By Crystal Hicks, Adult Services Librarian
Recently I picked up Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, a memoir about generations of mothers and daughters, and it immediately pulled me in. Now, for readers of alternative comics, Nadja Spiegelman is famous as the daughter of Art Spiegelman, whose brilliant memoir Maus told of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. For Nadja Spiegelman, though, her mother Françoise Mouly looms larger in her own life, casting a shadow she still struggles to understand and fully escape. In an effort to better understand herself and her mother, Spiegelman baldly detailed her own childhood in I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This. Quickly, Spiegelman discovered that, as much as her mother shaped her, her grandmother shaped her mother, and so on, spiraling back through the generations in inevitable cycles of love and hurt. As Spiegelman researched the matriarchs of her family, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This became a memoir of generations, analyzing the different circumstances that shaped the women of Spiegelman’s life.
I don’t normally read nonfiction, but something in Spiegelman’s work connected with me, and that connection made me curious about other memoirs. Which other authors, I wondered, have spilt their own blood on the page in an effort to better understand themselves and their families? Here are the fruits of my research, a handful of recent memoirs that explore various aspects of childhood and parenthood.
In her memoir Where the Light Gets In, Kimberly Williams-Paisley also wrote about her relationship with her mother, which irrevocably changed when her mother, Linda, was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a rare form of dementia. All too quickly, the bright, supportive mother of her childhood began to change, as Linda physically deteriorated and eventually lost the ability to recognize her own family. Despite the enormity of Linda’s illness, Williams-Paisley’s family forged ahead, supporting each other and working to find the best in a difficult situation. In rare moments, Williams-Paisley could still recognize her mother’s spirit and sharp intelligence, and she learned to live in the present instead of mourning the loss of the mother she always knew.
Instead of a traditional memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes presents a year’s worth of correspondence between Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Near her ninety-first birthday, Vanderbilt fell seriously ill; though she recovered, her sudden illness prompted Cooper to stop waiting and begin writing to her, asking everything he’d ever wanted to know about her life. In alternating emails, mother and son reflected on every aspect of their lives, from their greatest losses to their most personal hopes and dreams. The deep connection between mother and son can be felt through the pages, and the book’s advice and musings will stay with you beyond the last page.
The final three memoirs I found all focus on grief and loss from the perspective of a parent, though each parent struggles with a different circumstance. In Falling: A Daughter, a Father, and a Journey Back, Elisha Cooper detailed his daughter’s diagnosis with kidney cancer and told how he grappled to come to terms with the uncertainty and lack of control he had over his life. Rosalie Lightning, a memoir graphic novel by Tom Hart, depicts his daughter’s sudden, heartbreaking death and the journey he and his wife went through coming to terms with their loss. This book benefits greatly from its graphic novel format, as the images help convey the depth of feelings Hart dealt with following Rosalie’s death. Finally, Cards for Brianna is a memoir from the other side of the equation, written by a terminally-ill mother for her young daughter. Once Heather McManamy realized her breast cancer was terminal, she decided to write cards to her daughter for various life events; this book presents snippets of them, along with vignettes about McManamy’s life, motherhood, and the gifts you can receive by accepting death.
All of these memoirs were published in 2016 alone; if you would like to look into older familial memoirs, Manhattan Public Library has a great selection of those, too. You might start with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, or Susanne Antonetta’s Make Me a Mother, just to name a few. For even more biography and memoir reading suggestions, you can sign up for our emailed book lists or request a personalized reading list online.