A Memoir About Divorcing the Patriarchy
Gina Frangello, author of “Blow Your House Down,” on how marriage, motherhood, and heteronormativity keep women boxed in
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Gina Frangello had a suspicion there was a hunger to talk about women who break the rules. In advance of the release of Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism and Treason, she admits after some prodding, “I got more letters from women before this book came out than I ever received for all of my four other books cumulatively.”
In Blow Your House Down, Frangello tells the story of falling in love with a man who wasn’t her husband. Of becoming herself, finally, in mid-life, while caring for her children and aging parents, divorcing, and getting breast cancer. Of the day her best friend died, after which, “I never once felt even mildly tempted to pretend I was anyone else again,” she writes.
Indeed, before I could get my hands on it, her book was appearing on most-anticipated lists and had racked up three-star reviews from Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and Library Journal. What was this blasphemy? This untold tale, this pent-up story that legions of women needed to talk about?
Her “treason” was daring to question the ways women are boxed in by the American institutions of marriage, motherhood and the medical industrial complex. The book simply throbs: with the quenching of new desires, with beloved bodies living and dying, with promises to children being stitched carefully back together. It pushes the boundaries of form, experiments with point of view, negotiates our social imperatives.
If her story is connecting with so many women, Frangello muses:
“That only reinforces how silenced women have been. Because my story is not that radical. I am a heterosexual-ish white woman who lives in a nice house. I didn’t leave my children and take up van life or even have an affair with another woman. If this is as far as the publishing industry has allowed women to go, just wow, are we failing to give a wide array of women voices to speak about their truth.”
I first met Frangello when she was faculty advisor to a literary magazine I wrote for in graduate school, and I couldn’t wait to speak to her about the book. Because as the buzz for Blow Your House Down was building, I was beginning to hear from long-time girlfriends after a year in quarantine, and at least half of them were saying the same thing: my life is no longer working.
I spoke with Frangello via Zoom from Chicago, where she lives with her family, teaches, and writes.
Amy Reardon: It seems like every other friend I talk to is on the verge of blowing up her life. And by life, I mean, specifically heteronormative couples with children. Are you hearing the same thing?
Gina Frangello: Yes.
AR: Why do you think?
GF: I think for a lot of people, their heteronormative marriages are much more traditional than they may appear at first glance. I think a lot of heterosexual married couples do not actually spend that much time together and are not each other’s primary confidant. And when suddenly you are in a situation where you never leave the house, the cracks show. One of the ways that people avoid seeing the cracks is by dancing as fast as we can in our American lifestyle.
AR: Your book is about a woman who has made herself sick trying to live up to the expectations of women in our culture, and once she lets her real self out of the box, there’s no going back. Can you talk about that?
GF: It’s complicated, right? Because some of the things that you’re saying are kind of also true of men. While my book has an angle toward women and is strongly feminist, and I am fairly obsessed with feminism, I do think that the life of the average middle-aged man is just as constricted.
I think a lot of middle-aged men don’t have a whole lot of friends. Work is their life, and the amount of time they spend with their families is really limited. But women can’t get away with that. We have careers, we have elderly parents we’re taking care of, we’re often also the primary liaison with our husbands’ families. We’re buying the holiday presents, we’re arranging the birthday parties, we’re taking the children to the medical appointments, we’re liaising with whoever is providing childcare while we’re working. Then we’re expected to be fully present for our kids in a way that I don’t think anyone really expects of fathers.
We see a father at the park, and it’s like, “Oh, he’s a great dad.” Any effort is rewarded. Whereas for women, often no effort is sufficient. And amidst that, where is the space for a woman’s personal inner life—much less desire, feeling fully alive, feeling electric, feeling intoxicated with life? So you burn out, and you get to a point where, as many women I know say things like, “I wouldn’t even have the emotional energy to have an affair. All I want to do is lie in front of The Daily Show with a glass of wine and totally numb out because I’m exhausted all the time.”
Sadly, for both men and women, in order to feel a connection to who we are and to what it feels like to experience life fully—rather than through the prism of someone else’s needs—sometimes the only place that’s possible is away from the nuclear family unit.
AR: Why do you think it is so terrifying to be called a bad mom?
