I disagree with her. I’m going to look into what’s on her bookshelf).
All of this to say that this isn’t Nadja Spiegelman’s apartment, but her parents’ —cartoonist Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art editor Françiose Mouly. As I read Nadja's memoir, I was delighted to learn that the same apartment had framed the stories of her childhood, and upon entering the space on the morning of our interview, I saw remnants of the trapeze she recalls her mother building in the loft. “I knew, still knew [at sixteen], that she was a fairy," she writes. "I knew it from the way she called my cell phone three seconds into each first kiss.”
Nadja and I talked about anger as a necessary component to differentiating ourselves from our mothers, catcalling, consent, tension in families through puberty, body image, glamorous women, and asking our mothers hard questions. —Sophia
Nadja Spiegelman grew up in New York City and now divides her time between Paris and Brooklyn. She is the author of a trio of graphic novels for children, and the recent book, I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This, a memoir of mothers and daughters—and mothers as daughters—traced through four generations, from Paris to New York and back again.
Sabrina Santiago is a 20 year old photographer from New York, NY.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on November 22, 2016, in Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's Manhattan apartment. Sabrina Santiago photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
NADJA: I grew up with a mother who didn’t choose between being a mother and having a career. She decided she’d have both. She was home every night for dinner, she woke up every morning to drive us to school, but she also had a fulfilling, important public life. So I didn't feel like I had to fight to carve out space in which womanhood could coexist with personhood because there was this role model in my life that was both at once. [laughs] On the other hand, there're so many things about being a girl that are just fundamentally inescapable, like what it means to have your body change, what it means to become a person with a sexuality —both one that you control and one that is projected upon you, often before you even have your own conception of what your sexuality is. All of that was still difficult and fraught for me. My parents' friends were these underground cartoonists who had revolutionized comics into being about anti-heroes rather than superheros. They were exploring all of their neurosis, and a lot of the work was about an overt and intentionally gross male sexuality. I grew up around them, reading their work — and it was interesting but it wasn't particularly feminist.
That was confusing when I was twelve and thirteen. I felt sexualized long before I had an understanding of my own sexuality. It created an internal conflict. Is being a woman something that makes you powerful or is being a woman something that makes you vulnerable? How do you master that? And I was very girly as a girl. I wanted to be a fairy every single Halloween.
NADJA: I was a lot of different variations of a fairy. I was a butterfly fairy, I was an Egyptian fairy...I was—
NADJA: I think it was really confusing to my parents when I started dating women. They had this notion that gender and sexuality go together. The fact that I had always wanted to wear my mom's high heels and have makeup put on me, but then also wanted to date women was not what they had been expecting.
SOPHIA: It’s clear after having read your memoir that confronting people’s images of you as a desirable object has been a traumatizing experience. Your recent piece for The Cut circles around the same themes, so I feel that it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a long time. Can you talk about any developments in the way that you’ve thought about or dealt with that?
NADJA: When I was young, I really wanted my mother to be on my side. To protect me. I was so angry about the fact that even at twelve or at thirteen, trying to walk to school, men would make incredibly sexual comments. And I was very angry about that. I felt like..."I'm a child,” and this is really not appropriate. That lasted until recently, actually. Someone catcalled me and I caught myself thinking "I'm a child, how fucking dare you?" But then I realized I’m not a child anymore.
Anyway, back then when I tried to talk to my mother about it, she would say, "Oh, take it as a compliment," "Just don't respond," or "What do you expect when you dress the way you do?" And for a while, this made me angry because all I really wanted was, "My poor girl. You're right, men are awful."
NADJA: Whether it was catcalling or a teacher at my school who made me uncomfortable, her response was always about what I needed to do differently. I felt like my mother, whom I saw as a feminist icon, was having these responses to that weren't what I perceived as a feminist response, and that sounds theoretical, but I felt it deeply and emotionally.
