Interview by Sarah Einstein
In her recent essay collection, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, Gina Frangello deftly explores the tangle of demands and desires that her life has become as she enters middle age. In this book, which is both deeply felt and deeply thought, she explores not only a the affair that contributes to the end of her marriage, but cancer, caregiving, class issues, death, and desire.
Received with wide acclaim, Blow Your House Down received starred reviews in multiple publications. Publisher’s Weekly writes, “In this searing memoir, novelist Frangello charts the spectacular highs and devastating lows of her midlife with extraordinary candor . . . Frangello describes this bold and tumultuous period of her life in intimate and remarkable detail, and despite the tumult celebrates her own resilience. This unapologetic account both moves and fascinates.” Christopher Borelli writes in the Chicago Tribune, “My bet for breakout of the year. The Chicagoan’s memoir takes on gender expectations and marital affairs in such a brutal, self-lacerating candor, you wonder who should play her in the movie,” and Meredith Maran of the Los Angeles Times says “Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason . . . [is] her most lyrical, adventurous and important work.”
Because this interview comes a few months after the publication of the book, Frangello has already addressed many of the key threads of the book, particularly infidelity and desire. When she agreed to speak to me about the book for Hippocampus, I wanted to touch on what for me were some of the other very compelling issues presented in the book, particularly class, embodied experience, and of course craft. I’m grateful for how generously she shared her time and her wisdom for this interview.
Sarah Einstein : I found the early chapters of BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN key to understanding the rest of the book. You set up for us a clear example of something which lays claim to our loyalty—here, the working-class neighborhood in which you grew up—that we must choose to either leave behind or limit the possibilities of our own lives. As someone from Appalachia, I’m deeply familiar with that pull between staying and going, and how each choice comes with certain costs. I think this is especially true when the move away from a place is also a move from working to middle or upper middle class; a move is reversed when you divorce your husband and are once again in a precarious financial situation. Could you talk a little bit about BYHD as a memoir of class?
Gina Frangello: There’s no question that economic, intellectual, and cultural class all play major roles in both my book and in my own development. Excluding the ultra-rich, to whom of course very few people can relate, I have pretty much traversed the economic class spectrum in this country, having grown up below the poverty line and then, at one point while I was still married to my first husband, being part of the lower end of the “one percent.” But the thing about class in this culture is that it has a lot of tentacles.
So much of the mentality of capitalism hinges on the idea that money is, essentially, everything…but while not downplaying the massive role economics play in the American psyche, it’s also true that there are more varied ways to be poor than there are to be rich, if that makes sense. For example, by the time of my divorce, I had two master’s degrees and several published books, so regardless of what the outcome of my divorce could have been financially, I had already ‘left behind,’ as you say, the world of my youth, where I was the first person on either side of my family to go away to college. My father was a bartender who hadn’t finished eighth grade and stopped working when I was ten due to ill health, and my mother was a secretary who worked in a windowless basement of a school for $9k a year at the time I went to college. What I mean is that through education and culture I had attained a kind of privilege that was not necessarily connected to my income, and that separated me from my past, even as I was also separating from a higher degree of economic privilege.
But one of the things I explore in Blow Your House Down is also that certain systems like patriarchy and racism are every bit as in effect in the middle and upper classes as they are when you’re poor. I had attributed much of it—the sexual and racial violence I’d seen as a kid, the misogyny—on economics, and that turned out not to hold much water. No matter where I existed on the economic spectrum, these same systems were in place, just sometimes more covertly. And I think for women, for people of color, for people with disabilities or illnesses, economic class is just one corner of a very complex intersection of how class is coded, and it can be impossible to separate these things.
It’s also true that while genuine not-enough-to-eat, nowhere-to-live, no-health-insurance level poverty often results in poor health, danger, unhappiness, and stress, the tiers of comparative financial security translate much less neatly into increased happiness as one moves up the notches. Once a person’s basic needs are met economically, there is the luxury of looking at one’s inner life, at emotions and excitement and desire and laughter and all of these things you aren’t likely thinking a lot about if you don’t know where your children’s next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep that night. Although my divorce demoted me financially—and here it needs to be stipulated that divorces generally demote everyone financially, including the spouse who made the better living—I am still leading a life very much on those tiers of security. I kept our family home, where all three of my children grew up and where, at the time I left my marriage, both of my parents still lived with us. I still had assets. It took about three years of scrambling, taking every editing and adjuncting gig I could get my hands on in addition to a full time lectureship, to stabilize my income, but cash poor is different from poor poor, and I intimately knew that from past experiences.
