Gina Frangello’s new memoir Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason explodes the good girl trope with a vengeance. In telling the story of the end of her twenty-five-year marriage, Frangello explores her sexual and psychological coming of age, her roles as a daughter, mother, and friend, and her experience with breast cancer following the deaths of both her marriage and her father. The story, she emphasizes, is about so much more than the affair that blew up her marriage; it’s about a cacophony of catastrophes. “Life keeps hitting you full in the face and stops for nothing,” she told me. “Until it does.”
Blow Your House Down is Frangello’s first memoir, after four novels: Every Kind of Wanting, A Life in Men, My Sister’s Continent, and Slut Lullabies. Writing about her own life at length meant figuring out how to develop herself as a protagonist on the page. Given the twists and turns of her story, and the way she is implicated in them, this was no easy task. Reading Frangello’s confessional account of her years-long affair with a longtime friend turned lover—and the secrecy, pleasure, betrayal, and upheaval surrounding it—I was reminded of both The Scarlet Letter and Lolita, with a little Ferrante thrown in.
The book’s first chapter is a glossary of terms that start with the letter “A,” taking us from “Adulteress” through “Age,” “Atonement,” Anger,” and finally “Anton (Chekhov),” whose 1899 story about adultery, “The Lady with the Dog,” Frangello finds deep resonance in. Between these we find “Antiheroine,” of which Frangello writes simply, “Um. This is not that kind of book.” A tour de force of cultural critique, Frangello constructs the book as a feminist manifesto of sorts, while presenting herself as an unreliable and sometimes even unlikeable narrator, one who has lied, cheated, and done damage. This doesn’t make her a villain, but someone who is, relatably, struggling with authenticity and honesty. Ultimately, though, Frangello holds herself accountable for the mess she has made, and the pain she had inflicted. Or does she? It is up to the reader to decide.
I spoke with Frangello, who was celebrating her first anniversary with her new husband Rob Roberge in the California desert, on the phone from my home in Colorado.
—Kelly Thompson for Guernica
Guernica: The way you use the letter “A” in this book recalls The Scarlet Letter. Does the memoir serve, in some way, as your own scarlet letter?
Gina Frangello: Yes and no. After I was telling people I had ended my marriage a friend of mine said, “You have to stop telling people you had an affair. People are going to judge you.” My thought at that time was: I’ve been lying for three years and the solution is not to keep hiding this. I decided at that moment, they can go ahead and judge me. I’m going to be honest about what happened.
There are aspects of this book where I had to come to the same conclusion. I will be judged. I must detach myself from that if I’m not willing to try to solve a problem of secrecy and lies with more secrecy. Sometimes I think when a woman writer is writing a book against the patriarchal narrative, there can be an element of well, everything I did was just because of patriarchy and fuck all y’all. But I didn’t want it to be a swaggering book. I didn’t want people to walk away and say, Oh, if your marriage is troubled, just have an affair and be a badass feminist.
I had a conversation with my editor about whether I might have garnered more reader empathy if I’d done more swaggering and less self-examination. But I didn’t want it to be that simple. I feel it’s not feminist to live a lie. It’s not feminist to have affairs with people who are also lying to their partner. And so, it was a complicated thing. It’s somewhere between wearing the “A” proudly and hiding it. I’m looking at the messy truths of how people do things they didn’t think they would do, how they face the consequences and must decide how they want to live, and how much they want to prioritize their own ability to be authentic in their lives versus playing a role. It’s not a question of being either proud or repentant. It’s the messy ambiguity in between.
Guernica: Somebody who hasn’t been through an experience of finding out they’re not who they thought they were, and the devastation that goes along with that, might be surprised by how transformative it can be.
Frangello: In some ways it’s like getting cancer. I wouldn’t have chosen to get cancer, but there are things I learned, and ways I changed as a result, that now make it difficult for me to imagine who I would be if that hadn’t happened. By the same nature, if I had chosen not to have this affair, who would I be now? I could have avoided many difficulties, but I would also be a completely different person.