Then all of that anger I felt at her changed one day. My brother was home from college and he was confused about the messages he'd been getting in school about consent and about women —like if a woman has had a drink, then she can't consent. And he was asking me about it, saying, "Well if we've each had a glass of wine is that ok? If she's flirted with me before and then we're at a party and we're both drunk is that okay?" I told him, “This isn't a hard and fast rule in which the second a woman had touched a drop of alcohol you can no longer sleep with her. Just trust your instincts about whether someone is consenting with you or not. You have good intentions. This is aimed at people with bad intentions.” My mom was in the kitchen, and she interrupted to give him a hug, saying, "My poor poor boy. What are they doing to you in college? Who are these women who drink so much they can't remember? Why should you have to deal with this? Why should you have to deal with all this stress and this anxiety? It's the responsibility of these young women to figure out whether or not they're consenting."
And I got so upset I left the room. But my mother came to find me, and in the conversation that ensued she told me about experiences she had had with men that were far more extreme than anything I'd lived through. But she didn’t see them as life-defining. She had moved forward from them by being able to say, “Well, I've learned to not go to somebody's house unless I plan on sleeping with them. It's my responsibility to not put myself in situations where I won't be able to fight back."
At first, I reacted with frustration, and even anger. Like, "You need to be angry at this man who did this to you. You need to understand that wasn't your fault." And she was uncomprehending. She said, "I don't want to see myself as a victim. That would be giving him so much power over me. ”
And ultimately, that was really eye-opening for me. I finally understood why she'd reacted to my own experiences the way that she had. She felt that she had certain responsibilities towards her daughter that she didn't have towards her son — she had to make me strong enough to handle these things. If the response had been, "You're right. Men are pigs. This is terrible," then maybe that would've been a somewhat helpless and passive response. She was trying to steer me towards one where I would have the agency to navigate the world the way I needed to. Though I think, if I one day have a daughter, I will probably still tell her that in some ways the world is unjust, my mother’s perspective was also useful to me.
SOPHIA: Everyone has a “domestic image” of their mother, and those of particularly glamorous mothers seem to really pierce to the hearts of children and create a recognizable kind of awe. And that was obviously the case with both you and your mother.
NADJA: Are you talking about the moment when your mother kisses you goodnight and leaves you with a babysitter and disappears off to some glamorous party uptown? Watching from the window as your mom disappears in this orange organza dress into a cab. Are you talking about that specific feeling of a mother?
SOPHIA: I guess I mean that by being very glamorous and mysterious, a woman is providing her child with that as their primary image of femininity. I think many people might feel that it’s one’s responsibility to deconstruct that “persona” for the sake of their child’s development, but an equal amount would vehemently disagree.
NADJA: My mother is so beautiful, but it’s because she is confident. I love looking at photos of her from her early twenties to now - there's this progression during which she only gets more and more beautiful. When she was younger, her shoulders were hunched and her hair was in her face, and as she gets older, she carries herself differently, she looks straight at the camera, the hair is out of her face - she gets more and more radiant. That's not at all something that I would want her to deconstruct. She is incredibly glamorous, but it's not a false glamour like a pearl veneer. She can buy a dress off the rack at Walmart and wear it to a fancy party uptown, and other women will come up to her constantly to say "I love your dress!"
NADJA: It's just the way she carries herself. And that for me was a really positive role model. I don’t fear beauty will fade, the way that many women are taught to think of beauty and age. And I don’t think of beauty as external —as something you either have or you don't. I think of beauty as something that you can achieve by feeling comfortable in your own skin.
But with that said, my mother and I have very different bodies. My mother has always been very slender and…not androgynous, but not curvy. That gave us different ways of approaching womanhood when we became teenagers. There were certain things that were difficult for my mother to understand. I felt betrayed by my body for becoming a woman's body before I was ready for it to do so, and she had the opposite experience. She hadn't been "formed," as they say in French, which means getting your period, until she was sixteen or seventeen, and she had felt the frustration of wanting her body to catch up, where I wanted mine to slow down. That gave us opposite ways of confronting our own sexualities. But it's not necessarily anything I would've wanted her to do differently. The role model that she gave me of beauty as something that you can create in yourself —that’s one I’m really grateful for and hope to pass on.
