Books In Conversation
Gina Frangello with Kathleen Rooney
Blow Your House Down: A Story of Feminism, Family, and Treason
Chicago-based writer and all-around dynamo Gina Frangello burst into my consciousness in her capacity as the founder of Other Voices Books, a small press in the ecosystem of independent publishers that Abby Beckel and I were exploring as we were setting out to found our own, Rose Metal Press. Spun off from the literary magazine Other Voices, which existed from 1984–2007 and which Frangello took over in 2004, the OV imprint began in 2005 and focused on fiction, publishing Allison Amend, Zoe Zolbrod, Tod Goldberg, and—in a twist that would become intimately significant to Frangello’s life—Rob Roberge among many others. Under Frangello’s direction, both OV and OV Books had the reputation of being warm and welcoming to worthy projects that might not find a home with larger publishers, and of working hard to get their authors’ output into the world.
Frangello ran OV Books until 2014. As she did so, she was steadily writing and publishing her own four books of frank and feminist fiction, including the novel My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus Press, 2006), a contemporary retelling of Freud’s notorious “Dora” case; the short story collection The Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press, 2010); the novel A Life in Men (Algonquin, 2014), about a woman traveler with cystic fibrosis; and the novel Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint, 2017), about the efforts of three families to have what they call a Community Baby. Each book deals broadly with loyalty, sex, betrayal, interpersonal relationships, and the expectations placed on women in particular. Her latest work, the memoir-in-essays Blow Your House Down: A Story of Feminism, Family, and Treason (Counterpoint, 2021) offers an astonishingly forthright account of the darkest fallouts of attraction and dissolution. The essays constellate around her years-long secret affair with the aforementioned Roberge that began when the two of them were working on his fiction through OV Books, and that has—after a rocky road full of pitfalls and setbacks—culminated in their pandemic Zoom wedding in March of 2020. The book offers a witty and soul-searching look at how, “Most of the ways to fail a person involve trying not to fail somebody else.” She’s donating the royalties to Deborah’s Place here in Chicago, an organization which works with women facing homelessness. Formerly the editor of the Fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown, as well as the former Sunday editor of The Rumpus, Frangello is currently the creative nonfiction editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She and I corresponded over email in February of 2021 as she was gearing up for the collection’s release.
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): Your epigraph comes from Rilke’s “I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone,” in which he declares: “I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, / because where I am folded, there I am a lie. / And I want my grasp of things to be / true before you.” Why choose this (admittedly marvelous) dead German guy to open your book as opposed to, say, one of the “texts we revere as feminist,” like from the list you give later, including, “Jean Rhys or Marguerite Duras or Kate Braverman or Sylvia Plath or Kathy Acker or Mary Gaitskill”?
Gina Frangello: Rilke’s “I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone” knocked me fully off my axis when I first read it. Having a clandestine affair and living a double life ultimately folds one up to the tightest possible square, only to unfurl when the lovers are together because essentially the rest of their lives have become a lie. This poem hit me first on that level. In my mind this epigraph speaks not only to one’s lover, as I think Rilke is speaking, but to the reader, because I had chosen to be a lie of omission in too many contexts of my life. The next bit says “I want to be a mirror for your whole body, / and I never want to be blind, or to be too old / to hold up your heavy and swaying picture.” I’m just obsessed with this bit here because it’s the writer’s entire conundrum … or maybe that of the whole human race. I don’t believe, exactly, in being able to render people in their totality in a book or a painting or a song or even a documentary. We catch fragments, and the fragments are always filtered through the lens of ourselves, so it’s almost impossible to get at the core of anything in art except for the core of your own interrogation of that thing. Yet also as a person who loves, for anyone who has ever loved, is there anything we want more than to actually fully see—always, never fading—the full image of those we love?
Rail: You divide the book into four sections, opening with “Aperture,” which contains only “The Story of A,” and proceeding with “Affair,” “Aftermath,” and “Affliction.” Why tell this story—or really, this set of interconnected stories—as a memoir-in-essays and not a linear, full-length, unified memoir?