GF: It’s the ultimate slur for a woman. I think this is why we see so much more freedom in the memoirs about women’s youth than we do in the memoirs about women’s middle age. We’ve gotten to a point, culturally, where we can write books about our misadventures in youth, whatever they were. If we were a drug addict, if we were promiscuous, if we were a sex worker, or a terrible daughter. Whatever we did, if we write about it from a time before we were married and had children, that will more likely be devoured, sometimes fetishized, because our culture loves to gawk at the pain of hot, young women. But we don’t tend to demonize the woman for having done those things when she was younger.
AR: Then we’re supposed to grow up and be responsible?
GF: Yes, it’s utterly different if you write about these things once you’re a mother because in our culture, “she’s a bad mother” is one of the worst things they can say about you. It’s in fact one of the ways women of color are demonized. They have their children taken away from them for smaller infractions than white women do. They’re demonized for having children at all if they don’t have tons of money, accused of wanting the government to take care of them. If you look at the way motherhood is coded between middle-class white women versus women of color or working-class and poor women, you see a massive cultural difference. A whole group of mothers are being branded bad mothers from the get-go and therefore dismissed.
AR: Whereas for upper-middle-class motherhood?
GF: We worship at the altar of the fantasy of the holy, all-giving, altruistic, white, well-off mother. As though this is a saintly thing to have done, to have children. But oh, those other women over there are not saintly, they made a bad decision for having children.
So either way, you are supposed to be defined by becoming a mother, and if you fall into the group of women who are coded as saintly and virtuous by virtue of reproduction, but then you fail to revere your cultural coding by doing what is expected of you, well, how dare you? Because you’re questioning this whole altar we’ve built to worship Motherhood—capital M—that reinforces racism, classism, and gives middle-class, upper-middle-class white women a little star that is actually a way of manipulating white women into upholding patriarchal and racist systems. It’s like, “Here, ladies: see? We do value you. What would we do without mothers who keep the hearth?” And we’re supposed to be happy with this token and think now we’re appreciated and that this is a form of equality with men. We’re supposed to think: Oh those poor women over there, they’re not equal, they’re the ones we have to worry about. But we’re not helping the women who are being othered and demonized, we’re swallowing a line of patriarchal bullshit and then becoming complicit in it.
AR: Do you think interrogating the dark corners of a woman’s desire is scary for some readers and critics?
GF: It’s really liberating to some and it’s scary to some. I’m trying to excavate the ways women have been treated systemically throughout history. So there are indictments in the book, but I’m not indicting anybody who chooses to stay in a safe practical marriage. I’m not saying everyone needs to throw caution to the wind and let desire and great passion be their true North. I made clear in the book, for example, that I wouldn’t have had any judgment of myself as a character if what I had ended up doing was staying with my former husband, because I think there are many different paths that people can take to wholeness.
Some people—women, critics—read a book like this and recognize their own kind of safe, practical, but not very happy marriage. Or perhaps they are dealing with a certain amount of anxiety and fear around constricting roles, like watching what they say with their male partner, and they may feel like this book is telling them they’re weak, they should be doing something else, or their life isn’t fulfilling.
I am just pointing out how many of us are living in those realities. How often being in a long-term heterosexual marriage has to do with a woman learning what she can and cannot say, how she can and cannot act, to keep peace. Not only between her and her husband, but between all of the members of the family, where she is the conduit who is always running around trying to smooth things out between everybody else. What that basically means is she’s working off a frantic script in her head of how to make everyone not explode at each other and her, and there’s not a lot of space in that script for how she may really feel. So I think a lot of women recognize their own reality in that, and then there are interpretations of how they feel about recognizing their own reality. It may be euphoric, or it may be hostile.
AR: It seems like everyone wants to talk about the infidelity, but you also write about the larger social issues that led to it?
GF: Yes, that’s the hot-button topic in this book, but to me, it wasn’t the only one. It’s only one avenue for exploring the lack of options that art, psychiatry, medicine have posited for women who step out of the box, particularly after a certain age. Look how we’ve glamorized and fetishized and gawked at self-destruction in women in film and literature. I fell into that pattern myself in some of my fiction—of presenting self-annihilation as maybe even the only sane response to this woman-hating world. It’s like if you see what’s going on, that’s the only option for you. I’ve loved so many books that seem to frame it that way: Lithium for Medea, the mythology around Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, the French films of the 1990s. Then I began to question why somehow, we always end up with a body count of women.