SOPHIA: In your book, you also write about struggles with binge-eating, saying “I suppose it’s clear with hindsight that I ate to bury my curves, to slow down this precipitous womanhood, to become invisible. But back then nothing was clear.” And in your most recent piece for The Cut, you mention that it is still, on some level, involved in your life. I’ve also dealt very intimately with binge-eating and have thought about it a lot. How have your thoughts about it changed since that adolescent moment of “thoughtlessness”?
NADJA: It's still something I struggle with. And there are days when I feel totally out of control of my body, like it's just something that grows or shrinks on its own and there's nothing I can do about it, which makes me feel insane. Then there are days when I feel more confident about it. When I was in my early twenties I discovered that I love exercising. It took me a long time to get there because I had to divorce it from the idea of becoming thin. Because like, you exercise and then you're not thin and it's really frustrating.
NADJA: It took me a while to realize that I never was going to be thin, and that that couldn't be the goal. But I realized that I can go and exercise for an hour, and though my body doesn't look any immediately different afterwards, I do move differently through the world, feel differently in my body, feel connected to it in a way that I hadn't before, and feel some level of control over myself. There's also just the endorphins of exercising that are incredibly enjoyable. So that was a way into loving my body as something that could, if not be thin, then be strong, and be a tool that could bring me happiness by just releasing those chemicals of exercising.
And it's always a little strange, because friends of mine...people know that I go to the gym rather often, and I feel like maybe they're wondering "Why does she go to the gym so much and she's still not skinny?" Like maybe that's very confusing for them.
NADJA: The other thing that I did that allowed me to feel slightly more comfortable in my body was...I have a full-length mirror that's hung on the wall, and I've rolled up a sock and put it under the mirror so that the mirror's angled away from the wall. It makes me look taller and thinner.
NADJA: It's really useful, because it actually doesn't matter. If you look in the mirror and like what you see, then you’re going to carry that with you the whole time you're walking around. Because you feel better, you are more beautiful. Beauty is something that's really abstract; it’s not something that you either are or you aren't. Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the eye of the holder. If you walk around thinking "I look really great today," you're going to be projecting that to people, and that's going to be much more important than whether your skin is flawless. [laughs] I spent hours when I was younger looking in the mirror and trying to figure out like, "Is my face here? Is my face here? Like how much of my head is my face?"
NADJA: It was so important to me. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I don't need to have an objective sense of what I look like to the world. Feeling comfortable in my body matters far more. But with that said, those are things that don't work every day. There are times when I feel very at sea. My weight goes up and down. I feel like I can go from being visible to being invisible. It’s easy to say all these things about beauty and harder to consistently believe them. It’s not a thing that I feel like I've mastered yet. Maybe one day.
SOPHIA: The way you write it, it seems that you were in a really abstracted place from the life of your mother until one day she just laid it all down. So your mother becoming a more full person is something that happened to you more dramatically than it might have to other people, and I know it’s something you’ve thought a lot about. Is there an age in which we become capable of seeing our mothers as more full people? Is it a place? A point of view?
NADJA: The idea for the book came one evening when I was in a sushi restaurant with my mother, right before I graduated from college. I was really anxious about the "real world" and how I was going to function in it, and she was endlessly reassuring in the way that she can be. And I got upset, because all I really wanted was sympathy. I wanted her to be like "You're right! It is really scary!"