Frangello: It’s actually far more unified than it began—a far more cohesive arc than it was at the onset. But the closer I got to each thing the more I saw the intersections. There isn’t a story of X without the story of Y and so forth. It became more braided, more overlapping, more unified in many ways, while the structure of the four sections also still recognizes stories that are quite distinct in their own ways. Some of this book is cultural criticism, and I felt a desire to really put that up front. It felt important to me that the reader be game to engage with the fact that I am a lens; I am not the whole picture. So yes, I guess I always knew the book would be a hybrid because it isn’t about One Thing.
Rail: Your author’s note explains, “I describe experiences that had a profound emotional impact on me” and “I do not pretend that I am capable of remembering everything that took place exactly or offering everyone’s perspective.” Savvy readers of creative nonfiction, it seems, would take your lengthy caveat as a given for the genre; what made you decide to make such explicit disclaimers?
Frangello: I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs with variations on this kind of language lately—my favorite might be Elizabeth Crane’s in her forthcoming memoir, because she gets creative and playful with it. In my case it was necessary logistically because there are some composite characters, and in a book of nonfiction I think that demands a disclaimer, such as the fact that there was no one “Angie” and she is based on several different crucial relationships I had in my youth. That entails a playing with the boundaries of the creative nonfiction form, even if this is, in fact, a thing creative nonfiction writers do all the time. I agree with you that savvy readers of CNF do understand this, but I think disclaimers are for the readers who think that any subjective memoir can tell them the whole story of even its narrator, much less all the other people she is tasked with portraying. It is vital to me to make a massive distinction not only between a curated memoir and a personal diary, but to honor the fact that the story changes depending on who is telling it, even when every single person believes in their own truth with everything they have.
Rail: You blend scientific and sociological research into your extremely personal essays, as when you cite Michael Rosenfeld’s discoveries supporting “the feminist assertion that some women experience heterosexual marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable”. Why do you think this oppressiveness remains the case even in the 21st century? Why do women keep entering into this arrangement—including yourself, remarrying heterosexually after finally extricating yourself from a troubled heterosexual marriage?
Frangello: I love this question, because it really gets at the heart of so many things. We live in a world that makes marriage extremely advantageous to people who are sharing a life—you can be included on a domestic partner’s health insurance, but usually at a wildly higher cost than if you were married, and until 2018 at least, the last time I checked, some employers didn’t permit opposite-sex couples to insure one another if not married, because the culture puts almost as much energy into trying to marry off mainly straight people as it does trying to stop anyone who doesn’t meet those narrow definitions from benefitting from the rights marriage confers. So one real question of course is: Why is marriage still conferring so many rights—tax benefits, next of kin, ability to make decisions in a medical emergency and so on—in 2021? Why is marriage still viewed as the “happy ending” when almost half of marriages fail, which indicates that contemporary humanity rarely has “endings” in this way at all, but rather a series of start-stops, of serial monogamy for example, that has become dominant in a world where, say, 50, doesn’t mean the same thing as it did half a century ago, much less 200 years ago. We keep changing and doing new things longer, and the life expectancy goes up, and these things conspire to indicate that marriage may be a less and less successful formula. But obviously that’s assuming it was ever a successful formula for most people? Was it, or were there just fewer ways out?
But here let me also say this, because people are paradoxical and so is marriage: I liked being married to my first husband for nearly 15 years of our marriage, even though we had a more turbulent relationship than I do with my current husband, and I love being married now. I both understand and am fascinated by the research that indicates how much lower women’s satisfaction with marriage is than men’s—by the fact that men live longer when they’re married but women don’t. That’s why I included the Rosenfeld research, because he found that in couples who were just living together, there was not a gender gap either in happiness or in who chooses to leave (whereas about 70% of divorces are initiated by women). I was intrigued because I’m not sure how all the complex problems of patriarchy and capitalism and ownership and property and gender roles and exclusion are all solved to the extent that Rosenfeld’s research indicates just by eliminating the marriage certificate.