In the immediate lead-up to the affair years, I was keeping myself in a small box. I was always a person who had a big personality. I used that to make it seem like I was being open with people. I was showing little of my vulnerability, little of my flaws, little of my weaknesses. I don’t know how long I could have gone on that way.
Guernica: Your book opens with an epigraph from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that foreshadows your dilemma: “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone…where I am folded, there I am a lie, and I want my grasp of things to be true before you.” Ironically, lying to your family about an affair amid a twenty-plus year marriage is the path that leads you to an unfolding of sorts, a larger self.
Rilke also says, elsewhere, “Surely all art is the result of one having been in danger of having gone through an experience all the way to the end where no one can go any further.” How risky was it to write and put this book out in the world?
Frangello: I’ve written short-form nonfiction for twenty years, but my history is as a fiction writer of books. Writing a memoir was terrifying. I revisited my old nonfiction essays because I wanted to include some in this book, particularly about my parents. I discovered I tended to be the peripheral narrator of my own nonfiction. No matter what I was writing, there were very few pieces where I was taking myself as the subject.
I could see I had written during a part of my life where I was unhappy and wasn’t talking about it. Then when I started having an affair, I became a secret in my own life. So, I tended to write myself out.
The decision to crack open those essays and be real about what was going on with me at the time was a big, scary leap. The me in those essays had been taking care of my parents, who lived downstairs from me, and was trying to be seen as a good Italian daughter. By writing the real story, I became a much more contradictory character.
Guernica: Was the process of developing the narrative self, your own story, similar to the way you’ve developed protagonists in your fiction?
Frangello: Readers often believe a memoir is like a diary. But a book is a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. It’s a curated thing. I realized I couldn’t approach myself as a protagonist more gently than my fictional protagonists. So, I had to look at myself as a character.
I had not originally planned to have anything about my childhood in the book, except for some background information about my parents, growing up in poverty, and what the neighborhood was like. But I came to understand that readers needed more context to see more deeply into who I was. I couldn’t just open the book in 2011 with my friend Kathy dying, my parents sick, my marriage unhappy, me falling into this affair.
The psychological depth I pursued in terms of the formation of my feminist identity, my sexual identity, my views about how I was going to get out of my neighborhood as a young woman, all helped me access what was important (and what wasn’t) about the events I was choosing to write about.
Guernica: The “A” theme continues with the titles of the book’s sections: “Aperture,” “Affair,” “Aftermath,” and “Affliction.” Tell me more about the importance of the letter A and how it informed the structure of the book.
Frangello: I liked the idea of continuing with the “A” words like tonic notes throughout the narrative, continuing the form and theme of the opening section. Throughout the process of writing the book, I had all these pages of notes, of research, and I realized, “This is it. This is the opening.”
In the first chapter, “The Story of A,” all the words are framed in terms of how we conceptualize adultery in literature, in law, in popular culture, and in research studies, but the larger narrative is about much more than infidelity, so it was a way of connecting the pieces yet also broadening the framework. I didn’t want to write a book about an affair, or a book about divorce, or a book about parenting, or a breast cancer book. There are many good books out there on all these individual subjects, but for me it was more about the cacophony, the overlap.
Guernica: Of your lover, you write, “He is that sort of person—the kind who appears to have no boundaries at first, who you have to get to know incredibly well to understand that his guileless openness is in part a defense to protect the deeper, more closely guarded things about which he is almost pathologically private.” Do you, as the narrator or teller of this story, share those qualities with the lover?
Frangello: The most naked, raw, intimate book you could possibly ever read is still a curated object in which you’re seeing 10 percent of the iceberg and 90 percent is still under the water. In this book, there are so many things left out, in some cases, to protect somebody else. For example, some characters are composite characters. Angie is a composite character based on several different girls from my youth. I must mess up her identity a bit. In other cases, my kids appear in the story, sometimes in really revealing ways, like when my daughters bust me for having an affair. But I tried not to include much about their personal lives. It’s all about how it bumps up with the massive thing that happened, that I caused. There are things where I held back because it really wasn’t my story. Even though by not holding it back, I might’ve looked better.
