From Artifice to Authenticity: A Conversation with Gina Frangello




IF EVER THERE WAS a memoir designed for impassioned discussion, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason by Gina Frangello is it. In rapid-fire, experimental prose, the author breathlessly chronicles the affair that destroyed her marriage. Exorcising every particle of anger, guilt, shame, worry, regret, grief, and fear, Frangello details how this harrowing experience ultimately led to the reconstruction of her most authentic self.

While part of me hated the suffering, damage, and heartbreak she expressed, all of me loved Gina Frangello for writing this book. With her unapologetic, hold-nothing-back confessional style, she draws us in as she interweaves the messy milestones of her life with feminist ideology. We circle through her childhood in a rough Chicago neighborhood, her traditional marriage, the adoption of her daughters, the birth of her youngest child, the agony of illness, the death of her father, the loss of her best friend to cancer, and her adversarial divorce. As if these trials weren’t enough, Frangello, while in the throes of her divorce, endures a double mastectomy; three years later, after she and her new lover become engaged, her beloved mother dies. Despite its often grueling subject matter, Blow Your House Down, hailed by critics as “groundbreaking” and “a feminist manifesto,” manages to make us laugh and helps us maintain our faith, as Frangello does hers, in the value of love. 

Gina recently sat down with me to discuss the book, the importance of friendship, the power of secrets and lies, and the mixed bag of being human.

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MEGAN VERED: What was the moment you knew this was the book you wanted to write? Or was there such a moment?

GINA FRANGELLO: There was no moment, per se. What happened was that I found myself — in the aftermath of my father’s death, as my divorce was growing more acrimonious, and as I was going through breast cancer treatments — that I no longer had the ability to write or even think much about fiction, which was like losing half my brain, if that makes sense. I was in a vortex where so many different storms were layering in my own life that I couldn’t get out of that eye of the storm, so I started writing, initially in secret, about some of the things that were happening in my own life. Simultaneously, I figured that, if I couldn’t write fiction, maybe I would finally put together the essay collection about caretaking my parents that I’d had in my head for a long time. My parents were incredibly eccentric, colorful characters, and I’d published a lot of short-form pieces about them. It was a process, though, of realizing that the book about my parents and the secret material I was writing about myself were all part of a whole, and I needed other readers, especially my writing group, to point that out to me and urge me onward. And I knew from the beginning — always, before I’d even started writing things in secret — that if I ever did a memoir, I would want it to be about more than just me, that I was interested in books like Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012) or Maggie Nelson’s work, which combines the personal with cultural criticism, using a wider lens than just the narrator’s life, so that part evolved naturally.

Let’s talk about the cover. Who is the big bad wolf?

So, obviously writers don’t design or choose our own covers. I’ve said in plenty of interviews, for example, that, while I loved my editor and publicity team at Algonquin, which published my third book, A Life in Men (2014), I despised my cover, which was a woman on a beach in a bikini and which I felt significantly misrepresented the book as a beach read or chick lit, when in fact it was a novel that had numerous male point-of-views and had a darker and more political story line than the cover would lead a reader to believe. So, I can’t take any credit for this cover either, which I happen to adore but had no hand in creating. I can only assume that, since I reference several times in the book that I blew my house down, and that is the title of the book, that the wolf is me. And I think what I love most about that is that it’s both true and yet … I don’t want to say “ironic” but maybe just that the image embeds some of the cultural criticism I was just talking about. Because a woman who has committed infidelity is often so vilified in the culture that I am both the wolf and yet not the wolf. I mean, I did and did not blow down the house, you know? I ended a very long marriage in a shitty fashion. And yet I also remained the primary caregiver of my three children and my elderly parents, the keeper of said house and everyone in it. So, I think the cover is sly, in unspoken ways, similar to the way my second book, which was called Slut Lullabies (2010), had a sort of critique written into the title, a reclaiming of a word or at least an interrogation of that word and how it is used to bully women into behaving in ways sanctioned by the patriarchy.

Your subtitle is “A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason.” What did feminism mean to you when you wrote the book, and what does feminism mean to you now that the book is out?