Rail: Similarly, you write, “You and your husband often congratulate yourselves together on how well your sex life has survived parenthood,” while also showing how parenthood places inordinate strains not just on sexual but emotional bonds, especially for mothers. Why, in spite of all the evidence that the nuclear family is a dampener to freedom of all kinds, do you think people keep having kids?
Frangello: I do think that for many people having children can be hard on a marriage, especially if you weren’t parented similarly and don’t have the same ideas in your head of what family looks like. But maybe even if you have all these things, getting two hours of sleep a night, or breastfeeding and pumping for hours per day, or not being able to leave the house without paying a sitter, or toting numerous children and the small apartment of their belongings in diaper bags, backpacks, strollers—perhaps even then it is only logical that this would put stress on some marriages, even ones that functioned well prior to children.
Yet I don’t have any personal ambivalence about being a mother the way I have about the institution of marriage. I absolutely respect and understand why some people don’t want children and I think it’s utterly fucked up that women in particular are beset with people grilling them the second they turn 30 about when they’re going to have kids and how they’re “wrong” if they think they don’t want them. All of that is gross and represents women’s humanity being seen as secondary to our function as child-producers and rearers.
But adopting and having my children is my favorite thing I’ve done in my entire life. In the Different Worlds theory I talk about near the end of the book, there isn’t any world in my imagination in which I don’t have kids. I’m thrilled to be in this world, though, with my specific and particular children, who are freakishly well-suited to me.
Rail: You cite Esther Perel’s The State of Affairs (2017) which finds that “while rates of infidelity are on the incline, public compassion for adulterers is not,” and according to a 2017 Gallup poll, “adultery remains condemned at higher rates than ‘abortion, animal testing, or euthanasia’.” It’s cliché to praise a memoirist as “courageous” or “brave,” but I have to say: in this book, you’re both. How did you decide to come at all these difficult topics—not only adultery, but parental end-of-life-care, familial trauma, breast cancer, and many more—head-on, even knowing that a lot of people might hate and resent you for it?
Frangello: Thank you. Although I’ve been publishing essays for some 20 years, I am also a fiction writer. I am a big believer in the so-called unsympathetic heroine, not ones who just have bad things done to them from the outside and are not implicated in those things. I like to read about characters who make mistakes; I like to read about characters whose past demons come to bear on their present actions. I’m not sure I would have felt I had any memoir to write if I were a saintly and beleaguered woman who had never done anything wrong. I believe strongly in a couple of things about literature, and one is the oft-quoted concept that one of its most important functions is to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed, and another is that if you are going to write any kind of personal nonfiction, you have to be willing to look at yourself as harshly as absolutely anyone else in the cast of characters, and more harshly when necessary. I’m fortunate to have a lot of love in my life and I didn’t write this book to be loved. I wrote it to help other women who are in similarly crucible situations and who feel enormous cultural sanctions around being able to talk honestly. The readers I care about most are those who are going to find some recognition in my many imperfections, and who are seeking ways to understand the dichotomies within themselves. That you can be a devoted daughter and also at times snotty and resentful. That you can love your children more than your own life but still make selfish choices at times that hurt them. That you can be sick and sexual. That someone else hurting and scaring you doesn’t abdicate you of your responsibility in having hurt and scared them, too. That as a woman you have definitely felt the force of toxic masculinity and the weight of a male-dominated history, but that doesn’t make everything you do right and justified. Without all that, there is no book here, or maybe there is someone else’s book, but it wouldn’t be mine.
Rail: You display an arresting and self-aware sense of humor even in some of your essays’ most devastating moments. Like when your 12-year-old daughters discover text messages between you and Rob containing incontrovertible evidence of your ongoing affair, you write, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, you may be asking yourselves: Did this dumb bitch leave her phone unattended on purpose, half-hoping her husband would bust her?” Why is comedy so important even in narratives that are arguably tragic?
