“I tried to write a narrative that would talk about the collisions of full-throttle life and what happens to women who are over forty who don’t remain in that happily-ever-after state.” Gina Frangello discusses her new memoir, Blow Your House Down, and how through it she wants to challenge “the invisibility of middle-aged and older women and this false assumption that our inner lives and our changes and our evolutions just sort of stop after we get married and we have children.” She honestly discusses her past extramarital affair, and contemplates the surreal experience of leading many lives.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason.

Gina Frangello: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you are such a good writer. I am sure you know this, but wow. Your writing is so intense and vivid. Oh, my gosh, it was really, really good.

Gina: I appreciate that. Thank you.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners what your book is about and how you ended up writing it? Why did you write this book?

Gina: Oh, wow. Really, one of the reasons that it’s hard to describe what the book is about is because it’s about all the messy intersections of a middle-aged life of a woman going off the rails in various different ways, some self-imposed. Part of the narrative is that I am having an extramarital affair for several years of the story. Obviously, that was an off the rails of my own making. Also, my best friend dies of ovarian cancer at the onset of the story, which is a bit of the catalyst for a lot of the events. Shortly after I leave my marriage after this affair, my father dies, who lives in my house. I’m diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m then openly in a relationship with the person who was then my lover who’s now my husband. His ex-wife gets breast cancer almost immediately after I do. Then I end up in chronic pain from a hip debilitation that was caused by the chemo. I end up having a hip replacement. Essentially, it’s all these different things. All the while, I’m parenting three kids. The book is a hybrid of memoir and cultural criticism.

It not only relays these events in my life and tries to look deeply into both my experience of them, how they came to be, but also, the role of women in psychiatry, in the medical-industrial complex, in the law, all of these various different historical components of women’s roles, and in many ways, the invisibility of middle-aged and older women and this false assumption that our inner lives and our changes and our evolutions just sort of stop after we get married and we have children, which is the end point of so many memoirs about women. I think that’s very industry reinforced. I’m not saying that in a negative way towards any of the writers of those memoirs. I think there’s a big push in the publishing industry to have this happy, inspirational ending. Women may write about their misadventures of their twenties or their teens. Then at the end, there’s this kind of redemption. Okay, I got married. I had children. The sky parted. Everything is great. Happily ever after. That was my story until it wasn’t. Once it wasn’t, I realized there were not a lot of books in the marketplace that were speaking to any of these disparate experiences I was having. Most of them that did exist were in self-help. I tried to write a narrative that would talk about the collisions of full-throttle life and what happens to women who are over forty who don’t remain in that happily-ever-after state.

Zibby: Wow. I relate to so much of that. I think that’s why I just love this. I’m remarried. I have four kids who I had with my previous husband. We have a lot of parallels going on. I lost a very close friend to ovarian cancer. I just feel like your story, in addition to being literary and beautiful, I just found a lot of myself in these pages. This whole, write to make others feels less alone, I’m like, here we go.

Gina: Right. That was the impetus. How I came to write it, you were asking. I originally was just planning to write a collection of essays about caregiving my parents. My parents lived downstairs from me since 1999. My father died in 2015 and my mother in 2019. They were very eccentric, funny, interesting people. Caretaking them while parenting three kids was an intense-enough experience, and so I had been planning to write about that. Once I got going, I just really realized that a lot of these other things I was writing about in secret because I felt they were unpalatable, that people maybe wouldn’t publish them or that it wasn’t okay to write about these things, then I realized that was exactly why I needed to do it. There were so many women out there who have felt that some aspect of this has been their experience. So much of it is still taboo, even things beyond our choosing like illness or losing body parts or having a limp or a disability temporarily. There’s so much shame in women for not just having these picture-perfect lives that I was trying to portray for a very long time while unraveling.

Zibby: You did such a good job even just taking us through your whole backstory so that we get to today, and how you painted the picture of your dad then and your dad now so that when you talk about his loss I feel sad as if I knew him because of the way you wrote about him, which of course is the biggest gift you can give to anyone who’s passed away, just recreating them, and so their spirit — you sort of get to know them. That sounds hokey, but I do believe that.

Gina: It was what I wanted, so thank you.

Zibby: Oh, good. The scene where your dad was sitting next to his friend from the neighborhood and they were in two wheelchair situations and saying, hey, babe, hey, babe, and just hanging, that’s it. Aging and all this stuff that happens to bodies, and illness and whatever, at the end of it, you’re just two friends being like, hey, babe, what’s up? It was just so poignant to me.