AR: This year’s film Promising Young Woman?
GF: Yes, right. I loved that. But for God’s sake, do any women who step out of the box get to go on?
AR: Like if you are a woman and you reject the status quo, your only option is death?
GF: It’s true in far too many women’s lives. Until fairly recently, if you did something like I did, you would lose your children. You would be excommunicated from society. There are still laws against infidelity in the United States, in a number of states. Now, are they practiced? Not often, of course, but it’s only been in recent history that a woman can dare to step out of the box, which men have always been permitted to do and remain members of society with rights. Once a woman gets in the box, it has seemed that the only way out for most of human history is to lose everything. So as a person who had managed it—I lost things, but I didn’t lose everything—I felt like I needed to share that story. There is life after having done things you’re not allowed to do, and even after things you regret.
AR: In the book, your best friend Kathy dies. Do you think in some ways that set off the chain of events?
GF: Oh absolutely. Prior to Kathy’s death, I knew I was significantly less happy in my marriage than I had once been, but I also felt that this was just life. Kathy’s death revealed holes in my life, revealed loneliness, revealed things I was not getting in my marital relationship.
When your closest comrade, the person that you spend the most time with outside of your children, gets a diagnosis out of nowhere, you definitely question, “How am I living? Am I living the way I would be living if I had four months to live? Am I living the way I would be living if I had four years to live?” And for me, the answer was no. It hadn’t always been no, and I think that’s really important to stress because I think memoirs about divorce can be very reductive, as in she left the man who made her unhappy and then found someone who made her happy. It’s not that simple. People change, and marriages change. Something can have been genuinely good for us at one time and that, sadly, doesn’t mean it always will be.
AR: One of the things I loved about the book was its ambivalence, like the third time you went back to your ex to patch things up. Or this moment, with your new partner:
“Somehow my lover and I have fast-forwarded through two decades of coupledom and here we are, just where we both left off: a woman crying in another room and a stone-silent man pretending not to hear her.”
Can you talk about why it was important to track that ambivalence?
GF: Oh God, yes. I mean, I was careful to track those so carefully because I had absolutely zero interest in writing a book where the message was, “Unhappy in your marriage? Have a passionate affair and it will solve all of your problems.” There have been some books like that, and many others where the woman ends up off the cliff or in the Thames with rocks in her pockets. But I wasn’t trying to write a swaggering book that suggests if you’re in a traditional or oppressive marriage, you stick it to the patriarchy by having an affair. Relationships are complicated, and when both people in an extramarital relationship have been in marriages that have lasted two decades or more, and one of the parties has three children, things are going to burn to the ground. And I don’t just mean with regards to the fall-out of divorce. Very quickly I realized there were no guarantees in my relationship with my lover either. I didn’t know if that was going to translate to a future. I had to ultimately realize that I was leaving for myself, not for someone else. I didn’t want to go backwards, whether I stayed with my lover or went on alone.
AR: Do you think women have to blow their houses down to find the wholeness and depth that you’re talking about? And do you have any advice to those women writing you letters?
GF: I don’t think that it’s always necessary, not at all. At the end of the book, I talk about the many-worlds theory, in which, reductively put, all possible outcomes are physically realized in some parallel world, and I offer an alternate ending.
E. L. Doctorow does this in Book of Daniel. I directly ripped off the idea, where the fictional character Daniel presents three different endings of what could have been real. I ask could a person who’s been unhappy in their marriage, who’s had an affair, end up using that epiphany as a way to heal her marriage and to find more freedom and more self-expression within the marriage? That’s fully dependent on the people involved. Unfortunately, a very frequent result when a woman or a man has committed infidelity and then wants to save the marriage, is that they are expected to go back to being who they used to be. I think that that is probably not the way to go, because if things had been on the right path for both partners, the affair would not have happened. So, you have to be two people who are willing to throw a stick of dynamite and blow a whole new path for yourselves as a married couple. Some couples can do that. Others cannot.