Memoirist Gina Frangello on What Happens When You Become the Unlikeable Character

Lauren Puckett
·10 min read
Photo credit: Bridget Burns
Photo credit: Bridget Burns

Airing dirty laundry is a tricky business, particularly when you’re the one who soiled it. In her new memoir, Blow Your House Down, Gina Frangello attempts to shape meaning out of her own rags—the remnants of a chaotic extramarital affair and the wildfire it set through every corner of her reality. In tearing back the curtain on the double life she led, and the numerous people she hurt through her deception, she advocates for the power of feminine fury, and the legitimacy of that fury years into middle age.

We read of her affair. We read of her love, caring for her aging parents and young children. Her violent childhood. Her breast cancer. Her loss. And, yes, we read of the sex, and thus must wrestle with a desire that is not neatly packaged for our tastes.

Undeniably, it can be hard to empathize with Frangello, who is sharp in her descriptions yet so incensed her vision feels clouded, a perception that is passed on to the reader. As she makes mistake after mistake, the reader winces, attempting to hold back judgment, attempting to remain the empath the very act of reading calls us to be. By piecing together her past, Frangello is attempting to set the record straight—to make a reliable narrator out of an unreliable one. The result forces a searing question: What sort of grace can we give women? How many mistakes are too many?

For answers about this challenging book, ELLE.com sat down with Frangello to discuss deception, sexuality, and the never-ending need to redefine ourselves.

Was there any one moment of epiphany that made you decide to write this intimate account? Or was it a long struggle getting to the point where you finally could?

Well, a little of both, really. Some of the essays had originally appeared in different forms in other magazines, during a period where I was leading a double life. And so, there was a lot missing from the essays, in the sense I was missing from the essays. It would be about my parents and caregiving them, but I would almost be a peripheral narrator of my own life.

I wanted to go back and change those and update those and make them a fuller account. But then, parallel with that, I was working on writing about some of my experiences with my divorce and my breast cancer. I did a brief reading of one at a reading series, and it had a pretty enthusiastic response. They were like, “This has to be included [in a book]. This is all the same story.”

What risks came to mind? What were you scared of?

I’ve rarely ever met a memoirist who wasn't terrified before their memoir came out. Sometimes we have good reason, like people whose parents never spoke to them again, and so forth.

I think a lot of the fear when you write something that’s really personal and really revealing, of course, is going out in front of your house and being like, “Hi,” to your neighbors and thinking, “Did they read the book?”

One of the major things I had wanted during this five-year period where everything was burning down in my life, was I wanted more books that were about these things. I might find an individual breast cancer memoir, or I might find a self-help book about divorce, or I might find a memoir about an affair. But most of it either seemed to focus on self-help or seemed to be about much younger women than myself, particularly in terms of sexuality and making poor choices.

I feel like there are not a lot of memoirs in the marketplace about middle-aged women, sexuality, illness, the caregiving of parents and children simultaneously. Just the messy brew of a middle-aged woman’s life. And I wanted other people who were going through the kinds of experiences I was going through to have that book that I had not had.

It’s interesting you use the phrasing “making poor choices.” What was it like to admit that to yourself?

I don’t really think I ever was under the full illusion that leading a double life and lying to people was a great thing to be doing. But you get caught up in a thing. First, you think, “Oh, this is really temporary.” And then, as it gathers steam and you realize that you’re really in love with this person, you don’t want it to end.

It was complex to me for a lot of reasons. One, because I had never really held a big secret like that before. I had always thought of myself as a very honest person, but also because sometimes you make mistakes and yet those mistakes open doorways to a new life in which you’re more yourself and in which you’re happier.

Often, even in fiction, not just memoir, there can be a preachy or prescribed nature to like, “You do something wrong, you get punished. You do something good, you get rewarded.” I wanted to write about the complexity, because sometimes a poor choice is more complicated than just not having been the ideal moral thing to do.

