"The Mighty Franks"
By Michael Frank
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$26, 320 pages
Memoirs often seem to do double duty as therapy for their author, a public way to sort through one’s personal demons while trying to shoo them away.
But Michael Frank, the acutely perceptive scribe behind "The Mighty Franks," doesn’t just place his dysfunctional extended family on the couch. He performs such an incisively intimate autopsy on his clan’s psyche that the result comes close to being an exorcism, a perfectly balanced near-gothic blend of the fascinating and the horrifying.
Who are the Franks, you might ask? The answer must start with the overwhelming and nearly unstoppable female force of nature around which the rest of the key members are forced to orbit –Harriet Frank Jr. In-the-know movie fans will likely have a fondness for this noted screenwriter along with her equally talented husband and writing partner, Irving Ravetch.
The twice Oscar-nominated couple penned the scripts for eight of director Martin Ritt’s most noteworthy films, many with social justice themes, including "The Long Hot Summer, "Hud," "Hombre," "Norma Rae" and "Stanley and Iris."
Even the unique circumstances surrounding their marital situation sound like something out of a Hollywood movie. Namely, Irving’s sister Merona and Harriet’s brother Martin followed their elder siblings into matrimony. That meant childless Harriet was Michael’s aunt twice over, and early on she chose to dote on him while mostly ignoring his two younger brothers.
He recalls the time at age 8 when he overheard his aunt say to his mother, “He’s simply the most marvelous child I have ever known, and I love him beyond life itself!” Before he had the chance to fully digest that observation, she added, “I wish he were mine.”
During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Michael – or “Lovey,” as she called him -- basically was the property of this formidable combination of Auntie Mame, Miss Jean Brodie, Svengali and, later on when he came of age and she grew older, the Wicked Witch of the West. As a child, he dutifully fell under his fawning and flamboyant Aunt Hankie’s sway.
With his family’s Laurel Canyon home mere blocks away from hers – and his two grandmothers sharing an apartment nearby -- he eagerly awaited for her Buick Riviera to appear in the driveway and off they would go, away from the influence of his mother and father.
Harriet molded her nephew’s mind and shaped his world view with books on art (Matisse, not Pollock), literature (Proust, not Zola), movies and architecture. She force-fed him grown-up novels to read, such as "How Green Was My Valley." "Make beauty, whenever possible” was just one of her mottos. To that end, he would do sketches and later write in a diary.
They went on antiquing excursions on Saturdays, where she warned him off of anything “repro” or “mo-derne.” She decorated and landscaped not just her own home but also his family’s home in the style of her choosing.
But then one day, the routine began to shift after Martin, a virile man with a lumberjack build and a temper to match, and the more passive Merona clashed over how Harriet favoring Michael hurt their other sons. She urges him to speak to his sister. He urges her to speak to her brother.
Voices are raised, objects are thrown and a fist breaks a kitchen table in two. The children, frightened by the intensity of the argument, run off to seek shelter at their aunt’s house. A call is made and their father whisks the boys away. And, soon, new rules and boundaries are put in place. The entire family would visit the apartment, not just Michael. And his maternal grandmother, Sylvia, would spend more time at his house and his beloved Uncle Irving -- “our own source of avuncular light” -- would come by to visit Merona regularly and hang with the boys, too.
After both grandmothers die and his aunt’s moods begin to darken while her demands become more insistent, Michael learns to say no to her occasionally even while craving her constant attention. Unfortunately, she has warped his sensibilities enough – another of her choice dicta is, “Fitting in is death” while insisting “You want to stand apart from your peers” -- that he becomes the preferred target of a sadistic schoolyard brute named Alfred, who regularly spews hateful taunts at him and pummels his body until he is bloodied and bruised. Michael is eventually sent to a shrink by his parents, who suspect he has been bullied, but to no avail.
But in one of the more compelling episodes in the book, he takes matters into his own hands by tricking Alfred into coming to his house and then turning a high-pressure hose on him that is used to put out seasonal brush fires. He blasts the creep with a unceasing current of water as he struggles to escape. That puts an end to the torment and serves as good training for eventually standing up to his aunt’s outrageous demands and soul-crushing manipulations as he matures into manhood.
Frank, who grew up to be a set reg Los Angeles Times book reviewer, a respected writer of short stories and essays, and an ace travel writer, has benefited from learning from his aunt’s love of detail and his own spy-like way of eavesdropping on adult conversations not meant for children’s ears. Aunt Hankie’s dictatorial personality dominates the book much as she did his whole life.
But other passages that don’t include her also stand out. His description of his uncle’s immense closet that served as his retreat and one of the few places in the pair’s new custom-built mansion that reflected his refined masculine tastes and not his wife’s fussy preferences. The passage overflows with rich images that vividly come to life – from Irving’s bespoke London-bought wardrobe to the way he carefully stored his smoking paraphernalia as the spiciness of his intoxicating pipe tobacco scented the air.
Also intriguing is Frank’s surreptitious play-by-play description of his mother addressing her consciousness-raising group – all the rage on the West Coast in the early ‘70s -- where she serves Chablis and Brie while spilling her guts about her oppressive domestic situation.
Turns out, Merona was as taken by her exotic future sister-in-law as her eldest son would be from the moment she introduced herself and said, “We are going to be the best of friends, you and I.” She tells the gathering, “My heart used to race when I saw her. That kind of infatuation – it blinds you.” Like mother, like son, it seems.
The irony is that "The Mighty Franks" the journalist’s first full-fledged book, probably would not have turned out to be such an insightful and absorbing read if not for the lessons learned from his wordsmith aunt. That, by the end of the story , the two sort of come to terms after years of hurt feelings – with an assist by the presence of Michael’s young daughter – is as happy an ending as a reader can expect from what is ultimately an unnerving cautionary tale.
Susan Wloszczyna is a former film writer for USA Today and a current contributing critic for the Roger Ebert website.