Frangello: My husband Rob is an absolute genius at gallows humor—but I’ll also go back to my father and say, you know, here was a man who never graduated from eighth grade, who went to work at a factory at the age of 13, who had a bleeding ulcer that tried to kill him almost annually from his early 20s, and who had so many physical and mental health problems that the comprehensive list could come off as tragic—yet my father was one of the absolute funniest people I have ever known. My surrogate brother, Tom, who went to elementary, high school, and college with me, has a similar sense of humor as my father. So I’ve been surrounded by people who have woven humor out of harsh things my entire life. I don’t think Blow Your House Down is maybe overtly “funny” in the way that my last novel, Every Kind of Wanting, was, but I also don’t think I could write a book that didn’t find the humor in the horror.
Rail: Your essays make use of so many big and showy creative nonfiction moves—and I say this as a compliment. Repeated rhetorical questions used as refrains, individually titled sections, the sustained use of the second-person, a faux-dictionary in the abecedarian style, a numbered series of “50 meditations” and so on mark these essays as being carefully constructed in addition to being full of raw and often unpleasant emotions. How did you choose to use each of these moves?
Frangello: I rarely have a very elaborate plan before I start writing. Sometimes I don’t write for nine months or so, but a lot of other times I just have a sentence and I sit down and write three or eight or 11 thousand words and it’s surprising me the whole way—I’ll revise, of course, often many times, but the form itself is usually there. Like I was doing research about adultery and my notes from the research became much of “The Story of A,” because—and this is a line Rob used with me when writing his memoir, Liar (2016)—sometimes the notes are the book. I’ve also been very influenced by Kundera, so my “Dictionary of Mutually Understood Words” is a direct nod at his dictionary of misunderstood words between Sabina and Franz in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Originally I planned to end the book with “Blood Moon,” the section where my father dies and Rob and I are very much in limbo. But then I wrote the early version of “The Cartographers: Fifty Meditations,” because I was going to submit it to ACM’s “Women and Pain” series, and I realized it was part of this book. So my father died in fall 2015, and Blow Your House Down ultimately doesn’t end until spring 2019. The final section travels some three-and-a-half years, and it’s not linear and it’s, as you mentioned, a numbered series (based on my age), and that also contains a lot of outside source material and cultural criticism. By the end of all that … well, Rob and I had been living together happily in Chicago since 2017; we had gotten engaged. But I’d also had a bilateral mastectomy, chemo, a divorce, two years of chronic osteoarthritis pain, a hip replacement, and my mother died. The material in that essay could have, theoretically, been a whole separate book. But the nature of it—the barrage—the beautiful with the brutal at once, seemed fitting, because it challenges not just happy endings but endings in general.
Rail: You intertwine your own story of your familial dysfunction and doomed first marriage with that of your parents’ less-than-blissful union, noting that your dad was “institutionalized” twice, among other traumas. There’s a platitude—often said in a half-serious but half-joking way—that there are some subjects a person can’t touch until certain people are dead. Did you feel that way at all as you were writing these pieces? What advice do you have for writers grappling with their own ethical quandaries?
Frangello: This is hard, subjective, and ultimately can’t be dictated by anyone but the writer. There are writers who will tell you to write as though everyone you know is dead. There are writers who have been quoted as saying that if people don’t like the way they’re portrayed in your writing then they should have behaved better. There are writers who will not touch memoir because they’re afraid of hurting someone and the relationship is more important to them than the book. My father was alive when I first started publishing essays about him, but he never read my work. My mother, on the other hand, kept two huge folders of my published work—and was incredibly proud, even when I said things that might have been embarrassing to her. Rob said my book was hard to read at times, but neither he nor my daughters would entertain my notions of giving them veto power and asking me to remove things. There is no exact rulebook for memoirists. One important thing to keep in mind is that no matter how revealing a book seems, there are a million things the writer chose not to include. A book is the visible part of an iceberg, and the other 80 percent or so remains underwater and has to be inferred. And writers exist on every dot of that long continuum in terms of what they include. I don’t think I am in any position to advise anyone on what needs to go in their book, but I know that for every writer who has ever written creative nonfiction, these are choices of the utmost complexity.