When my ex was the one supporting our large family, I had a lot of gratitude for that, and as I became increasingly unhappy in the marriage, my sense of debt made it doubly hard to leave, on top of all the emotions that come with cleaving from any relationship that has lasted a quarter century. Then, when I did leave, I made a lot of knee-jerk, fearful, and self-disparaging assumptions that I would never be able to earn enough on my own to support my children or have time to write again now that I was the primary wage-earner. I’m very glad to say—and I think it’s important for many other financially dependent spouses to hear—that those assumptions did not turn out to be true. Something being harder doesn’t make it impossible.
SE: I found the way you capture being an embodied person with such startling self-awareness. My breath caught when I read the sentence
Though I would try—too hard, too cruelly—to use my husband’s body to fuck the desire for my Not Yet Lover out of my pores over the ensuing months, I would fail at everything except the realization that, while I had been busy plastering on a smile and trying to find happiness… some essential core of myself had already left the building and could not be summoned back.
The absolute clarity of that had me back in my first marital bed, discovering the same thing, and I’ve never seen how we often discover that we are leaving through sex put so succinctly. And again, when you write about the first time you visited your lover in a desert cabin for the first time, where your sex is full of power and sensory play and you write ‘I had never known intimacy so beyond the domain of ego or language before.’
This is also true when you write about the illness and death of others, and the embodied experience of your own cancer. So much of this book felt like a manifesto for women’s right to inhabit their bodies, with its desires and its dangers. Was part of the project of this work to stake that claim, which as you note above is one of the manifestations of the patriarchy that cuts across class and race, and what do you think women lose when we are alienated from our embodied selves?
GF: So the short answer would be yes, absolutely. But that’s just an entry into the more core answer, which is that I was trying very specifically to stake claim, as you said, or to at least share in the claiming of documenting the bodies of women who are no longer young. While young women are often terrorized emotionally and sometimes physically by the ways their bodies are fetishized and rendered constantly visible and sexualized by the male gaze, middle aged women, post-menopausal women, women who have been sick, women with disabilities, often feel a kind of opposite trauma of suddenly being rendered invisible by that omnipresent, collective gaze, and while—absolutely—some women feel profound relief at this and are overjoyed to finally be left alone, many other women carry profound shame about no longer being young, no longer having, perhaps, reproductive organs, or of having become disabled or sick.
The story of the female body is often dichotomized between being relentlessly fetishized and harassed vs. being desexualized entirely, considered inconsequential, and in both cases it’s a story fed to us largely from every corner of the culture at large from magazines to music to film to of course our institutions such as the medical industrial complex. There is and has been a very vibrant feminist conversation taking place in literature about the bodies of women coming of age, with many groundbreaking memoirs about embodiment during youth and earlier adulthood. Often these stories are told once the writer is somewhat older and looking back with clarity and wisdom at what it was to grow up inside a female body and to buck against the stories they were being told of what their bodies were supposed to want and supposed to do.
Some of my favorite writers have mapped this territory and changed the landscape of literature by doing so. But I think there are fewer flags yet stuck in to the story of aging bodies, and in particular fewer stories of mothers past a certain age. Many memoirs by women end with getting married or having children—think about it, and I’m sure you could rattle off a list of ten such memoirs almost without even thinking about it. The publishing industry loves these books because Motherhood is seen as the end of a woman’s story, whereas perhaps retirement from work is seen as the end of a man’s, and both things are messed up—the way old people are seen in the United States is wildly problematic—but look, under this system one story ends at maybe thirty-five and the other at sixty-five? No. Everyone’s story keeps going until their death.
But one reason that truth isn’t rendered enough in literature is that the sexuality of mothers remains almost comedically taboo in the United States—almost funny, if it weren’t so damaging. No one has ever questioned whether fathers are still sexual. No one has questioned whether fathers are still human beings worthy of second chances and redemption or simply their messy, flawed, realities when they transgress prescribed behavior…and of course even then, prescribed behaviors are very different for men, much less tied to so-called morality and more tied to capitalism, with worth being determined by money or visible markers of economic success. That’s problematic too—many men lead constrictively narrow lives in which they ‘are what they do,’ they are their careers, with little value placed on friendships or even their domestic lives, and I think it’s important to say that while individual men benefit in many ways from patriarchy, patriarchy is an entrenched system that individual men who are alive today did not create, and it’s a system that limits almost all men too, that sends eighteen year old, predominantly poor teenagers into wars started by old, rich, white men—that harshly penalizes male bodies for stepping outside of heteronormative masculinity…patriarchy is not good for anyone except a very small group of men at the top of the food chain, and everyone else suffers under it. But that’s a different story.
