THE MIGHTY FRANKS: A MEMOIR
By Michael Frank
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 304 pages
We’ve all heard the old saw that a conservative is a liberal mugged by reality, but this searing memoir by former Los Angeles Times book critic and fiction and travel writer Michael Frank is a white-hot snapshot of being seduced then brutalized by arrogance, entitlement and manipulation. He had parents like everyone else, but they were overshadowed by his double aunt and uncle, a pair of Hollywood screenwriters Harriet “Hank” Frank, his father’s sister and Irving Ravetch, his mother’s brother.
Mr. Frank’s environment is a veritable Chinese box of bubbles. If that seems improbable, it is salutary to remember that cutting-edge physics regularly makes the apparently impossible into a new reality. And so within the realm of Hollywood, there is the ministate of Laurel Canyon, immortalized by “Carole King and Joni Mitchell and the Mamas and the Papas, all of whom lived near where we lived.” And within that special world within a world, two couples — one childless, the other with three sons — and their adversarial mothers live in none-too-comfortable proximity.
For Michael Frank, his aunt Hank is an enchantress, luring him with love and the definite sense of being one of the elect, chosen as special: ” ‘My feeling for Mike is something out of the ordinary,’ I overhear my aunt say to my mother one day when I am eight years old. ‘It’s stronger than I am. I cannot explain it. He’s simply the most marvelous child I have ever known, and I love him beyond life itself.’ “
Not surprisingly, the child is delighted, then astonished, then worried about the extravagance of his aunt’s effusion. Does his mother love him and his younger brothers as intensely as his aunt loves him? And why was he and not his younger brothers chosen?
“‘I wish you had a child of your own,’ my mother says carefully. ‘So do I,’ says my aunt in a pitched emotional voice.”
So this is definitely a tug of war and if it is vaguely disturbing for an eight-year-old, it only gets more difficult and more fraught as the years pass. For Michael’s very own Lorelei is not just taking him away from his nuclear family but luring him onto the sharp shoals of her intellectual and artistic dominance:
“My aunt was the one person in the world I was always most eager to see. Sometimes she came bearing gifts. But what I loved even more than receiving tangible things was going off with her, alone, without my younger brothers or my parents, being alone with her, with the force of her attention, the contents of her mind. And her talk, which was like an unending river emptying itself into me. She made me feel clever merely by being with her, learning what she had to teach, absorbing some of her spark — her sparkle.”
But Hank was didactic, prescriptive, controlling, dictating taste and valuing and devaluing artistic and literary icons and hierarchies. Was she inspiring sparkle and taste and discernment or merely seeking to create a clone? Did she want him to be able to develop his own opinions and judgments? To be fair, I suppose a little of each. But to vary the old cliche of a child’s mind being a terrible thing to waste, isn’t it an equally terrible thing to mess with?
What has this mugging made Mr. Frank? A sadder but definitely wiser man, I’d say:
“My parents and my surrogate parents, my parents and their siblings: Each represented two different worldviews, two different paths through experience that had intermittently been aligned but more often were set against each other, toggling or torquing between the reasonable and the dramatic, the ordinary and the magical, the largely sane and the largely less (at times far less) than sane, since long before I was born it was as if I were standing on my own personal equator. On one side, life — reality — spiraled in one direction; on the other, the opposite. From both axes the gravitational pull was powerful. The hard part had always been finding a way to stand in upright balance between them. Only it had not been hard so much as impossible.”
And when he sees his aunt work her spell on his eight-year-old daughter, his attitude is on the surface one of resignation. Yet after reading his book, with all its insights into himself and his relatives, one cannot help feeling that he will not let history repeat itself, that he will always be there to protect his own child from being mugged the way he so insinuatingly but brutally was.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.