Guernica: You write, “First though, before you were any kind of writer, you were a pretender. First, before the books (either handwritten on pages torn from a roll of butcher paper, or the books you would publish), you were simply someone fine-tuned to escape.” We see you as a young girl, casting spells, telling and writing stories prolifically, using your imagination. Then in adolescence, there’s a turn. “You had reached the age where the imaginary could no longer exist without the erotic.” What does the erotic mean to you?
Frangello: The realm of sex entails a certain amount of fantasy. People have sexual fantasies that are not things they ever actually do. It’s a sanctioned imaginary that is acceptable for adults, to some extent. In the realm of the sexual, adults still give nods to play and imagination, and to perhaps needing to heighten the situation for it to be as fulfilling as we want it to be. But in our ordinary non-sexual lives, which of course dominate most of our days, we grow out of play. After a certain age, it’s viewed as abhorrent to continue to have imaginary friends, imaginary characters.
My tendency to imagine fueled my identity as a writer. It was a huge part of my creative process, but it also became a crutch. There was a space in my head where I would go that, in some weird way, felt more authentic than who I felt permitted to be in my real life. My characters were generally very messy, flawed people, who sometimes make colossal mistakes, are sometimes unlikeable, people of big desires and big catastrophes, and a lot of intensity.
I didn’t feel like I could be that person. From a young age, I had to perform happiness for my mom. I adored her. My mother and I were extremely close, but she was a prototypical mother of her generation: She had given up everything for marriage and children. She lived vicariously through me. I was performing the role of the good daughter, the role of the good wife, the role of the good friend.
I was not living my own vulnerability, or contradictions, or anger. It was me who put myself in that box, but culture reinforced it; ultimately, it was my choice to comply. Although I continue to have an imaginative inner life as a writer, once I did break out of that box—in the sense that I was doing all kinds of things I wasn’t supposed to be doing—the element of my life where I was always retreating into a space in my mind where people could be more imperfect, more intense, and more messed up, stopped. I stopped pretending. I didn’t know that would be a side effect of essentially burning down my life.
Guernica: In Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic,” she distinguishes the pornographic from the erotic. She says pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic because it represents the suppression of true feeling, and emphasizes sensation without feeling. The erotic is a path toward fulfillment, maybe, versus a substitute for fulfillment.
Frangello: I think the erotic is the opposite of performative. Pornography, no matter whether done happily or unhappily, is performative. It’s something that’s been documented for consumption by other people. The erotic comes from a very deep personal place, and it doesn’t involve performance.
I’ve always thought sexuality reveals a lot about a person. My fiction has always been very psychosexual, and, in my own life, I’ve also found myself taking on a performative role I felt I was supposed to play. Which is not to say I never enjoyed it, only that I was aware, to a certain extent, that I was playing a role. That, for me, served as a block to the genuine erotic.
Obviously, it’s not 1950, but to some extent, I think our culture still doesn’t willingly allow women an independent eroticism. We live in a world where women are consumed, where we are the commodity, the product, the thing being looked at. I don’t think men are immune either. We live in a very sexually performative culture, and people are often trying to act the way they think they’re expected to act.
Guernica: We’re robbed of authenticity and true desire by substitution, commodification, and objectification. I also wonder about the difference between imagination and fantasy.
Frangello: I continue to view myself as a very imaginative person, but I’m no longer someone who relies on secret fantasy components of my personality to get through life. For so long, I believed in my own bullshit. I thought, Oh, well, I’m a liberated woman. Yet, there were so many parts of myself I was just terrified of that could only come out in my writing, or in my fantasy life. That is no longer true. I broke down the walls in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I would never have thought I was going to do a lot of the things I did. I would have said they were entirely inconsistent with who I am.
