"Certain issues of being a woman follow you no matter where you go," Gina Frangello told me over the phone not long ago. "No matter how you may change your life, you could still end up right where you started."
In Blow Your House Down, her recently released memoir, Frangello not only explores the "issues of being a woman," but also the many ways her life changed — or, rather, the many ways in which she changed her life — when she fell in love with a man who was not her husband. One thing can be said for certain: At the end of the book, Frangello did not end up in the same place in which she started. And neither does the reader.
Blow Your House Down is both an interrogation of Frangello's life and also of the lives of so many other women — in particular, wives and mothers and daughters — who make the kind of choices that have been deemed unforgivable. Frangello's willingness to confront her various transgressions — not just her affair, but the other secrets she kept, the lies she told to her children — can feel destabilizing in its intimacy, and in its power to make the reader question just what it is about Frangello's actions that feels so discomfiting. Is it her desire? Is it her rage? Is it her pain? Is it just that she's a woman?
Below, I spoke with Frangello about Burn Your House Down, what it means to be a "good mother," and why she never even considered trying to make herself a "likeable character."
Burn Your House Down encompasses your entire life, tracing your relationship with your parents, your violence-checkered childhood in Chicago, and up into your adult years, but it focuses most clearly on the years when you had an affair, the dissolution of your marriage, and the aftermath. What was it like to explore your life in this way? To approach your own story in such a confrontational way?
I wanted to wrestle with my own character, because that seemed like the only true thing to do. The big breakthrough for me was really realizing that once I put myself on the page, I too was a character — and, if anything, I was the main character. I needed to go deeper in myself. Some of the things that I found really uncomfortable were hard to write about and were hard to put on a page and think about people reading. But it felt as though that was the only way I could tell a true story. And I won't say, like, the true story, because I think there are many true stories from different angles, but my true story — my real, lived emotional story — was very rooted in interrogating myself as I would have with a fictional character.
As much as you might know that the right thing to do as a writer is to be merciless in confronting the repercussions of your decisions and actions, was it hard to do that in practice? Particularly knowing how unforgiving people can be about women — particularly wives and particularly mothers — who stray from our idealized versions of them?
I believe strongly that if someone is writing a memoir, if they aren't basically willing to make themself look bad — if their agenda is to be likeable and to sway the reader to their side and have it be an explanation for why they did what they did, where inevitably the reader is then going to just be rooting for them unilaterally and thinking that this person is just the inspirational heroine — well, I don't really like those kinds of books.
And, they're not the kinds of books that I've written as a fiction author. My characters — both male and female — have always been very complicated people, very messy people, people who make, you know, a lot of bad decisions. And that was part of the process of realizing that I needed to be as ruthless with myself as I would be with a fictional character; it’s essentially realizing that I had made a lot of the same errors and done a lot of the same complicated, messy things that I would have been perfectly comfortable writing about in fiction, but it was hard because it was me, you know? You just have to let go of the idea that you're trying to present yourself as likeable.
I had to eventually come to the conclusion that it didn't matter whether the reader liked me or felt sympathetic toward me or not. I was trying to talk about certain things that happened in the lives of women. And it wasn't imperative that I be everyone's idea of a sympathetic narrator or a sympathetic heroine. There is a liberation in being able to stop thinking of a text as potentially didactic in any way, or persuasive. What was liberating was being able to look at myself as someone who could be messy.
But also, what is it that's making me potentially not sympathetic? Or, you know, less likeable to certain audiences? The rules are different once you're a mom and once you're of a certain age. If anything, this is one of the main reasons I wrote the book. We’ve gotten to a certain place in that the marketplace is virtually flooded with memoirs about young women who are having various misadventures or going astray or whatever. But we’re still in a place as a culture where we tend to be more willing to read about those things when they're happening in somebody's twenties or teens. And we tend to not only feel sympathetic towards them, but also, I think, there is almost an element of fetishization of the "wild young woman." But, at the end of many of these books — though certainly not all — you have the resolution, marriage and children, and that tends to be how the story ends.
There is a big belief system in our culture — it’s probably in most cultures — that once a woman has reached a certain age and has had children and is raising children, she is not expected to really have very many needs of her own or a very complex inner life of her own. And she's certainly not supposed to suddenly thrash around and need to change her entire life.