As a culture, we love redemption arcs. We love tales of self-sacrifice. But these stories of destruction—your title is a great example, “Blow Your House Down”—aren’t held in as high esteem, especially when we’re talking about women. What was your intention in writing a destruction story, given the way we critique how women are supposed to behave, how their stories are supposed to end?

How they’re supposed to end is a huge thing. The reality is that there are so many women whose lives are complicated and don’t end with, “The End,” at the end of the book. I know many people who have ended up divorced from the husband who saved them at the end of a memoir.

I felt like I didn’t want to do the traditional ending where marriage and children is like, “Oh, and then I was redeemed.” Usually, women are, at most, in their thirties when that sort of alleged ending takes place. And so, for me, it was really important to pull back the curtain and say, “It’s not always the end.”

Our parents get old and die. Our marriage can fall apart. We can do things that we never saw ourselves doing. We can then get sick in the middle of all of it. That becomes a redefinition. You have a bilateral mastectomy. You’re bald. You develop severe arthritis in your hip. Next thing you know, you’re having a hip replacement at 50. And so, just the fact that life doesn’t end until it ends. We keep changing, we keep growing. We keep fucking up. I don’t think that the publishing industry gives enough space to that. Particularly for women.

I think, generally, we give men with double lives more credit—they’re depicted as more interesting because of their double lives or their screw-ups.

Fully true. That’s right. Don Draper, right? Or Tony Soprano or Walter White. There’s this bit in the [first section of the book] where I talk about having gone to my friend’s book release, where she had written a novel about a woman professor who gets a medical diagnosis that’s scary and she goes out and starts having an affair with one of her students. And I was doing the Q&A in this reading and a bunch of people in the audience asked, “What would you say to people who might see her behavior as bad? Do you want to say that she shouldn't do that?” And they were all sort of pushing her to talk about how either bad or ridiculous her character was.

Because it’s a woman, either the entire conversation needs to be centered around the fact that she’s like a unilateral villain, or that it’s so absurd that it’s a satirical novel. There’s a schism there. And I don’t think that schism has anything to do with whether or not the behavior is, in fact, negative. It may be, but if it is, why is it more negative or absurd for one gender than the other?

With that in mind, did you feel self-protective at all while writing this? Self-justifying?

When I first ended my marriage, I had a friend who told me, “Stop telling people you had an affair. Why are you telling people this?” I had been lying for three years, so I was done with that.

Naturally, there are things that are not in the memoir. But to the extent of what I was delving into, I really believe strongly that a writer has to be willing to be as hard on themselves or harder than they are on anyone else in the story, or you’re not really telling a real story. And so, do I think there may be very lively discussions on Goodreads? About people who are like, “Bad”? Yeah, sure. There probably will be. But I was fairly determined to show myself, at least in the multitudes of the areas covered in the book. And not to try to portray myself as someone that you had to root for in that inspirational heroine type of way.

It’s one thing to be a woman with a double life. It’s another to be a “bad mother.” You wrestle with that a lot in the book—the repercussions of your actions on your children. How did you wrestle with that in a way that could keep you sane?

These levels vary. You can either throw in the towel and just self-flagellate, or you can keep working and struggling to show up and be there, and let the story keep changing in a positive way. And so, for me, it was important [to address]. It is the hardest thing that I wrote about—the scene where my daughters find the texts and so forth. It was the worst mistake of my life. And so, it was really painful to write about it and to see myself on the page doing it. But at the same point, I feel like it’s also important to offer a lifeline to people who have made mistakes in parenting, and should basically say, “The story doesn't end there.”

You mentioned earlier this idea of sexuality from the perspective of someone middle-aged. What was it like to open yourself up on the page about something so raw?

I’ve written a lot about sexual power dynamics, sexuality, sexual psychology in pretty much all of my fiction. I think I just knew that, if I was going to write a book in which the narrator, me, was having this sexual awakening in midlife against all social protocol, I couldn’t be less willing to explore that than I had been of my fictional characters in novels, when maybe there was no risk.

And so, it’s like, okay, these have been things that I’ve been circling around in my work for years. If I’m not willing to go there with myself, then what have I been doing?

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