In terms of middle-aged womanhood, especially as it intersects with motherhood, what I observed in was that a lot of women have been deeply shamed over things that they didn’t even choose, such as cancer, such as having a prosthetic limb or a hysterectomy or infertility, shamed for not being what the culture deems perfect. There are so many ways that women are taught shame of even…having bodies. I’m thinking of those lines in Anais Nin stories—I’m paraphrasing here, but a frequent so-called compliment that comes up in Nin’s work is more or less “you are so perfect that it’s impossible to believe you have a sex”—sex in this context meaning a vagina, a sexual organ. In other words—and this is erotica written by a very adventurous woman in her day—a perfect woman is like a Barbie doll, without the ability to urinate or bleed—or orgasm, for that matter. A woman is, historically, an object of consumption more than a Subject in her own right.
I think this has changed a lot for younger women, although it goes without saying that it hasn’t changed enough. I don’t think as much new ground has been staked for middle aged and older women, particularly those who are mothers, and let’s just say I went into this book believing that, but I believe it even more strongly now based on the responses I get literally almost daily from readers who feel as though the book is saying things they didn’t feel allowed to say. I had a sense of that going in, and so I was as open as I could be about things like my illness, my bilateral mastectomy, my hip replacement, my Interstitial Cystitis, all of those messy physical realities amidst which I remain a sexual person, but I tried to take it further and in a sense de-stigmatize the shame of these things women don’t even choose by writing also very nakedly about taboo behaviors that I did choose.
To commit infidelity is not a morally great choice, is a hurtful choice, irrespective of gender, if you are in a relationship in which monogamy is the agreement, and there is that truth, and there is also the parallel truth that this wrongness is not judged at the same level for men as it is for women, or for younger, child-free women as it is for middle-aged mothers, and that this is a sticky and tricky intersection because something can be wrong and yet also it’s bullshit that some people can commit the same wrong and still be seen as fully human and sympathetic, and others who commit this wrong are seen as monstrous or irredeemable. Pushed to the extreme we have seen throughout history the harsh ways women who commit adultery have been treated—and sometimes killed—compared to the men with whom they committed it.
So I don’t know if this makes sense, but I felt that if I could write about myself making problematic choices with my body, it might not just insist on my right to remain fully human in the aftermath, but also it could potentially de-stigmatize some of what happens to women’s bodies in absence of choice, because I have encountered so, so many women who live in a kind of hiding of their bodies’ realities, who have hidden their mastectomies, who have shame over their miscarriages, who castigate themselves or fear judgement from others for things over which they had zero control, and who come to see their bodies as, in a sense, their enemies, as something they are fighting against or jumping frantically through hoops creating a smoke and mirrors to hide the realities of.
Because, I mean, you ask what happens if we are alienated from our embodied self and the answer is that we’re living half a life, we’re living on autopilot, we are living in shame, and we are living disconnected from ourselves, and we are somehow telling ourselves a culturally collective story that this is good for our children, to be raised by women who hate ourselves. It is not good for children to grow up with mothers constantly simmering in shame. This damaging cultural mythology not only hurts mothers but also continues to fuck up future generations if we allow it to continue.
SE: Your answer leads me directly to an observation I made a long time ago about your writing, both in fiction and nonfiction, which is that you render complexity on the page with great deftness. I think BYHD absolutely gets the difficult dichotomies you speak of and picks at the taboos against women—particularly middle aged women—owning their embodied experience precisely because you get all of the glory and the mess of that living on the page.
Two of my favorite chapters in the book are the first (“The Story of A”) and the last (“The Cartographers: Fifty Meditations). Written as collages, both of these essays leave a lot of the meaning making up to the reader, who supplies their own emphasis and connective tissue to the passages.
As a reader, this very much contributed to my sense of being asked to juggle many ideas and, rather to reach a conclusion about any of them, to simply hold in my head their multiplicity. It also struck me as extremely brave, because I think in all memoir—but particularly in a memoir that is so focused on the most personal parts of a life—there’s a desire to guide the reader toward one understanding, one way of seeing the narrative character.
To set the reader free in this way at both the beginning and the ending of the book creates a special alchemy; one that makes it very clear you’re not asking for things it’s not the reader’s place to give, such as forgiveness or validation. That you are instead asking the reader to think about all the ways in which constructions of gender and class are at play, on the page and in their own lives. Could you talk about that craft choice a little?