Rail: You put yourself in conversation with so many other wonderful writers, including Anton Chekhov, Milan Kundera, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, and Graham Greene to name a scant few. Who are you reading these days, and who do you count among your most important influences?
Frangello: I’m reading Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days (2021) now and she’s miraculous. I just finished Emily Rapp Black’s Sanctuary (2021)—I think she is without question one of the most important writers working today and that also her work is as much philosophy as memoir, but that people rarely say that about women or maybe about contemporary writers in general even when they should. I was recently blown away by Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, and right now, with Beard, I’m reading Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, just re-read Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries, and started Riva Lehrer’s Golem Girl, while awaiting the arrival of Tod Goldberg’s The Low Desert.
I have a lot of influences. I’ve talked about Kundera, but also Gaitskill, Atwood, Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (wow), and years talking writing with my former professor and good friend Cris Mazza. In terms of memoir, I’ve loved Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004) by Ann Patchett, This River by James Brown, The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, just to name a few. I think Sarah Manguso is a genius. Writers—Lidia Yuknavitch and Maggie Nelson for example—who find whole new ways to tell stories are where the heat is for me. I’m also incredibly lucky to have the unpublished memoir of François Camoin—Rob’s mentor and an incredibly rare soul—in my possession, and I can’t wait to dive in.
Rail: You write that “anger is making a comeback for women.” I confess to being leery of and wearied by anger myself—rage can feel like a violence that too often turns self-destructive. But I am intrigued by the potential uses of anger—what does anger allow its experiencers to achieve that other more restorative emotions might not?
Frangello: It’s true that the self-destructive woman seething with internalized anger at society needs to stop being such a trope in art, media, and life—women attacking ourselves because our bodies are the only things over which we have power is not, ultimately, effective rebellion. And I’m not a huge advocate of women claiming our power by imitating men’s approach to anger because I think there is far too much toxic male rage in the world. But I think also that there’s a boiling cauldron of “waiting” that can give way to righteous rage—as Baldwin said, “How much time do you want for your ‘progress?’” Right now, there is a lot of anger in the world from people who have tried peacefully marching and signing petitions and who have seen precious little results and in fact regression. I think anger is imperative for the sorts of changes we need to see in the rights of BIPOC, of immigrants, of trans people, of people with disabilities and mental illnesses— people who are being shot by police and caged by the government have a right to fury. In terms of date rape and domestic violence and sexual abuse and the fact that so many women are killed by their intimate male partners, not only have we not moved the needle enough but in some cases it’s gotten worse—so yes, women have a lot of deep claims to rage. One vital thing about anger is that when it grows intense enough it can overcome fear. Sometimes this is terrible. Other times, that rage is morally necessary, such as the outpouring of BLM protests in 2020, when people all over the world braved a pandemic to demand change. Anger is not the answer to our problems, per se, but it should also not be the privilege only of straight white men, who are too often praised for it and reinforced for displaying it while others are penalized. I think Claudia Rankine has a lot of great things to say about this in Citizen, even just in tracking the career of Serena Williams. Only once anger is an equal opportunity emotion can we start really parsing out whether or not it is “useful,” per se.
Rail: Your essays deliver unflinching accounts of potent personal, emotional, medical, and financial crises. How much closeness to or distance from these events did you require to be able to write these? Did you compose them as the situations were unfolding or only later, when things had unfolded?
Frangello: I did both things, and I think writers can and should do both things—write in the moment and write later, from a distance. The results are different. The story changes. If you are writing something as you go through it, you will write a different essay or a different book than if you give it time to gel. Is that better or worse? That depends on what you want your book to do. For me, even the most recent events in Blow Your House Down happened two years ago; some of the book takes place during my childhood or in the early 1990s or a decade ago. I wanted some time and distance, for me, for what I was trying to achieve. But the fact that I was writing a lot just for myself, as things were happening, did help me later, both in terms of memory, which Nabokov says is always revision, and also in terms of being able to see myself more clearly as I’d been in those crucible moments, and to feel more informed about which parts of my former self I still stood behind perhaps more strongly than ever versus which parts had been misguided and in error. Also, I believe writing can be cathartic, but I do not think the point of memoir—of published books—is catharsis for the author. A published book is an act of communication with others, not therapy.