Women invariably get into trouble when we try to make feminism mean One Thing. That one thing has usually included an erasure of women of color, of poor women, sometimes of queer women, because the straight white educated upper-middle-class women who were largely the public face of second-wave feminism sometimes didn’t want to risk their “brand” by making anyone uncomfortable. But one of the things I examine deeply in the book is how I, as a young girl who was a fierce feminist since the age of 11, in a neighborhood where feminism was, to put it mildly, not in vogue, grew into a woman who honestly believed for a long time that I had achieved my feminist goals and that, by getting out of my neighborhood and getting education, somehow misogyny had been magically erased from my life. And I think many women who are leading the kinds of lives that are widely approved of — who are married, are moms, have careers helping other people such as teaching, who take care of their parents — it’s easy to believe that you have attained so-called equality because you’re acting in a way that the culture sanctions and rewards you for. But then, when you move outside that box, you see very quickly how that illusion of equality can evaporate and how different the standards remain for the behavior of men versus women.

So, there’s that — the lies I told myself about having gotten someplace based on my own steam or merit when a lot of it really had to do with my living a “respectable” life that was tied to my first marriage. But it’s not only that; it’s also a dive into the ways in which my own actions at times belied my lifelong commitment to feminism, in ways that were both subtle and not so subtle. For example, I spent 23 years of my life completely financially dependent on a man, and I did not look at the ways that impacted my own agency. But also, I had an affair with a man who was also married, and while obviously he had every right to be unhappy in his relationship, just as I had a right to be unhappy in mine, and he had every right to seek a divorce if that was what he needed, just as I did, I found myself engaging in a clandestine affair on and off for three years with another woman’s husband, which is obviously not a very feminist thing to do. And then, once I had confessed to the affair and was leading my life back in the open, it became very apparent that pretty much everyone involved in the situation blamed me for what had gone down wildly more so than they did him. Which is a tricky thing to say because it’s not as though I wanted my lover — who is now my second husband — to have everyone in his life and mine making a monster of him. But the fact remains that those in his life and those in my life tended to cast much more responsibility on me and show much more anger and a lack of forgiveness toward me than toward him, and that was … also informative. Men are far more allowed to fuck up than women are, and are far more congratulated for having any self-awareness and guilt and remorse, whereas both men and other women alike grant forgiveness much less easily to women.

And can you say more about what you meant by “treason”?

In the book, I commit a kind of treason both against cultural standards and also against my own belief system, for all the reasons I was just talking about. At the same time, it’s also true that, for women, infidelity is often more reviled than any dark acts men commit, whether it’s domestic abuse or stalking or sexual harassment or things even more extreme, such as acts of war, lies in business that cause millions of people to suffer dire financial consequences, and so on. We can have a man who is a self-proclaimed and gleeful pussy grabber and sexual predator in the White House, whereas a woman politician is savagely critiqued for a hairstyle or a quip about not staying home and baking cookies. It is — I think any thinking person would agree — virtually impossible to imagine a woman weathering the kinds of sexual scandals that men on both sides of the political spectrum have weathered. I mean, I believe all we need to do is look at the fallout from the Clinton-Lewinsky affair on Bill and Hillary respectively to understand that.

So, I hope that treason is a thing that is looked at on many levels in the book. I did real, actual things that were not morally okay and were treasonous to both my own belief system and to people who trusted me, and I also live in a world where I routinely watch men who have done far worse things attaining power or being celebrated, and every woman lives in that world, and we all see it, and internalize the unspoken realities of what will happen to us if we transgress versus what will happen to a man.

At the beginning of the book, I felt like I was in an Elena Ferrante novel — the old Italian neighborhood, the identity-forming female friendship, the unspoken secrets. I’ve heard you say that not enough attention is given to female friendships in literature. Are there other books or writers that you feel do a good job of addressing this topic? Tell me more about what female friendships mean to you.

Ferrante is, of course, the absolute master at depicting the inner lives of young girls and female friendships, and it’s hard to touch her on this level. I tend to view her as required reading for any man on the planet who wants to understand what it is like to live inside a woman’s skin, even though of course there is no such thing as one universal female experience. But Ferrante gets you so close to the wire of every nuance of psychology and experience in female friendship in ways that have often been dismissed as either trivial in literature or more the terrain of coming-of-age novels that would only appeal to a young readership. A shocking number of women in literature seem to have no close women friends in their lives at all and are depicted only in relationship to their family members and romantic partners. But, that being said, of course there have been complex portrayals of female friendships in many novels, from Doris Lessing to Sigrid Nunez to Meg Wolitzer to Toni Morrison. And I think that any woman who has been fortunate enough to have strong female friendships, as I have, can tell you that these relationships are neither trivial nor are they centered around competition and envy, as they are too often portrayed in even the best of books.