GF: So this actually gets at some very intense and long-held beliefs I have about writing. I’ve said many times, and always believed, that every reader encounters a different text even though the words on the page—or these days the screen—are the same. We all bring our own values, demons, personal experiences, etc. to the text. This, in the world of literary fiction, particularly when I was coming of age in the 1980s and 90s, has usually been a given. When you’re weaned on writers like Mary Gaitskill and Margaret Atwood and E.L. Doctorow and Kathy Acker and Toni Morrison and so on, you don’t tend to approach writing with a preset agenda to either “inspire” the reader in a self-help kind of way or to “decode” the text for them and spoon feed them what you, the writer, think their take-away should be.
I have never, in the history of my work, ever thought in terms of trying to convince readers to love a particular character (my mentor, Cris Mazza, always called this “beloved character syndrome,” and essentially taught me that nothing will make readers dislike a character more than the writer trying to make the readers love that character without earning it). Although I’ve written creative nonfiction for twenty years in short form, my four previous books are all fiction, and as I have ever understood it, as I have ever experienced it, the best fiction, the kind that has made the greatest impact on my life, is concerned with showing the messy and complex human condition, with depicting truly deep individuality and psychology of characters, not with…I guess only writing about characters who are “good.”
And in terms of gender, I think it’s very safe to say that this is something male writers have always felt comfortable with—the literary canon, the books we are taught in school, our most famous films too, are populated with some highly problematic men. I mean, the most famous men of literature are often full on murderers, pedophiles, gangsters, and so on. Something like adultery is not only very widely depicted, but is fairly mundane in the chronicles of misdeeds written by white, straight men. We could go on a tangent here and debate which books may actually be so offensive that perhaps teaching and lauding them widely wasn’t always the best idea, but my point is that in the history of literature, film, television—any art that depicts characters with any depth—male writers have always been comfortable with Shakespearean body counts, with Humbert Humberts, with Walter Whites and Don Corleones and Harry Angstroms.
This classifying of character through a lens of how “sympathetic” they are in the eyes of marketing departments or Goodreads is both a newer development in literature and also one that seems reserved exclusively for women writers and writers of color and queer writers, who are somehow tasked with “proving” the worth and validity of our fictional characters or—in memoir—ourselves as characters by making them exemplary people.
Women writers often seem tasked with offering other women—because it’s presumed men don’t read books by women—some template of how to lead a good life. And when I say good, I mean of course a narrative of reassurance. We’ve come far enough as a society that we’ll cheer at a woman leaving her profoundly abusive spouse, but in real life your spouse doesn’t have to be a monster for your marriage to fall apart. Your spouse can be a decent person, with normal flaws, and you can still be unhappy. Nobody—literally nobody—thinks that men only have affairs because their wives must be terrible people. I mean, if you said something like that, even men who are unrepentant serial cheaters would come to their wives’ defenses and rightly say that such an assumption would be idiotic. People do things all the time for reasons that are not about good vs. evil. People are unfulfilled by things that maybe a lot of those around them look at and say should have been fulfilling. People of all genders and races and ethnicities and sexual orientations commit complicated actions that are not the terrain of self-help books or the Ten Commandments.
I find it offensive that the dominant power block of straight white men is permitted to write flawed characters—in other words, real human characters—but that it’s women’s job to be perpetually likeable and virtuous. The reason for that, as I see it, is that “happiness” or “fulfillment” are not seen as valuable things in married women with children. It’s no longer our jobs to have any kind of complex inner life or personal needs—we’re supposed to think only of others and their happiness, and we are supposed to be martyrs for the greater good, and there is absolutely no presumption at all, not even a little bit, that it might be damaging to the greater good for scores of women to be unfulfilled, ashamed of our desires, unforgivable if we transgress, and cowed into upholding all the rules by dependence or fear.
And I also want to acknowledge that the publishing industry is predominantly made up of women—agents, editors, marketing departments—and that what we expect of women writers and women characters will never change en masse until the women who work in publishing stop buying into this double standard and refuse to uphold it.
When I set about really committing to writing a memoir, one of the first things I resolved was that I was not going to treat myself as a character more preciously than I would treat a protagonist in one of my novels. It is not my job to make the reader love or agree with me, or to be a template to the reader of how to get things—money, love, approval, self-acceptance, any of that—like a how-to checklist. It is not my job to be a guru that the reader can look up to and put on a pedestal as a font of wisdom. My job is to dive deeply.
