Claiming Our Untold Stories: Talking with Gina Frangello
That Gina Frangello survived the past decade is astonishing; that she’s also emerged from the challenges of the past decade with one of this year’s best memoirs is miraculous. The experience of reading Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason can be intense and at times even harrowing—I found myself having to take sporadic breaks between essays—but ultimately, it is nourishing.
Frangello’s memoir, her first book of creative nonfiction, is raw and messy. As she recounts her confrontations with extraordinary loss, Frangello writes with a clarity and frankness are not only welcome but vital. I hesitate to call Blow Your House Down inspiring or empowering: what I actually found most moving about it is how it doesn’t try to be either of those things, how it showcases one woman’s resilience but ultimately just spells out that sometimes life fucking sucks and all you can do is make your art, love your people, and press on.
The Chicago-based Frangello is the creative nonfiction editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and the author of four prior novels: Every Kind of Wanting, A Life in Men, Slut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. We recently spoke about creative license, feminist literature, faulty memory, and more.
The Rumpus: You’ve authored four books of fiction; this is your debut memoir. Why now? Why this story?
Gina Frangello: I’ve been writing personal essays and other forms of creative nonfiction in short form for more than twenty years, and I always had vague notions of putting together an essay collection but hadn’t done it. Then, between 2011 and 2019, my best friend died; I started having an extramarital affair; my parents’ health disintegrated rapidly and I was for a time their primary caregiver; I left my longtime marriage; my father—who lived in my home—died; I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy and went into immediate menopause; my divorce grew quite contentious; the man I had been having an affair with moved from LA to Chicago to live with me after a series of catalyst events on his end, such as his ex-wife having breast cancer at the same time I did; I developed severe osteoarthritis in my hip that led to a temporary disability and hip replacement; I got engaged; and my mother—to whom I was as close as it is maybe possible to be with one’s mother—died and I found her body. By then I was fifty.
Somewhere around the mid-point of these events, by 2015 or so, I found myself unable to write fiction. I was writing a lot about what was going on in my life, most of it in private but occasionally publishing an essay. Eventually, I started to see that near decade of my life as a kind of firewall I needed to somehow write my way through to get to the other side. I also realized how desperately I myself would have craved a book about a crucible and explosive period of a woman’s middle-age during the time I was living these events—especially a book in which the woman herself bore some responsibility for a number of the explosions—and how infrequently I was able to find such books because so many memoirs focus on the misadventures of younger women who are ultimately healed or redeemed in some way at the end by marriage and children. There are exceptions to this, of course, but in my view not enough exceptions due to the way middle-aged women—or women who are mothers, or who have been sick—are seen in our culture. It became important to me to offer this story to other women who needed it, and because of that, it also became important to make the text more than just my story—to contextualize it through a lens of how women are treated in literature, in media, in medicine, in psychiatry, etc.—which changed the book as it became more of a hybrid of memoir and cultural criticism.
Rumpus: Memoirists take a certain degree of creative license. You make this clear in your author’s note, where you indicate that you’ve changed names and identifying details, used composite characters, and in some cases omitted characters entirely. There’s a moment where—in an explicit, sort of meta way—you draw attention to the constructed nature of your narration. You’ve just recounted a scene in your car, where you talk to your two daughters about your affair:
What if I tell you, here, that even my retelling contains both purposeful and unintentional holes? That only one of my daughters was actually in the care with me that day I pulled to the side of the road, while the other and I had already had a more prolonged interaction about my texts, my secret affair, inside our home, in private? What if I tell you that I have put them both in the car not only as a writerly device, to avoid two “scenes” that cover the same repetitive ground, but to protect my daughters’ privacy about who said what—that I have abridged, mixed up, blended their words or left them undesignated to get to the bottom line of “plot” without further dragging them into the spotlight?
I love this passage so much. Can you talk about how it came to be? As a memoirist, how do you maintain a fidelity to the truth while still crafting a compelling story? Where is the line for you between storytelling and deception, when it comes to relaying reality in the most effective way possible?
Frangello: I think it’s extremely important to say first that unless someone has lived every day with a tape recorder in her pocket, it is impossible to write a memoir without taking certain creative licenses. People write books about their childhoods, for example, and their own siblings end up disagreeing with them about how things happened or even whether they happened at all. Among the survivors of the Titanic, people were divided on the issue as to whether the ship split in half as it sank—not a thing one would expect anyone to forget, right? But trauma impacts memory, and Nabokov says that memory is revision, so ultimately it was important to me to draw explicit attention to these writerly struggles during moments of the text.