Gina: I really wanted my parents to come to life. If middle-age women who write books, if there are a lot of cultural misperceptions about what it is to be a middle-age woman, certainly there are even more misconceptions about what it’s like to be elderly and to have had all the health problems my parents had. My father struggled with mental illness. He never graduated from the eighth grade. His is not a story that has been very visible in the world. I really wanted to bring my parents to life very much in the book because they were so much to me, to my kids, and just such an enormous part of my life. I feel like people like my parents are not written about very often.

Zibby: Even when you’re like, I wish I had gone downstairs. They lived downstairs from you. You were up in your crazy life. Of course, it becomes hard to even walk downstairs to see your parents. Everybody has a parallel in their own lives. I should call my mom more. I should do this. I should go visit my grandmother. It was such a good reminder. You just have to stop and go downstairs. That’s it.

Gina: Yes. For such a long time, my mother in particular was part of my absolute daily life when she moved in in 1999, and my father as well, but my mother would come up every single morning for coffee. She hung out with me and my daughters constantly. She kind of went everywhere with us. She was really, in many ways, a coparent with me. As my life began to go increasingly off the rails once I was getting my divorce and I had to scramble to find full-time work and then I got cancer and my mom was no longer able to come up the stairs, at that point, my father was really living in a recliner by the window. It did, it became almost insanely challenging to continue to have the kind of quality of relationship with them that I had had because so much was happening that I could barely keep my head above water. Then it did make me think a lot about people who only get to see their parents a couple times a year and just how difficult that is. When their parents get sick and the responsibilities they have to somehow help, they may live in a completely different area of the country. I found that hard even with my parents right downstairs from me.

Zibby: I just wanted to read this passage if you don’t mind. It’s kind of random in this point of our conversation, but I didn’t want to forget to do it. The way you write, I know I mentioned this, it just stays with me, even these scenes. I just want to read this one paragraph. “In that Schrodinger’s box of uncertainty, my entire life is contained. In that in-between space, I am both having and not having an affair. Kathy is both living and dead. When I wake in my hotel bed alone two hours behind Chicago time, Kathy has already been carried away in the cart of my father’s dreams. That morning before the phone call comes from my fiancé, I dwell on the relative peace of my frantic, overly busy life for the last time before descending into the throes of both grief and feral lust, a dangerous state for a woman, one that makes her feel self-immolating and invincible at once. Kathy, Emily’s son, my father, and the woman I thought I was watch us all shoot brief and bright against the same vast sky one last time. Vibrant, singular, miraculously ordinary, full of love and pain, we flash. Then one by one, we are out.” So good.

Gina: Thank you. That piece is actually, it’s from an earlier essay. It was written, of course, prior to the beginning of my affair, as you see at the end of it. I get this call from Kathy’s fiancé telling me what had happened. That’s sort of the beginning of the actions in the book. In the original version of that essay, I wasn’t admitting to unhappiness in my marriage. I wasn’t admitting to this attraction to this friend of mine. The original version of the essay, which was very much about just taking my youngest to visit my old neighborhood, the neighborhood I grew up in in poverty in Chicago compared to our neighborhood some four miles away and it being a very different world, that essay got put in an anthology and so forth. When I came to revisit it for the book, one of the big realizations I had about so many of the things I’d written about my parents is that I’d really written myself out because I wasn’t coping to where I was really at. Even in a case like this where the affair has not yet begun, I’m living this sort of pretense of being this happy person about whom there’s nothing to say. As Janet Burroway says when she’s talking about fiction craft, in fiction, only trouble is interesting. Obviously, that’s sort of true of memoir too. Because I wouldn’t admit to trouble, I was this peripheral narrator on the fringes of these pieces I was writing. Part of the exercise of turning this into a book was cracking open old pieces and realizing what I really needed to say about them to make them not true, per se, because the things that had happened in them were true, but complete.

Zibby: Let’s talk about your affair if that’s okay. Let’s go there. You show us in the beginning how at first, it’s this emotional affair. Should you feel guilty? Should you not? Should you tell anybody that you’re on the phone for hours? What does that mean? You had some line like, if both my husband and I are unhappy in our marriage but nobody knows, as a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? What does it matter? Tell me how it all evolved and how you look back. You have this context of women in general and feminism and the historical treatment of women who cheat, The Scarlet Letter and blah, blah, blah. Just take me through that a little bit.

