For a scorched-earth memoirist, truth-telling is a feminist act
On the Shelf
Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason
By Gina Frangello
Counterpoint: 336 pages, $27
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In January 2017, Chicago novelist Gina Frangello was invited to read in a local series called “Loose Chicks.” The readings were billed as first-person nonfiction, “bold and courageous and revealing.” Frangello had declined invitations from the series before. A PhD candidate and divorced mother of three, she’d worked as an editor for online publications while writing novels and stories about sexual power dynamics and intense friendships between women.
This time, Frangello had some nonfiction at the ready. Unbeknownst to anyone — even her first reader, who is her second husband — she had spent the previous months writing with naked, specific honesty about her own life: being treated for breast cancer, having an incendiary long-distance affair with a married man whose wife also had cancer, going through an ugly divorce. So she stepped onto the stage and read her secrets aloud.
During the Q&A, one woman asked if Frangello’s cancer was cured. “I’m fine,” she answered, as she always did.
“That was a lie,” Frangello told me during a recent phone conversation. “I wasn’t fine at all.” On the page, though, she was telling the truth — “writing my way out of enormous secrecy and pain. For the first time in my life as a writer, I thought, ‘Maybe exposing my weaknesses doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with my strength and love and rage.’ I didn’t want to go on choosing half-truths. I couldn’t move in armor.”
Within a year, Frangello had drafted and sold “Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason,” her fifth book — and her most lyrical, adventurous and important work.
“A is for Adulteress,” Frangello begins the memoir. “There is virtually no history or literature without the Adulteress,” she continues, before listing infamous anti-heroines and their horrific endings. “Agent of Ruin … Once a woman becomes an Adulteress, her other identities … become largely invisible to others, as irrelevant as the clothing she (whorishly, treasonously) shed.”
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Having seduced the reader, Frangello telescopes us into the slow death of her first marriage: “It does not yet occur to you that when your husband screams at his parents in a restaurant and races out onto the street, abandoning you there with them, that someday it will be you he is screaming at in public places. … It does not yet occur to you that the way his face gets bright red when he stands over you screaming during one of his ‘tantrums’ is the way he will look someday standing over your nine-year-old daughters.”
Frangello clarified to me that the couple “had many good years together” and his rage was sporadic. “I felt so guilty, leaving a man who didn’t beat me or abuse drugs or sleep around.”
Indeed, Frangello also takes the scalpel to her own chest. “Your fantasies of being overpowered, punished, hurt strike you as deeply incompatible with your politics, your public persona,” she writes. “Your attempts to act them out … resulted in your husband saying contrived things of the You like it don’t you? variety while belting you.”
Whew. Wow. Wait.
Aren’t her problematic ex-husband and their three children all potential readers of this book, which often depicts Frangello and her co-parent at their absolute worst?
This is not a new question for me as a reader, nor as a writer. A serial memoirist myself, I’ve alienated — lost is the whole truth — loved ones with disclosures far less provocative than Frangello’s. So I wonder what entitles her to publish her family members’ secrets. Does the arch-feminism of this book prescribe sole ownership of one’s story and permission to tell it?
The evolving ethics of memoir-writing have been roiling the literary world since James Frey and his million little lies broke Oprah Winfrey’s book club, and the memoir, in 2003. Ever since, the genre’s inherent unruliness has been corralled by a few New Rules. First, most autobiographies are now fronted by a disclaimer. (Frangello’s reads, in part, “I have changed or left out many names and identifying details, or used composite characters, and in some cases omitted people from the story.”)
Another guideline was first mentioned to me by Darin Strauss, whose bestselling 2010 memoir “Half a Life” opens with the sentence,: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” “If nonfiction is any good,” Strauss told me, “it has to be harder on the protagonist than on anybody else.”
This tenet exempts memoirs about surviving violent crime or truly heinous behavior. But in her case, Frangello agrees with Strauss. “Without self-implication, the memoirist holds readers at a distance,” she said.
In Frangello’s memoir, moreover, personal revelation is bolstered and emboldened by feminist theory. When her oncologist informs her that only 35% of female chemotherapy survivors would ever “regain” the ability to orgasm, she comments, “The war on menopausal sexuality is, of course, nothing new.” She cites Elaine Showalter’s “The Female Malady” on the historical (and present-day) separation of middle-aged women from their sexual pleasure. “The squelching of women’s desire has always been one of the main tentacles of patriarchy,” Frangello writes, “and nothing squelches desire more effectively (well, sparing clitoridectomy) than sending a woman a clear message that she will never be desirable again.”
This context politicizes, even ennobles Frangello’s own irrepressible sexuality. “Plenty of women resist patriarchal expectations without making spectacular messes of their personal lives,” she said. “I wasn’t one of them. And yet I insist that women can make massive mistakes and hurt people without being irredeemable or monstrous — a right we automatically grant to men.”
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Frangello doesn’t name anyone in her immediate family, and she says she gave her children and current husband, Rob Roberge, the chance to veto certain sections. “None of them took me up on that.”
Roberge was the only family member open to an interview. He is also the author of a memoir about his own messy life of drugs and punk rock, which bears the cheeky title “Liar.” I asked him which of his wife’s revelations was most painful to see in print. “Probably my weight,” he jokes.
“It’s always hard to be reminded of moments you’re not so proud of,” he adds. “That said, I wouldn’t ask any writer to change what they’d written about me. I certainly wouldn’t do that with the writer I’m closest to in the world, who I’m madly in love with.”
Frangello credits Counterpoint Press editor Dan Smetanka (who also edited my novel) with encouraging her to develop the intellectual questions surrounding the personal revelations. Smetanka calls the memoir “a book of radical honesty about herself, her woman’s life, her decisions.” Of their editorial process, Smetanka adds, “Gina had to examine her personal issues before we could expand into cultural examination. The Muriel Rukeyser line Gina quotes in the book — ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?’ — was one of our guiding principles.”
On the eve of publication, Frangello regrets nothing. “I decided that if I wrote a memoir, I would go full-throttle feminist and full-throttle true, because that’s the kind of book that has gotten me through my most crucible times.” As exemplars she cited a roster of contemporary feminist self-examiners: Lidia Yuknavitch, Claire Dederer, Terese Mailhot and Carmen Maria Machado.
“I didn’t write this book so I could be liked,” Frangello said. “I wrote it out of a dire need to document and interrogate certain aspects of my story. But I published this book so other readers who needed it could find it and feel less alone.”
One brutal paragraph at the end of the book serves as both a manifesto and an eloquent justification. “Eventually, we all have to start screaming well before we hit the ground, so the women below us will understand when to scatter, when to take cover, when it is safe to come back outside and try again to change the world. So that future generations will know, from the echo of our voices, never to stop watching the sky.”
Maran is the author of “The New Old Me” and a dozen other books. She lives in Silver Lake.
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