In the passage you quote, the core truths were that my daughters discovered my affair, that I told them it was over when actually it was only over for a fairly short while, and that over the next few years I worried obsessively about what this incident had done to my relationship with my daughters, rather than giving enough emphasis to what it might be doing to their relationship with their father. Which daughter said what and who was sitting where and so forth changes none of these things. I could set our conversation in another country, per se, and those essential truths would remain unchanged.
One of my favorite memoirs is Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which has sections about ghosts, shamans, relatives who may or may not have existed and their lives and deaths, but what makes this a memoir rather than a fantasy novel is that Hong Kingston is always your guide, trying to make sense of her identity and relationships through her limited access to knowledge and one absolute truth.
I have a character in the book named Angie who is a composite character of several different real girls from my youth. Yet everything I perceive, feel, conclude, desire, and struggled with in my relationship with Angie is accurate and formed much of my childhood psyche. The critic David Ulin has said that he doesn’t think there should be fiction or nonfiction but just books, and Pam Houston—especially in her amazing craft essay “Corn Maze”—talks about her fiction and nonfiction both falling in at about 82% true.
While I believe strongly in a difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, I am also conscious of the limitations of memory, subjectivity, protecting privacy, and not only wanted to work with that formally but draw the reader’s attention to the fact that I was doing so. Also, there is the matter of everyone on earth being an unreliable narrator to some extent. We misuse this phrase a lot in fiction, indicating that it means that the narrator is “crazy” or purposely lying, but subjectivity and unreliability are more linked than that. An unreliable narrator is also simply someone who is revealing something about themselves that they may not be aware they’re revealing. And whether you’re writing about a fictional alien species or yourself, as a writer you will always fall into this category—sometimes intentionally, but always unintentionally.
Rumpus: It’s difficult to negotiate your right to tell your own story versus the respect you have for the privacy of others. Particularly in this memoir, you come across as very protective of others’ privacy, yet comfortable relinquishing your own. How do you negotiate these conflicting feelings? You take precautions to avoid invading people’s privacy, but your lived experiences are ultimately yours—how do you strike this balance?
Frangello: If you are writing a memoir where you come off as always in the right, as saintly and constantly done wrong by others, you are not writing a memoir that is either honest or terribly useful, in my view. It was important to me that I look more rigorously and, at times, more harshly at myself than at any other character. Sometimes, for complex reasons, you have to a make choice like leaving certain people out of a book altogether even if they had significant impact on the events, and then you have to figure out how to make the final results and emotional truths all come to bear in absence of certain key players, and taking some creative license is a better ethical choice than writing about those people.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about l’ecriture feminine, a French feminist movement from the 1970s that you reference in the book, which teaches that “women writing their bodies can change the world.” What does “writing your body” mean to you? How do you feel your memoir relates to l’ecriture feminine, and how do you think your knowledge of this movement has shaped your writing?
Frangello: I’m getting my PhD in English with a specialization in the Literature of the Body and Gender Theory, so I’ll be careful not to turn this into my prelim exams! Since I first learned about it in the mid-1990s, l’ecriture feminine gave me a name and a whole school of thought for what I was already trying to do and why I wanted to write to begin with. If you think of Kathy Acker or Lidia Yuknavitch or something like The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso or The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, you can see the massive ripple effects this line of critical thought has had in American literature, in highly positive ways. And yet it was a kind of academic and elitist hyperbole to believe that writing in a way that accesses truth through the body would itself change the world.
I think of literature more in terms of impacting one reader at a time, and in that sense the movement was watershed. Too many books virtually ignore the body. They bring their presumptions of what a “normative” body is to the text, and then assume the reader understands the bodies of their characters—they’ll write about falling in love without seeming to acknowledge the physiology of desire or (especially in American culture) about violence without negotiating the profound difficulty of capturing physical pain through language, but it’s more than that. It’s a homogeneity of what it even means to walk down the street, to get into a car, to pour the coffee, to get dressed, assuming all bodies do this in the same way. There are few characters with disabilities in literature except when the disability is the “plot” of the narrative—there have been until recently very few characters who exist outside a neat male/female binary. Bodies of color did not factor into French feminist thought, and in fact sometimes Africa metaphors were used to refer to women in ways that feel quite dated and racist to a contemporary reader.