Gina: My now husband who was my long-time friend and who I then became involved with, we first encountered each other when I took a story of his over the transom of a literary magazine I was editing in 1998. We had had contact as professionals, as colleagues for a number of years. We met for the first time in 2006 at a reading at Book Soup that we both participated in.

Zibby: I love Book Soup.

Gina: Then I ended up as a guest writer at the program where he teaches full time. We became friends. We started emailing each other a lot and occasionally talking on the phone. At one point, he was touring. He’s also a musician as well as a writer. He came to Chicago. He stayed in what I used to call the visiting writer’s suite in my basement. All of this was while we were still platonic, but there was no question that we were becoming very emotionally involved in each other’s life. We had started to talk about things. I’m not talking about sexting or whatever. We were just talking about intimate things that as adults we are definitely not encouraged to talk about with people of whatever gender we are also attracted to except for our partner. I think we were aware from maybe about 2010 to 2012 when the affair began that there was something a little bit beyond in our relationship. The relationship was filling such a need for both of us that we were very hesitant to stop. We were really pretty intent on convincing ourselves that it was harmless, that this was as far as it would ever go.

Once the affair began in 2012, of course we had to look back and really realize, okay, if we had been happy, if we had been admitting to ourselves the reality of our lives, this whole two-year period from 2010 to 2012 would not have transpired. At one point, one of us would’ve put on the brakes, would’ve said, we need to go and square things with our respective spouses in order to be having this kind of an emotional intimacy with another person on what had, by the end, become really a daily basis. Definitely, one of the things that was really important to me is that I show the complications of having an extramarital affair. Although in the end it worked out in the sense that we stayed together, I did not want to confuse the narrative. The narrative is very much about feminism. It’s very much about women’s roles, about women being able to own our own feelings and have agency in our lives, but I did not want to confuse that with, agency should include lying to all the people who you know and having a double life. Those two things are separate. I view very much that having an affair was not in any way a feminist act. It was the opposite, really, because it was a silencing of myself. It was a betrayal of so many people, not just my former spouse, but so many different people because when you’re carrying a secret like that, every time you even have a conversation with anybody, everything you’re not saying makes your relationship a lie.

A lot of it is looking back at what factors in my life and what things I had internalized that had not allowed me to really own up to how unhappy I had been in my marriage for eight years before I left it and what those factors had been and why I had been so afraid to step outside of this box of this woman who looked like I had this perfect life and the success story or whatever or having grown up in poverty and now I was married to a successful man, I had these three beautiful children and all of this, and essentially, if I can say so, my own internal bullshit that led me to not be real with myself and therefore, not be real with other people. Although I did eventually voluntarily break that cycle by confessing, that didn’t make things immediately easy either. Going from an affair, which in a sense is protected by a bubble — you’re not each other’s real-life person on the ground, and so it’s extremely easy for everything to be quite harmonious and just intoxicating. Then you become each other’s real-life partners, and things become much more complex. It took us about two years to really figure out how to be a real-life couple on the ground and how to be there for each other in a way that was inclusive of my kids and all of these different things. I really wanted to show that. I didn’t want it to just be some fairy tale story. We had a very intense love, and still do. I wanted that to be visceral, but I also wanted it to be extremely complicated and to show the consequences.

Zibby: How are things now?

Gina: Oh, they’re fantastic. We got married at the beginning of the pandemic on Zoom. We’ve been living together now since 2017. Thankfully, much of what was going on in the book was quite a while ago now. Things are wonderful. I don’t want to overstate it in terms of — we both led complex and difficult lives in many ways prior to our affair. In many ways, we had both been married for two decades or more, and there is a sort of end of innocence when you realize that you could’ve been committed to someone for that long and have really believed these weren’t starter marriages, that you really, in both of our cases, really believed this is the person we’re going to die with, this is how this story ends, and had both been really happy in our marriages until we weren’t, and then the slow decline of all of that. There is a way in which no matter how ecstatically happy we are together and how deeply in love we are, there is always this kind of awareness of, I didn’t ever believe I would be in this place, and I guess an undercurrent of grief that life is so changeable and transient. Change is the only thing we can ever be certain of. You can think with everything you have that this is it, this is the end, this is how I’ll always feel, and maybe it isn’t. We’re much more volitional and daily in our relationship. We check in a lot. We communicate a lot. I think a lot of marriages stop doing that because you just assume that something is static when maybe it isn’t.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. I had this moment the other day. I was in my car with my husband now and my kids. I flashed back. We drove past the house that I used to live with my former husband back when I only had two kids. Everything was different. I was like, how can I even be on the same street? How can I just be driving down this street when everything has changed? I thought that was going to be my life forever. I could never have fast-forwarded. I wouldn’t have believed myself.