NADJA: So I was like "It's easy for you to say. How could you possibly understand? You've always known who you were in the world; you’ve never had to worry about being lost or confused.” At which point she gave me this sad smile, was like "Oh, that's not at all true," and told me about a moment in which she'd felt very lost, very vulnerable, and very unsure about who she was going to become. And in that glimpse, I saw this vulnerability that seemed like a roadmap not only to understanding her, but also to understanding how I could become a woman in the world. If she was a woman, how could I become a woman without understanding how she became herself? Throughout my childhood, she had answered my questions with, "I'll tell you when you're older. I'll tell you when you're older," and [it was] then that I said, "I really want to know." My mom is very private. I don't think that it ever would've occurred to her to tell me these things of her own volition. But she saw my need, and she agreed. She allowed me to see her as a girl, and simultaneously she came to see me as an adult who was ready to hear those things.
While I was working on the project, I became so evangelical about this. To every one of my friends, I was like, "You need to ask your mom when she got her period! You need to ask your mom how she lost her virginity! Like these things are so useful to know!"
NADJA: And some of them were like, "Ok..."
NADJA: Most of my friends were like "I don't think I want to know those things about my mother. I think that I'd prefer my mother to remain my mother and not have to think about her being lost or vulnerable or even having a sexuality. I don't necessarily want to have to think about those things." Which I can totally understand and respect. Now I do feel a little less evangelical about everybody having to do this. But for me, it was incredibly useful. And I think that for certain women, it can be — to begin to understand that your mother had this whole long history before you were even born. One that does impact you and your relationship with her in ways that neither of you are necessarily ever fully aware of.
SOPHIA: While writing your memoir, what was the process like writing about yourself? Because in a way, it gave you the opportunity to like…look in the mirror that you want to look into.
NADJA: It wasn't until the very end of the process that I realized that I needed to have sections about my own life. Part of that was because, I'd been working on it for seven years, and when people asked me what I was working on, I would say a memoir, because that's the category that it falls into, and they'd immediately be like, "What, you're twenty seven and you're writing a memoir?" [laughs] And especially as a young woman, you get very shamed. There's this idea that it's indulgent and navel-gazing to write about yourself. So I sort of clung to this [speech], “I'm writing a memoir but it's not about me, it's about my mother and my grandmother. Don't worry, don’t worry, I'm not writing about me."
NADJA: But when I got to the point in which I had a real draft and all this material about my mother’s and my grandmother's life, I realized that I owed it to them to share those things about myself. I couldn't publish a book that had these very personal things about them and didn't have anything personal about mine. One or two people have asked, "What do you think this book would've been like if you had waited until you had children of your own to write it?" And I think that it probably would've been very different. While I was writing this book, it was still so incredibly vivid and unmediated to me, and was coming from a place of daughterhood rather than a place of motherhood. But that's what it is.
NADJA: So much of the book is about how we each have our own very inflected perceptions of reality that are not the objective truth. [Instead,] our memories are selective and malleable, and the details that we choose to leave in and the details we choose to leave out form a narrative that is self-created, powerful, and different from objective reality. When I showed my mother and grandmother the manuscript, the parts of it that were the most difficult for them weren't the parts in which I was discussing their pasts and the intimate things that had happened to them, they were the moments when I was on the scene. They remembered those moments as vividly as I did; they’d happened two, three years ago, and to them, they had happened completely differently. It made me realize how much shaping I was doing, even in the moments when I wasn’t conscious of it.
SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
NADJA: Well…I used to look on Facebook and see these women who I went to school with, and think, "Ugh fuck, she's got this really great job, and she's won all these prizes, and she's writing for all these publications that I want to write for," and I would feel jealous. But then, not so long ago, I was complaining about another woman’s success to a friend of mine, and my friend reprimanded me. She said, essentially, "It really isn’t useful to indulge those feelings. There isn’t a limited amount of space for young women in the world. The success of other women doesn't take away from your own ability to succeed.” We all want to have a sense of how we're doing, and it's logical to try to compare yourself to the people who are most similar to you -- but when that competitiveness turns into jealousy, when it turns into putting other women down, then it’s incredibly destructive. All of those women who are succeeding just mean there’s one more successful woman in the world who is creating more space for you to then enter. That's not very eloquent, but basically, don't be jealous of each other. We’re in this together.
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