And yet that does not ultimately mean that writers of color haven’t used the tenets of l’ecriture feminine in powerful ways as its precepts influenced feminist literary culture—Toni Morrison, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, Claudia Rankine, they’re all chroniclers of the body in vital, too-infrequently charted ways. Kiese Laymon is an intense documentarian of the body, because you don’t need to be a woman for the principles of l’ecriture feminine to be either utilized or applicable to your work.
Rumpus: When I think of some of our greatest memoirists, I think mostly of women—Mary Karr, Vivian Gornick, Patti Smith, Joan Didion. And when I think of some of the best memoirs of the past few years, I mostly think of those by women—Jesmyn Ward, Margo Jefferson, Carmen Maria Machado, Sarah M. Broom. Of course, there are many remarkable memoirs written by men, but there seems to be something about the genre of memoir that really lets women writers shine. Have you noticed a particular dominance of women memoirists? Do you think memoir functions differently for women writers?
Frangello: It would be virtually impossible not to notice, of course, that women writers have been dominant in the memoir form, yes, even though arguably there is a whole other side note to this that women writing memoir are treated quite differently, and in certain sexist ways, than men writing memoir, in media and in the publishing industry, and that one reason memoir is often treated dismissively by some critics or readers is precisely due to the fact that it is a woman-dominated form.
But for the purposes of this question, in my view memoir functions differently for all writers whose lives—and bodies, to harken back to what we were talking about—have been underrepresented in literature as a whole up to now. One could argue that it is harder for a white, heterosexual, financially solvent man to say something about his life that has not already been captured many, many times in revered novels throughout history and in the earlier days of memoir as an artistic literary form. It is hard for such men to say things that we have not already culturally internalized quite deeply, whether we want to or not. This does not, of course, mean it is impossible, nor does it mean that memoirs have to break entirely new ground—which is quite a high if not impossible bar—to be important or valid. For example, I particularly love the book This River by James Brown, even though there are many other addiction memoirs by men of his generation—it’s one of the most insightful texts I know of about guilt and accountability. But one of the things that drives the memoir form, I do believe, is a sense of claiming stories that are not often enough told, and in that sense I think the work of women, of people of color, of LGBTQIA+ people, of people with disabilities, of old people, of fat people, of people who have been marginalized or misrepresented in other texts, do have a certain urgency.
Rumpus: So many writers I know describe writing as hard, unpleasant, even painful. Why do it?
Frangello: I will make myself quite unpopular by saying that I have rarely found writing fiction unpleasant and have rarely experienced first drafts as “hard” per se, except in that I usually have about six jobs simultaneously and finding writing time is indeed quite hard. But the first draft for me is usually a torrent and almost out-of-body, intense, and shimmering experience. Revision, on the other hand, is often very hard, and at times seems even like it will be impossible, will never work out, will ruin everything good in the book, and then that feeling of suddenly cracking in and being able to see the whole picture is, for me, a kind of spiritual and intellectual and emotional fire in the brain that is up there among the greatest experiences of my life.
Sometimes it never happens. I have two unpublished novels—both revised several times—where I never experienced that full crack-open and they never ended up reaching the place I’d hoped. But I have been writing fiction since I was four years old and dictating stories to my mother. I have written my entire life, and I would not know how to stop. That’s part of why it was so alarming to me when after 2015 I found myself unable to write fiction anymore and instead was obsessively writing my own story. Nonfiction had never taken such control of my mind before in the way fiction had—I had written nonfiction more with my rational mind and fiction from a much deeper place, and that changed with this book.
In the end, however, writing is an endeavor through which most people can be guaranteed little income and much rejection, so the only reason to write, as I see it is, is because you have to—because you would do it and will do it even if no one else ever reads a word you wrote, because it is your way of processing the world and being alive. The reason to publish is a different thing, and I think we do that in a hope that somehow what we have created can make someone else feel less alone, can be an act of intimate communication, can impact even one person the way certain books changed and helped and even saved us, because every writer I know has such books. In my case, I tried to write the book I myself had most needed, because we are, none of us, so unique that our needs are singular, and it was my belief that if I had needed this book, someone else also needed it, somewhere, and the only way to reach them was to let go and put the book into the world for them to find.
Photograph of Gina Frangello courtesy of Gina Frangello.