The Mighty Franks: A Memoir

Michael Frank

The Mighty Franks: A Memoir
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The Mighty Franks: A Memoir

Michael Frank

A story at once extremely strange and entirely familiar - about families, innocence, art and love. This hugely enjoyable, totally unforgettable memoir is a classic in the making. ‘My aunt called our two families the Mighty Franks. But, she said, you and I, Lovey, are a thing apart. The two of us have pulled our wagons up to a secret campsite. We know how lucky we are. We’re the most fortunate people in the world to have found each other, isn’t it so?‘

Michael Frank’s upbringing was unusual to say the least. His aunt was his father’s sister and his uncle his mother’s brother. The two couples lived blocks apart in the hills of LA, with both grandmothers in an apartment together nearby.

Most unusual of all was his aunt, ‘Hankie’: a beauty with violet eyelids and leaves fastened in her hair, a woman who thought that conformity was death, a Hollywood screenwriter spinning seductive fantasies. With no children of her own, Hankie took a particular shine to Michael, taking him on Antiquing excursions, telling him about ‘the very last drop of her innermost self', holding him in her orbit in unpredictable ways. This love complicated the delicate balance of the wider family and changed Michael’s life forever.


I gobbled up this deliciously dark, profoundly poignant memoir in two half-days. The Mighty Franks is Hollywood gothic, complete with distorted families, claustrophobic passions, silver-screen glamour (sometimes borrowed, sometimes earned), submerged hurt erupting from poison tongues, and confected narratives. At the centre of it all is Aunt Hankie (Harriet), a gorgeous grotesque to rival Joan Crawford: ruthless in her avoidance of self-knowledge and her imperious need to control the world that orbits her. (Something in its tone reminded me of Ryan Murphy’s bitingly camp cable series, Feud: Bette & Joan.)

Michael Frank grew up in Laurel Canyon, between his parents and the aunt and uncle who lived down the road, wildly successful screenwriter pair Harriet (his father’s sister) and Irving (his mother’s brother). Nearby, lived his grandmothers (his father’s and his mother’s mothers), together in one small flat, ruled over by the imperious Harriet senior (a Hollywood veteran close to Katharine Hepburn) and her antique furniture.

Frank idolised his childless aunt and uncle, who liked to think of him as their own, and meticulously tutored him in taste and thought. As he grew up and developed his own personality, his aunt grew tart – intermittently distant and clingy – and he began to see her distinctly. In this extraordinary, emotionally articulate account, Frank demonstrates how his aunt’s love fermented into emotional abuse and gaslighting. ‘It was like being caught in a kind of hall of mirrors, to have my experience recast and my language distorted like this.’ He also shows how her literary encouragement, her intricate stories, and the ‘decoding through investigation, through forensics’ that her contradictions prompted, shaped him as a writer. This is a loving, complex, if also critical, portrait. It will appeal to readers of dysfunctional family memoirs (like Running with Scissors) and family memoirs of perception and truth (like Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This).

Jo Case is the editor of Readings Monthly and a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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