Gina: I hear you, yes. I would not have believed myself. If someone had told me fifteen years ago that this was what was going to happen, I would’ve thought it was inconsistent with absolutely everything about myself. I would’ve thought that there was no way that this could possibly be true, many things, not just the affair, but all the different ramifications, the impact that it had on my family, things that happened after the divorce. It is inconceivable. I still live in the house that I lived in during my former marriage. I live in a neighborhood where my kids went to elementary school and where both my daughter and I went to high school and where I used to hang out with Kathy and where my mother and father and I all lived and hung out. My life is a bit of a ghost town. All of these people who used to be here, I drive around or walk around in my neighborhood, and it’s like I can see all these versions of my former self with all these different people who either don’t exist anymore at all or don’t exist in my life. It is, it’s a very surreal experience to lead many lives.

Zibby: I am so glad to talk — I feel like this all the time even just on the street here in New York. If I could do one of those flipbooks and start when I was a little girl — I’m also living in the same neighborhood right here, my parents and all of it. Yet the years are just going, flip, flip, flip. Like you said, different people are gone, different cast of characters, and yet the same street. If I could have a camera on this corner of this block…

Gina: It’s true. I grew up in Chicago. I’ve lived away from Chicago for about a decade of my life at various different times. I grew up in Chicago as well. I’ve been here a very long time. I’ve owned this house for a very long time. Now my husband and I have a place near Joshua Tree in California that he’s had for twenty years. We spend time out there. That’s surreal in a whole different way. I didn’t even know, literally, that Joshua Tree National Park existed until I was in my late forties. It’s not a place I had ever spent any time, the California desert. When I’m out there at this house that’s now ours and that we’re renovating and I’m driving looking at the mountains and driving through the desert and there’s this desert wind, I’m just sort of like, who is this person? What is this life? It’s so completely different from anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived in cities my whole life. I moved around a lot, but they’ve all been cities, cold cities.

Just that inhabiting of many different experiences and many different lives that I think, as you said, it’s not exceptional by the time you reach a certain age. It’s almost normative. Half the people out there, this is their experience of their lives. Maybe they didn’t have an affair, but this is still their experience of their lives. They had this life until they had this life. I think that that’s just something that isn’t addressed enough. We believe as a culture, but certainly also in the publishing industry, in endings. Really, I say it in the book, the only ending is death. We just keep changing. New things keep coming. Lives get more layered and more complex the older you get, not less, which is the way we treat older people in the society, as though they’ve somehow become simplistic and adorable. It’s just as if they don’t have more complexity than we do with everything they’ve lived through.

Zibby: It’s so true, oh, my gosh. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Gina: I do. I have so much advice for aspiring authors. I have been in the literary world since — I used to be a therapist. Then I started writing a novel and calling in sick to work all the time. I went back to get my master’s in creative writing and English. Immediately, one of the wonderful things that happened to me was I became involved with a magazine called Other Voices that was housed at the place I was going to graduate school. I started volunteering my time there as a reader. I eventually became the executive editor of that magazine, launched a press from that magazine. Through that, I ended up in The Nervous Breakdown community, which is an online community that still exists now, at The Rumpus. I’m now the creative nonfiction editor at LARB. There have been other editorships as well. I just feel so strongly that people who want to write, who want to publish have to find ways to get immersed in their peers. It’s not just, oh, I’ve read the great books of history, but finding ways to get involved in the on-the-ground literary community of your life. Not everyone can do that by volunteering many hours as an editor. Oftentimes, these things are unpaid. We can all go to readings instead of just going to dinner. If we read a book and we’re passionate about it and that author is coming to town, maybe you have time to do an interview with that author and place it and promote their work. To whatever greater or lesser degree you can afford timewise and economically, there are always ways to get involved. I’m just surprised how many people, students and things like that who want to be writers, who don’t know any other writers and who are not reading contemporary fiction or nonfiction. This is your world. It’s such a rich world. It’s rewarded me. My life as an editor and my life as a teacher have rewarded me absolutely just as much as publishing my own books.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great advice. I think sometimes people don’t know where to start. It’s fantastic advice. Gina, thank you. Thank you so much. I hope I get to meet you in real life.

Gina: I hope so too.

Zibby: This has been such a pleasure. What a book. Amazing. Really great. Congratulations. Thank you.

Gina: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye. Thank you.

Gina: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.

BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN by Gina Frangello

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