You also grapple with what it means to be a woman who isn't "easy" in other ways — you write very unsparingly about illness, both the chronic pain you experienced when you were younger and your cancer diagnosis following your separation from your ex-husband. These kinds of experiences, and the women who have them, are usually rendered invisible.
We don't have a lot of room for women who are middle-aged or women who have been sick, or women who are moms to be able to make the same kinds of mistakes or upheavals that young women do. And there's a big double standard, because we allow men to make those mistakes at any age and we remain sympathetic towards them if they show any insight about it or any remorse or any awareness of what they've done; they're commended above and beyond.
So for me, I had to put myself out there. I know some people will relate to my situation and other people will think that I was a terrible person, but I feel like that dialogue is essential and that it's still just starting to emerge and I wanted to be part of it. I had things I wanted to say about that. Those things ultimately became more important than what the individual reader might think about me.
As you said earlier, this memoir is not intended to be a guide for how to live your life — it's not prescriptive; it's not self-help. It does, though, feel helpful in the sense that it’s so rare to have honest accounts of these kinds of experiences, without a tidy ending. Was it hard to resist that kind of narrative, though? The kind that we're so used to reading?
On the one hand, I feel as though, in too many memoirs, if a woman does stray or have an affair or even contemplate having an affair or act like a bad wife for a period of time, the inspirational ending is often a moment of, Oh, you know, I realized I was wrong and I fixed everything and, and, you know, yay. It’s the triumph of the nuclear heterosexual family and so forth. But there are also books that, as part of a feminist angle, almost posit that anything that the main character does — that the woman in the book does — is justified because, patriarchy. And I was really trying to walk between those two places. I didn't feel like the message I wanted to send at all was that, you know, Oh, if you want to be a feminist, go have an affair and blow up your life. But I also didn't want the narrative to be, you know, the only solution to having broken out of a mold is to return to the mold with your tail between your legs, reaffirming the mold in every way.
I was constantly balancing between those two poles. I was very wary of not wanting to act as though I was recommending my actions. But, I wanted to show that there are very few endings we pose for women; basically, you're either allowed to get married, have kids, and live happily ever after, or you're allowed to kind of disappear because you've become older and uninteresting and in the eyes of the culture — or you're allowed to completely self-destruct.
I think that has been really destructive for a lot of women — a lot of real women — in the sense that they think if they make a mistake, or if they do something that really derails their lives, that their lives have lost value and meaning, and that self-destruction is encouraged. For women of every age, self-destruction is a really big part of our narrative, so I wanted to suggest that you can derail your life astronomically, but you keep going and your story doesn't end there.
Motherhood is so often thought of as the "end" of women's stories, as if they've achieved some kind of utopian state of ideal womanhood. Why is it that perfection is still demanded of mothers, even though not only is it impossible, but also, probably, it's the opposite of what it would mean to be good?
The central question, the reason why I included that bit about my daughters having busted me [and found out I was having an affair] is because I felt like it was literally the worst moment of my life, and the thing that I feel most guilty about my life. I felt like I couldn't write a real book without admitting that that had happened. But then I also felt like that was a really crucial part of the idea that our stories are constantly evolving. That moment happens, and then you remain a mother for the rest of your life, you know? So it was important to show myself grappling with that and having to stand in the fire and having to show up and be a good mother, even after having done something that was definitely not good. I wanted to show what it was to be able to hold those multiple truths simultaneously, instead of just throwing in the towel and giving up, like, Oh well, I screwed up. It’s irrevocable.
My kids are the most important thing in the world to me. And there was no way that that was going to be the end of the story and my relationship with my children. I needed to not allow that to be this thing that we never talked about again; not only did I not want to have an artificial relationship and present myself as an artificial person or a hidden person in the shadows to them, but I also really began to realize what that might do to their future relationships.
There are many, many reasons that a person confesses to a double life, and some of them are about being in love with the person that you are having an affair with; some of them are about just not wanting to be a liar anymore. Definitely one of them for me was that this couldn't be the end of my authentic relationship with my daughters; that was not okay for them or for me.
I wanted to show that we're always in process and that mothers are allowed to make mistakes like everybody else. And, and maybe your mistake did change your kids' lives in a lot of ways, but it doesn't mean that your story with them is over. And it doesn't mean that, once you've done something that would fall under the banner of “bad mother” that you can never move out of that box for the rest of your life.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.