Author Michael Frank says that growing up, the story between him and his Aunt Hankie was “very much a Greek tragedy.” Being full of love, hate, and toxicity, it was of course the perfect place for Frank to begin his award-winning memoir, “The Mighty Franks.”
“My feeling for Mike is something I cannot explain,” his aunt confesses to Frank’s mother in the book’s opening line. The two are together in the kitchen. “He is simply the most marvelous child I have ever known, and I love him beyond life itself.”
“The challenge of writing this book was in trying to keep the magic of my [aunt] in balance with the terror of her,” says Frank, trying to do the story justice via telephone with The Times of Israel. “That was a very hard thing to do from a writing point of view.”
“Growing up, my aunt kept us all on edge by always switching the situation — either living in that weird tension between the conventional and the eccentric, or on the psychological plateau between love and hate, and between compatibility and conflict,” Frank says.
“The Mighty Franks” is set in the early years of Frank’s childhood, the late 1960s and early 1970s, in southern California, a stone’s throw from Hollywood studios. The place was a creative suburban hub where artists, musicians, screen writers and novelists all lived cheek by jowl.
Most kids Frank’s age spent their days playing frisbee and baseball in the spacious sun-soaked avenues and boulevards of Laurel Canyon, the Los Angles neighborhood where Frank grew up.
Frank, meanwhile, preferred the interior world of the imagination: art, movies and whole feast of European culture. Most importantly, he loved books, all of which came recommended to him by way of his authoritarian Aunt Hankie, the central figure of his memoir.
“My aunt’s whole world was informed by reading,” says Frank. “She saw the novel as the highest form of human expression.”
“She believed there was a hierarchy [of authors],” Frank says. “The gods were Proust, James, Faulkner, Chekhov, Bellow, Roth, Cheever, Trollope, Dickens, and Woolf. These were all discussed and admired as though they were part of the family. And I’m extremely grateful for that literary education.”
But Hankie was obsessive, treating Frank like the son she never had. This led to constant tension, arguments, and eventually, a conflict that spilled out into the wider family circle. In fact, it turned out, he was like the son she couldn’t have — Hankie was biologically unable to bear children.
“As a child I just didn’t know what was going to set off her rages,” Frank says. “Any acts of independence from me, which you would think she would celebrate, she experienced as being quite threatening.”
Of course, there’s a twist.
“I was born into this curious family where both brother and sister married brother and sister,” says Frank. “So my parents and aunt and uncle had this very intertwined world.”
Hankie is Frank’s father Marty’s sister, and her husband Irving, who has since died, was Frank’s mother Merona’s brother.
“Also,” says Frank, “my grandmothers lived together — and they didn’t like each other, either.”
“Everything was very claustrophobic,” Frank says. “My aunt and uncle were screenwriters and they both worked in Hollywood. And so there was always this sense of high drama in the air, like regular life was being staged.”
As comes across in the book, Hankie and Irving were two major figures in Frank’s life growing up. They met in MGM in 1945, and worked as prominent Hollywood screenwriters for nearly four decades.
Much of their work was in collaboration with director Martin Ritt. Credits from their screenwriting life include Hollywood classics such as “The Long Hot Summer,” “The Sound and the Fury,” and “Norma Rae.”
Hankie and Irving brought their creative lives home with them.
“There was always a sense of drama, both in their work and in their life, says Frank. “And my aunt and uncle used their gifts for storytelling to set the narrative. But it didn’t fit with the experience I was having. In a way, that’s why I feel I became a writer.”
This past February, Frank scooped the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize in the UK. Previous winners of the prestigious prize include Amos Oz, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, Otto Dov Kulka and David Grossman.
Upon handing Frank the award, one of the judges, Toby Lichtig, remarked that while the book “wears its Jewishness lightly, the background culture pulses unmistakably throughout: in the pull of the old world of Mitteleuropa; in the growing pains of American assimilation; [and] in the vexed and complex domestic dynamics at its heart.”
Frank says he was “honored” to receive the award.
“I think what the judges were getting at [with that quote] was that there is a way of being in a Jewish family,” says Frank. “That closeness and clinging together, which goes back in time, because Jews have often lived in unwelcoming countries.”
“There is something ancient and almost atavistic about it,” Franks adds. “In my own case we ended up with these interwoven and intermarried families who lived two blocks from each other.”
But Frank says that besides this, there was a religious tradition in the family.
“Both of my grandparents were rabbis — on [one side] going back for generations,” Frank says. “By the time we came along in the late 20th century, however, my immediate family were much more secular and were not living or practicing religious lives.”
“But our identity was very strongly Jewish — we always understood where we came from and who we were,” says Frank.
Before emigrating to the United States, most Frank’s family hailed from the old czarist Russian empire, while his maternal grandmother was born in the late 19th century in Safed — then Palestine under the Ottoman Empire.
“My grandmother’s family made a reverse emigration back to the Holy Land in the mid 19th century, as several observant Hasidic people did at the time,” Frank explains.
Frank says he has himself just recently returned from Israel, where he found the house in Safed where his grandmother once lived.
Wrapping things up, this reporter mentions a quote from Czeslaw Milosz: who once famously remarked how “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
The Nobel winning Polish-Lithuanian poet was talking about writers mining their own family background for dramatic stories — but at a cost.
“Funnily enough, I use that Milosz quote quite frequently,” Frank says. “But I turn it around: ‘The family has begun when a writer is born into the family,’ because that’s when someone tells story of the family more precisely.”
Frank doesn’t think the literary search for the source of his aunt’s neuroses has hurt his relationship with his own family.
“My immediate family has been incredibly supportive of this book,” Frank says. “It was obviously painful for my parents, who are still alive. But liberating for my brothers, who saw it as a family catharsis.”
“My uncle is dead and my aunt is now 95,” says Frank. “Out of a concern to protect the older generation I don’t talk about where they are in their lives now.”
“But,” he says, “I plan to do that in the sequel, which I have called ‘When the Mighty Have Fallen.’”