Novelist Gina Frangello covers a lot of ground in her new memoir Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason: PTSD from growing up in a violent neighborhood, motherhood, aging parents, the loss of a best friend, cancer, endometriosis, and adultery — to name most of the big ones.
This is not a narrative-heavy book. There are few true “scenes” to speak of. Rather, Frangello writes about the various events and topics of her life like a social scientist, questioning what aspects of culture and her upbringing shaped her decision-making, how her body reacted to the events of her life, and how all of this shaped her relationships.
And tBlow Your House Down’s true raison d’etre is to ask and attempt to answer questions around the affair: why it happened, whether she’s a bad person because of it, and how to live with it.
“What is the line between self-acceptance, self-love, and a refusal to take accountability?” Frangello asks at one point deep into the book, but it feels as if the entire book is leading up to this question. Of course, this is no easy answer, which is why it takes an entire memoir to chew on it.
This process of questioning is at the heart of the feminist movement. We cannot make progress without questioning the status quo, whether that’s at a societal or individual level. Especially since The Feminine Mystique debuted in 1963, women who might not have identified as feminists began to question the impact of gender roles on their lives: their career choices, their satisfaction in their relationships.
And yet, as a society, we still judge some of the ways in which someone battles with these societal crutches. For instance, we judge moms that leave their children; we judge those that escape into alcohol and drugs and promiscuous sex; and we judge the adulterers.
In her book, Frangello points to Esther Perel’s research in The State of Affairs: “[Perel] indicates that while rates of infidelity are on the incline, public compassion for adulterers is not. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, Americans have become more relaxed about most things sexual, from premarital to teen to gay sex, but adultery remains condemned at higher rates than ‘abortion, animal testing, or euthanasia.’”
Perhaps the book is a plea for compassion. And that’s certainly what I hope the book accomplishes — not specifically for the author, but for all of those who are struggling with the label of adultery. And the first step towards having compassion for another human being is being willing to understand their situation.
In the first chapter, Frangello places an A on her breast. “Once a woman becomes an Adulteress, her other identities—mother, daughter, friend, editor, writer, teacher—become largely invisible to others, as irrelevant as the clothing she (whorishly, treasonously) shed.” Throughout the book, then, Frangello is asking the reader to see all of her. She takes us through a childhood filled with violence against girls and women. She explains her marriage to a man who regularly has temper tantrums at home and in public and how it impacts her children and her friendships.
In many ways, the book feels like a trial. Exhibit A, for instance: how she happened to be in California, where her lover lived, the night her best-friend died. How that unlucky timing perhaps led to the start of an affair. And Frangello often addresses the members of the jury, knowing that in outing herself as an adultress, she will always be on trial.
The memoir has a restless quality. Frangello obsessively comes back to the same questions, the same doubts. Some readers may not enjoy this circuitous style. Personally, I found it not only enjoyable, but also calming. Each night, when I’d pick up the book before bed, I relaxed into it like having coffee with a friend — someone who brings up many of the same topics every time you talk, but each time, you work your way towards slightly more poignant insights and deeper intimacy.
My one complaint about the book is that the lack of solid scenes meant that, as a reader, I rarely got to experience any piece of Frangello’s life; I just heard about it later. In this sense, Frangello became a friend who’d already lived her life, not a friend who’s journey I was taking alongside her. To enjoy the book, I believe you must be intrigued by, and perhaps relate to, the questions Frangello is asking or the topics she’s exploring. And, if not adultery, perhaps you’ll be more interested in Frangello’s exploration of pain and pleasure: both timely, feminist topics.
For years, Frangello suffered from interstitial cystitis, and then, much later, she battles with cancer. About pain, Frangello writes: “I am too far removed to fully understand whether those years of blinding all consuming IC pain in the 1990s had anything to do with making sure I couldn’t focus on other things—to promise that my bodily disease had nothing to do with my body trying to distract me from the dis-ease of living a life I didn’t fully want.”
As the medical industry still struggles to take women’s pain seriously, we need more narratives of how pain impacts our lives — once again, to build compassion. But also to see pain as a thing that shapes our society. To this effect, Frangello asks, “What is the line … between living in a sick world and becoming sick?”
And on the other side of pain is pleasure. Frangello describes how her body still reacts strongly to her lover, even after menopause and chemotherapy — two events that women are told may likely decrease their level of and desire for sexual pleasure. She also describes the guilt of this pleasure as an adulteress, and the thought that kept rolling around in my brain while reading is how women are not supposed to prioritize their own pleasure, their own joy.
“I don’t want to apologize for loving a man this way,” Frangello writes. “Sometimes knowing what the world is, I feel I should apologize for loving a man this way.”
Perhaps this book is both a trial and a public apology. She leaves it up to readers to decide whether she deserves to be forgiven or whether she should have to apologize in the first place.