In my experience, my women friends have been there for me in a constant and unconditional way throughout my entire life, and the death of one of my closest friends, Kathy, was also a massive catalyst for the unearthing of my own life and my questioning who I was and what I was doing and what I wanted. This is a thing my close friend and business partner Emily Rapp Black and I discuss all the time. Female friendships often stand the test of time beyond lovers and husbands (or wives, as obviously friendships between women are just as important to women who are not heterosexual). They are the ones who quite literally hold us up when the world seems like a giant sinkhole. They’re the ones who go with you to chemo, who bring food to your house, who take care of your children when you cannot, who are willing to listen to you cry and thrash about the same thing dozens of times and keep listening and bearing witness — who keep showing up no matter what a mess you make or are. I have been on both ends of that friendship dynamic and it is full-stop lifesaving. Sometimes, of course, you get lucky enough to find a romantic partner who will give you these things too. But I will say without qualification that I know far, far more women who have these things in their friendships with other women than I know women who have these things in their primary relationship with a man.

Can you talk about the role of secrets in your life? And lies? As women, we are taught to be secret keepers. How do you see the relationship between secret keeping and feminism?

Adrienne Rich writes that “women’s honor,” unlike male honor, which is often tied to the notion of being a man of one’s word, is “something altogether else: virginity, chastity, fidelity to a husband. Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying.”

I would add to this that many women tell lies out of a feeling of some fundamental lack of safety and the feeling that we have to lie to keep men happy because incurring a man’s anger feels dangerous. So, there’s all of that. Yet in the end, living in the shadows and leading a double life is not a feminist act unless your life would be endangered by telling the truth. It took me a very long time — far too long — to tell my ex-husband the truth about my affair, but it was a thing I eventually did volitionally, by choice, and I did that not only because he deserved to know the truth, obviously much earlier than I actually provided it, but also because, in many ways, my affair had stemmed from feeling like I was living inside this narrow box of other people’s beliefs about me and a narrow range of behaviors that could make other people happy. And my affair, which I originally conned myself into believing was some kind of freedom or respite from that constriction, needless to say only ultimately made me more and more penned in to artifice and acting out a pretend version of myself. When you’re having a secret affair, you aren’t just lying to your husband and children, which is of course problematic enough, but to basically everyone in your life. To your women friends, to your parents, to the spouse of your lover, to everyone, because it is impossible to be real, impossible to talk about yourself without omitting one of the most crucial truths of your life.

I have empathy with people — including men, by the way — who are terrified to come clean about not being who others believe them to be and who they’ve been rewarded for being, and who know that honesty is going to set off an explosion of consequences and losses. It’s a hard position to be in. But unless you are seeking to make your life even more narrow and some kind of long con, you do have to eventually face the music of it and tell the truth. That’s not just feminism, that’s being humane to others and living anything resembling an authentic life. People are, of course, entitled to privacy, to secrets — we are not obligated to tell everyone every single thing about ourselves. But when the secret you’re keeping is giving you more power and knowledge over someone else’s life than they have over their own life and depriving them of the agency of making an informed choice, it is uncool, no matter what your gender or ideological beliefs.

In many parts of the book, you start, stop, rewind, start again. Tell me about your circular notion of time.

I’m not a big fan of the “first this, then that, then this other thing” narratives that add up to a direct and clean path of causality. Life is messy, time is messy, and memory is extremely complex. I think the essay “Corn Maze” by Pam Houston addresses this beautifully and eloquently. We live our lives in a linear fashion — we are born, we grow up, we age, we die, to put it simply and reductively — but we don’t experience life emotionally as linear because every single thing that happens to us forms a kind of echo chamber of past events, old demons, rabbit holes of multiple meanings based on our individual contexts.