Rail: You write movingly of your experience, post-divorce, with breast cancer and chemotherapy, as well as all the attendant bodily anguish those states entail. Strikingly, you balance an embodied sense of how you felt with a great deal of profound abstraction, as when you write, “Fear makes people lawless. If indifference is hate’s opposite, then compassion is fear’s”. Your book is not “self-help,” of course, but I couldn’t help but feel that it’s going to help a lot of people. Do you have any suggestions for people looking to live a more fear-free and compassionate existence, both on the personal and political planes?
Frangello: First, thank you. I wrote most of this material because I needed to write it, for me—to push through it to the other side—if I was ever going to write anything else again. I published the book, by contrast, to help other people, especially other women. When I get a letter telling me that Blow Your House Down made a reader feel less alone or changed the way she’s living, it’s everything. I think you have to decide that even one person who can be helped by your book is more important than your fear. And if that one person is thousands of people, wow, yes, definitely more important than your personal fear.
In terms of compassion … well, I’m 52 years old. Time is a miracle worker in terms of finding compassion. There is a certain truth to the fact that most people are doing the best they can, and there is intense truth to the fact that almost no one is defined by their worst moment. Compassion is absolutely crucial to complex humanity and possessing a wide range of emotions and being able to see past yourself. Compassion is, I will add, also a thing that has been rabidly used against women, who have been trained to “feel sorry” for the people who hurt and abuse them, and to always prioritize other people’s emotions. If we lose compassion, we lose everything, yet if we ultimately hold so much more compassion for everyone else than we do for ourselves, then we ourselves are lost.
Rail: You got your Master’s in English in the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers in 1997, and currently, you’re a student at UIC again, having returned to finish your PhD. Can you say a little bit about your educational journey—why you left 20 years ago and why you’ve come back?
Frangello: I left my PhD program when I had already finished my coursework and language requirements and had started working on my prelim lists, mainly because my ex-husband was getting cool opportunities to work in Europe and I was moving around a lot. I don’t regret that, because all of the things I did instead of finishing the PhD were deeply valuable life experiences, but as I mentioned earlier, something can be a “mistake” without exactly being a regret and I think it was, personally, a mistake to leave my program. After my divorce, even though I had been editing and teaching adjunct for some 20 years, I felt the lack of my terminal degree quite profoundly in seeking full-time employment in academia. I was not well-positioned to become the primary wage earner supporting a family, and I spent some years scrambling to learn how to do that. But academia was brutally competitive and with few good positions even before COVID, and if you are not willing to relocate absolutely anywhere, then it’s harder still. So much of my return to complete my degree was also about process over product, regardless of the professional outcome.
Rail: Chicago past and present feels central to this book; how important does the city feel to you as a writer?
Frangello: Chicago is probably inextricable with who I am. I grew up in the same one-bedroom apartment in which my father was born and had nearly 60 cousins in about a four-block radius. I went to the same elementary school my father attended, across the street, and my best girlfriend Alicia, who is in my book, still teaches there. I raised all three of my kids here, and they’ve all attended the CPS just like I did, and one went to the same high school I attended. I’ve lived in the same house now—close to my old high school and to a bar my father owned before I was born—for 22 years.
I’ve inhabited a lot of different identities in Chicago, and it has become a kind of ghost town to me, too. Kathy died here. My ex and I lived here for the majority of our marriage. My parents died here. My kids graduated from the schools I walk past all the time, even though two of my children now live out of state. Sometimes I am weary of seeing former versions of myself on the streets of Chicago, accompanied by the missing and the dead. For many years, I was tied to Chicago by caregiving my parents, and then I was tied by keeping continuity for my kids in their education and friendships. But my youngest child is now 15. The many golden handcuffs that kept me in this city are loosening, and I am starting to be able to imagine new beginnings in other places. While I will always be a Chicago girl to a large extent, my body and my imagination don’t have to stay rooted here constantly for that to be true.