Guernica: In the chapter “Substitute Beauty,” you write about your desire, as a young woman, to inhabit your female friend’s skin. Feeling unattractive and undesirable, you would imagine yourself as her; it was an obsession. Why was your friend’s life—in which she had an abusive, controlling father—more compelling to you than your own?
Frangello: In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, I think the obsessive relationship Lenu has with Lila speaks to an experience many women have had. As readers we’re seeing from Lenu’s point of view, but that desire to be someone else, someone you perceive yourself not to be, is also there.
Growing up, I saw other girls as having a higher commodity value than myself. While Angie in “Substitute Beauty” is a composite of several different girls or women, all the people I based her on were charismatic, magnetic people. Ultimately, my desire to be her was a messed-up, delusional one. I was the one who had better opportunities, kinder parents. I was the one with the better life, but I was incapable of seeing that as a child.
Guernica: You perceived her as being wanted, or desired, because she was mistreated. So, you saw Angie’s father as passionate because he physically disciplined her, whereas your own father was gentle. And with that, you saw Angie as having a kind of power that you didn’t. Do we mistake power for desire? Or desire for power?
Frangello: Obviously, that accounts for many women who get into physically abusive relationships. Women are trained to believe there’s power in invoking deep passion in a man. There’s a violent edge to it that can be intoxicating. The attraction to the bad boy. In many films, a woman becomes interesting because she’s being stalked or someone’s trying to kill her, or she’s in danger.
Guernica: You end up with the guy you have had an affair with, who’s very much like your father—which kind of makes you like your mother, who you don’t want to be like.
Frangello: It is all fascinatingly sticky. Even now, I wish my lover, now husband, could have met my dad and they could have talked about music, and old movies, and so many things they both were passionate about. They have a similar sense of humor, but as you see in the book, they never did get to meet. There are interesting parallels, but to end up with someone who is a published writer, who is a tour musician, who has graduate degrees and is a professor, is hugely different than to end up with someone who didn’t graduate from eighth grade and lived in poverty for most of his life.
And yet, I say in the book that my choice of this lover, this man, was a homecoming of sorts. I had ended up with someone much more like my dad, to my roots. That is connected to how we sometimes spend our youth trying to get out, get away. Everything that is the opposite of either our family, or our neighborhood, becomes desirable, right? But “opposites attract” only goes so far.
You work, you raise children, and there’s not, after a certain point, a lot of passion or personal growth. And so, in many ways, my life with my “lover” became a much bigger stage; there was much more uncertainty, adventure, experience, all the things that were more in line with my desires.
Guernica: Another parallel that struck me was how much your mother loved your father. I’m thinking of the powerful line at the end of the chapter “The Counterevidence for Love.” You write, “This is what it’s like to choose love,” reflecting on experiencing unconditional love for your lover. What was your mother’s love for your father if not unconditional?
Frangello: My mother did have unconditional love for my father, even though it meant giving up an enormous amount in her life. I think unconditional love is a powerful thing. It’s also true sometimes that you can have unconditional love for someone, but you can’t necessarily love them in the way they wanted you to love them. You may love them, but not in the way you need to for the relationship to work.
When you fall in love, all the complex feelings and love you have for other people aren’t invalidated overnight. But romantic love and desire sort of insist upon a certain primacy.
Guernica: You write that you want the type of love that can annihilate you, but doesn’t, because you choose creative over destructive power.
Frangello: It’s not as though I ended my marriage and immediately it was just sunshine and roses for me and my lover from that point on. We had to figure out whether we could choose creative rather than destructive power in our relationship after what had happened.
Guernica: If this story were a fairy tale, which would it be?
Frangello: I was trying to move against the idea of the fairy tale. I spent a fair amount of my adult life believing I had had my happy ending. Even when I was no longer happy, I kept telling myself that story. I had to get over the idea of endings. What you want and need at one stage of your life isn’t necessarily what you want and need at another. Fairy tales all end with, “and they lived happily ever after,” right? But in real life there is no “ever after.” It’s always shifting.