When I think even about some of my favorite novels, like The God of Small Things or Absalom, Absalom! or Beloved, there is this sense of circling, of moving around and around a central vortex and finally arriving at it when it has become unavoidable, impossible to circle any longer. My husband Rob Roberge’s memoir, Liar (2016), plays a lot with time and memory, and as I was reading that book while he was writing it, his use of time and the way one incident begets an association or memory with another and the way those balls all just ricochet around inside of our heads, that felt very real to me. Blow Your House Down isn’t exactly a nonlinear text like Liar is — sometimes I go back into the past, but by the end of the chapter we have always arrived in a chronological place where the story picks up again in the next chapter. But to me, the echo chamber of our memories and experiences is everything, and I find playing with language in certain ways to evoke that echo chamber to be very organic to how I write and think.

You use repetition very effectively in your memoir as a literary device, as a mantra, and as a way to keep the reader from overlooking how your story fits into a larger framework, the one of women being silenced. Can you talk about the power of repetition?

Some of that has to do with the echo-chamber impact I was just talking about. But also, I am 52 years old. The book ends the year I’m 50. When you are this age, there is nothing that doesn’t remind you of something else. The world is already becoming a ghost town of sorts — of people departed, of former selves and lives you’ve occupied. Similarly, if you read and write voraciously, your own book is in a constant dialogue with other texts. I think most writers know this, but some lean away from that fact out of a belief that our primary job is to be original, to deny any derivation from other art, while other writers lean in and actively engage in that conversation overtly in the text. I mean, there is nothing that happens to me in this book — there is very little that happens to anyone in any book — that hasn’t happened and been written about a million times before. I’m not interested in trying to portray my story as wholly unique; in fact, what interests me is the exact opposite — the way our incredibly personal stories are always in an ongoing cultural conversation with the ways they’ve been experienced, understood, and written about in the past.

One of the things I tell my students, for example, is, well, say you’re writing an essay about your eating disorder. You cannot pretend that you are the first person who has ever written about having an eating disorder, right? You have to ask yourself what you are adding to the vast body of existing discourse on eating disorders and how your story intersects with what has already been said and where you are in that ongoing cultural conversation. You’re obliged to know that conversation exists and to have some sense of what it is, or your book is going to tread a lot of old ground without an awareness of that fact. Now maybe if you are 20 and just starting to write, you can do that, because the world is wildly new to you and every experience is happening for the first time and you haven’t perhaps figured out how your life fits into the larger cultural narrative, and that energy and bewilderment of youth is part of the engine of your story. But for me, one of the driving forces was that I was incredibly and deeply aware of the eternal nature of aspects of my own story and also of the under-representation of some of these things in the publishing industry, where memoir often thrives on both youth and on the idea of being inspirational and having absolute epiphanal resolutions.

So, a great deal of what compelled me was how to tell stories — of adulterous love, of mothering, of sexual awakenings, of women’s roles, of heartbreak, of deaths and loss, of the erasure of middle-aged or sick or disabled bodies — that are so incredibly eternal and universal and yet that are often marginalized by an industry that favors proscriptive books and the reinforcement of dominant paradigms. I was profoundly aware of how many people out there — of all genders, but perhaps especially women — are living aspects of my story compared to how many books out there have made them feel less alone or seen. And it was my opinion that, while critical and cultural theory have taken on some of these ideas very vigorously, mainstream memoirs have done less so. Which meant I wasn’t just in dialogue with books of my same genre, but with thinkers who have tried to bring these things to light for at least the past 50 years. For me, repetitions of certain phrases or lines that serve like tonic notes in the narrative is only part of that — that reminder that the reader is both reading about my individual life, and that my individual life is part of a much larger story, and who has talked about that story extensively versus who has marginalized it.

You describe a number of significant losses in the book. To what extent did these losses influence the decisions you made or shape the course of events in your life?

To every extent. Grief and trauma are not “Get out of Jail Free” cards for behavior you may later regret, because we all have grief and losses, and some people have had far more than I have, so loss in no way makes anyone special. But there also is no separating a person from what they have lost or experienced. We are all living inside the butterfly effect of our own lives. You change one thing and you change everything.

More than the events themselves, it is your interior voice that takes us on a wild ride. I’d love to hear more about what you do to access and capture your inner voice.