One of the things about literary fiction is that you have to trust your reader. You’re allowed to present ambiguities and questions without answers. You’re allowed to be an asshole in one situation and a loving and kind person in another situation. I say in the book that the reduction of a woman to any prime number is always a mistake, but listen, that is true of all people, clearly, not just women; it’s true of all characters, in fiction and nonfiction. If you aren’t showing someone as more than one thing, you aren’t writing a full character, you’re writing a type in shorthand, a character sketch rather than a person.
If I didn’t think that the character of me stood up, in terms of complexity rendered on the page, to the kind of nuance and muddiness with which I would depict a protagonist in one of my novels, I would not have published a memoir. If I honestly believed that every single thing I did in the book was 100% justified and right, there would be no book. Literature complicates and questions. It opens spaces for recognition, for comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable, for making readers feel less alone. There is no literature without characters who fuck up. Full stop.
SE: I’ve been really gratified to see the reception this book has received. Everyone I know, it seems, has read or is reading it, and spontaneous conversations about it seem to crop up in all my social environments. I’m very excited to see the impact that the work is having on the ways women talk about their own lives and allegiances.
I know you’ve recently started Circe Consulting, which will offer courses, retreats, and editing services to writers, as a founding partner, along with Emily Rapp and Heather Scheeler. That’s quite a powerhouse! Can you tell me about the undertaking, and about what’s next for you as a writer?
GF: First, thank you for your kind words about Blow Your House Down. That’s always so incredibly great to hear.
As far as my becoming an entrepreneur, yes, Emily and I — who have been very close friends and colleagues since 2012 — launched Circe the month before COVID hit. It was both a terrible and strangely apropos time to launch a business of this nature, because Emily and I live 2,000 miles apart from one another and therefore the vast majority of our work, other than retreats, is conducted online, and suddenly the entire world had gone online.
We’ve had students and clients from every time zone, even from New Zealand, from Canada, things that wouldn’t be possible in person. Thus far we’ve run four classes and are about to begin our first year-long course with a new cohort, with a second section opening in May 2022. At this time, developmental editing is still our steadiest and most time-consuming work—we each work with private clients and we also work collaboratively with some clients together.
Our retreat in Ketchum, Idaho, has been postponed twice due to COVID but is set to happen for real in late September, and to say we’re excited for it is beyond an understatement. All of our participants have shown proof of vaccination and we’ve kept the group small and intimate. We also run a lot of 8-week classes, which are at a considerably lower price point than either private developmental editing or our year-long course, because we’re trying to keep the costs affordable, and we’ve had several opportunities to offer scholarships and half-scholarships to women writers of color, especially BIPOC. We have some plans in the works for retreats in both Wales and Italy, too.
I’ll be totally open here and say that for me, Circe has been an alternative to scrounging for full-time, tenure track academic jobs at the age of 53, because I think my age makes me much less marketable than someone, say, twenty years my junior, and also because I’m quite past the age of being game to relocate just anywhere for a teaching position. There are about four or five places in the United States where my husband Rob and I would be happy to live, but as you might imagine these are mostly the places where competition for tenure track gigs are absolutely the most intense, such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago.
Although I remain open to academia, between the pandemic and my not being in my thirties like most recent PhD grads, Circe has given me an alternative that also offers enormous geographic freedom. This is particularly awesome because my husband works at a low residency program and can work from anywhere, too, and that’s a thing we’re both excited about exploring once my fifteen-year-old has gone away to college.
Finally, I’d really love to give a shout out to the Circe students, because they’ve been such a genuine balm during these pandemic months. Just to know that once a week, for example, we would be holding space for writers who have really, usually, been through some serious shit, and who are experienced and wise and trying to find ways to reconcile their lives with language and to communicate and connect with others through those words…it’s been beautiful, sanity-preserving, nourishing. I tend to like my students a lot everywhere I teach, but there is something about a clientele that isn’t seeking academic credit, with an age range in a given class of, say, nineteen years old to seventy-plus, all teaching one another.
It’s a cliche to say that teachers learn as much from their students as the inverse, but not only is that true but I think the Circe model also is appealingly non-hierarchical. Emily and I have experience in the lit world that not everyone who studies with us has, and we have a language for craft that comes from being part of the literary community and from studying writing, but we’ve also had writing professors and even bestselling writers in our courses. Circe is a community, and we hope to grow it over time because this past year and a half has been such a reminder of the need for that, and of what it gives to all of us in terms of making our way through crucible times.
GINA FRANGELLO is also the author of Every Kind of Wanting, A Life in Men, Slut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in Ploughshares, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, HuffPost, Fence, Five Chapters, Prairie Schooner, Chicago Reader, and many other publications. She lives with her family in the Chicago area. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or her website.