I wish I had an eloquent answer to that. I think the voice in this memoir is in many ways somewhat similar to the voice that has driven my fiction, but here I unleashed it more, allowed it to unfurl more fully because I was less afraid of it getting in the way of my characters given that I was the character. But mostly of course a book just does its best to capture the way the writer’s brain moves and to bridge that gap between what language can capture of experience versus what remains elusive — I’m interested in pushing as close to the wiring of my brain as I can get at times, and I’m also interested in the gap that can never be covered over completely, or, as Pam Houston puts it, in the ways it’s necessary “for us all to pretend together that language can really mean.” I believe that language does, of course, mean, by virtue of our common understandings, but I also believe that we each bring ourselves to texts so that every single person reads a different book even though the words on the page are the same.

Language, or voice, only can ever represent one portion of an iceberg, with the vast majority hidden under the depths of the sea. I try to dive under the water to the extent that serves the story and to the extent that I feel like I’m touching something cold and potentially dangerous that I hadn’t glimpsed before and that makes my mind go in unexpected directions. But also, of course, there is revision; there is the fact that every book is a curated piece of art and not a diary; there is the input of our early readers and literary agents and editors; there is the fact that our voice on the page is only a facsimile of our rapidly firing brains and that on the page I become an externalized character, with the living me still largely submerged under the water. Sometimes I think readers overlook that about memoir. They believe, especially in a very intimate book, that it’s as though the writer has sliced her skin open and stepped out as some raw, entirely exposed thing. But not only is that not in the best interest of most books, it’s also not actually possible because language doesn’t do that.

The quotes at the beginning of each section are fabulous and fit perfectly with the themes. Could you say more about the decision-making process you used when choosing which ones to include? Do you have a favorite quote among them?

I’m not sure I have a favorite. Sometimes the words of various writers are beloved the way children are beloved: you love them all for different reasons and it’s not natural to choose between them. Some of my epigraphs came from writers I’ve devoured my entire life, like Atwood or Kundera, while others came from lines scribbled in notebooks in some fit of urgent recognition even if I’m less familiar with the writer’s entire body of work. I have used that Lucy Grealy quote — “When I dream of fire / You’re still the one I’d save / Though I’ve come to think of myself / As the flames, the splintering rafters” — in more than one book, so there’s also that.

Dani Shapiro’s review in The New York Times refers to the book as a “rage-filled memoir.” I personally experienced a far more complex set of feelings on the page than just rage. What do you hope your readers discover when they read the book?

Well, while women’s rage is a thing that has been stifled for far too long and is absolutely valid and even essential, and there is no doubt rage in my book about the mistreatment of women throughout history, I do think that, if people read that review and buy my book because the concept of a woman’s unleashed fury feels enticing (which indeed I can see why it might be in our current zeitgeist), they may be disappointed that I’m not actually much of a poster girl for frothing rage and all that. Women being able to own their anger is important, but any one note hit over and over again exclusively confines a writer to a quite narrow range of emotions. In my view, Blow Your House Down is a great deal more about love, about loss, about the legacy of fear passed down among women in a patriarchal world, about full-throttle eroticism, about intimacy, about guilt, about facing the consequences of one’s actions, about living in a body outside conventional desirability even as your own desires expand, about continuing to show up for mothering after making mistakes, than it is about rage.

But it’s also not really the writer’s job to say what any given reader takes from her work. My hope has overwhelmingly been that people whose experiences have not been reflected in many heavy-handedly “inspirational,” industry-championed memoirs, whose lives have been messier than that, will emerge feeling seen, heard, visible, will feel a hand on their back to tell their own stories even if the telling is only inside their own heads and in their lives rather than by writing the story down for publication.

The stunning final paragraph had me on my knees. Did you write it first or last?

Thank you. I wrote it last in the chronology of what I at the time considered a finished draft of the book. Then I wrote the opening chapter, “The Story of A,” months after the book had already been sold to Counterpoint. I’ve often found that a book needs to be finished before I realize where it opens, and that was very true in this case.

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Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess whose first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the fantasia of her youth. Her interviews and essays have been published in BrevityEntropyThe RumpusThe Coachella Review, and The Maine Review. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her memoir, A Dance To Remember: Confessions of a Medical Maid of Honor, is currently being shopped for publication. 

 

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