Bookforum talks with Melissa Febos

Abandon Me BY Melissa Febos . Bloomsbury USA. . .

In the early essays of Melissa Febos's Abandon Me, we watch her build a relationship with a bedazzling lover as she mines her past for the stories that made her the person she is—from an exploration of hickeys to a taxonomy of the gifts she receives from her lover, which are "beautiful and a little gruesome." The essays build into an interrogation of relationships, idolization, and how the author's past intertwines with cultural history. Though the book explores bonds that Febos has with others—lovers, friends, lost and found family members—the relationship it ultimately depicts is the one that she builds with herself. It is also an origin story about creating the life of an activist, artist, teacher, and cultural theorist. Febos's first book, Whip Smart, recalled her time spent working as a dominatrix in the early 2000s in New York. Abandon Me widens the lens, recounting events from her childhood up to the present. Febos and I spoke on the phone in early March about Abandon Me, the creation of a canon of female hybrid work, the cultural repression of female anger, and the complexities of maintaining independence in intimate relationships.

In "The Book of Hours," the first essay in Abandon Me, you speak about the desire to be wholly known by a lover, "to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us." Do you believe that this desire has the ability to be fulfilled?

No. Elsewhere in that essay I talk about how we project this need and hunger on our lovers that could only be fulfilled by God. And, I would add, it can only be fulfilled by us. We look to lovers to heal us, to complete us, to give us the kind of comfort that can only be found in the work that we do inside of ourselves. It's an inside job, as they say in twelve-step programs. I do think it's through loving other people and receiving love that we activate that process—but we don't get it from other people. It's too much for one person to give another person—it's an exchange and a collaboration in the most successful intimate relationships.

In the early essays of the book, I found myself really rooting for you and your lover. But halfway through the titular essay, I was thinking, "I really want this to end." Did you intend for the reader to feel that way, and did you write the early essays while the affair was still in progress?

Yes and yes. I wanted to recreate that experience for the reader because that was the process I had. The book has an organic structure that mimics my experience. I wrote six of the seven early essays while I was still in that relationship—which is not something I would recommend for all writers. It's hard to have perspective, but I think that because the book is so much about the shared mythology that we created, that it made sense to have it exist as part of the process. Those early essays were very much about the story we were building, and then the final essay, "Abandon Me," was about deconstructing that mythology to look at what really lay underneath it, and the process of writing it was very much a process of deconstructing it, which was extremely painful.

Abandon Me reminded me a lot of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. I feel like your book joins Nelson's as part of a new canon of integrative autotheory by women—maybe they're not all by women, but primarily. Have you observed this new frontier in your writing, in your peers' work, and in what you're reading?

I have, and I have two thoughts about that—one is that there were women doing this kind of work long before us. I'm thinking of bell hooks, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston. You said you think it is probably not only women, and it's not—but I do think there is something about this hybrid form that meets a need that is specifically female, one that is specifically marginalized by our culture. The dominant narrative structure excludes us. Or, it defines us rather than letting us define ourselves within it. It makes sense to me that we need to go off script in order to represent our experience.

In the dominant culture, the intellectual and the personal and the corporeal have all been divorced from one another—there's a prevailing false binary between the intellectual and the emotional, and that makes it impossible for us to tell our stories, because our stories inevitably contain both. The things are inextricable. For me, in order to tell my story, in order to tell the story of my body, my way of loving, my way of thinking and understanding, I had to invent the form for it. This book has a weird form that I did not plan on, and it taught me how to write it as I was writing it, and there is a context for that. There are many women writers, and it strikes me that those other women writers I mentioned are all women of color. Women have been having to invent our own forms forever, because the ones we've been given are not in our shape. I am excited that there are so many women writing in forms that surprise me, but that I also recognize at the same time. I'm thinking of Maggie Nelson and of Lidia Yuknavitch. There are a lot of exciting things happening in form and feminism and personal writing and theory right now.

Speaking of those intense emotions, I just loved the passages where you wrote about you and your friend naming your furious despair "Bertha," after the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. You write a lot in the book about that level of emotion, and how it's very shamed in women. How, in your ideal world, would the cultural approach to female anger and emotion shift?

Our culture has discouraged women from their own anger for a very long time. The way it's enforced today is in the images of the hysterical woman, the bitch. Part of why the character of Bertha Mason was so perfect for that part of me was because inherent in that character is the truth about how women who fully inhabit their anger are treated. We call them crazy and we exile them. That is what the culture wants us to do with those feelings. It wants us to exile them because they are a threat.

What I would like to see is women resisting that prescription. Patriarchy is never going to relent, it gets too much out of our oppression. But women can change the culture. We are the majority. If we choose to defy those prescriptions, we can change the narrative. Part of how we do that is by getting angry, and by letting ourselves be seen as angry. We have a lot to be angry about, but also, we're humans. Humans get angry. It's a natural and powerful response to a lot of affect.

Women have been socialized to convert anger into sadness or depression or shame, and we invert it, we attack ourselves—or we tranquilize ourselves so that we don't express it and upset anyone. We're supposed to exist in service to other's comfort, and our anger is very inconvenient. So it's better if we just swallow that pill rather than spit it out at other people—but there's so much freedom in doing that! And I'm not saying we should all spit at other people—sometimes expressing your anger is simply feeling, is letting it move through you. But when you swallow something, it stays inside of you. We are burdened and poisoned by the feelings that our culture won't let us express, and by letting go of them, we empower ourselves, and we make room for other kinds of experiences.

That reminds me of the scene where you meet your half sister for the first time at the country club, and how you two represent binary poles of social respectability—clean versus dirty, proper versus wild, keeping things inside versus expelling them. It's already such a struggle to not create competition and anger between women. How do you think we can fight these entrenched binaries without vilifying the women who are—or at least present themsleves as being—on the other side of the spectrum?

The answer is empathy. When something feels different from us or threatening, our instinct is to reject it, or to squash it. We're taught to feel threatened by, and in competition with, other women. My motivation for telling my own story is related to this. I think that narrative and self-exposure are incredibly powerful tools for inducing empathy.

If we don't open, no one will. It's similar to how I think about the fear and competition among writers, and people who are struggling in a space where it feels like there's not enough to go around. You have to train yourself to do this counterintuitive thing. The instinctual reaction to feeling like you're not going to get enough is to grab at things, and to hoard. When actually, the thing that creates bounty is giving it away, by sharing opportunities—and I don't mean by giving away my time or my money! I mean helping other people get the opportunities that I also want.

That cultivates the kind of world that I want to live in, where I feel safe. I believe that however you think of the world is an investment in that version of the world. Not in a rose-colored glasses, denial kind of way. I'm going to manifest the world I want to live in and believe that that world is possible, while also acknowledging the very grim realities that we live in.

I'm going to assume you had no idea that Abandon Me would be coming out within two months of Donald Trump becoming president. Has that changed anything about how you approach readers and do events? How do you think your book fits into the ongoing national crisis?

I was at a reading recently and someone in the audience asked if I would change anything about my book considering our current political landscape. It was a scary question, because I was afraid that the answer would be "yes"—and I was very happy to discover that the answer is "no," that I wouldn't change anything. It's important to examine and share our stories and especially to look at our personal stories in a larger historical and psychological context. Some of the causes of our current ailment are a lack of empathy, a lack of context, and a failure to look at the dynamics underpinning what's happening right now. I think that more self-examination and more witnessing of other people's stories is a big part of what's going to help us out of this. I'm an activist, and I've always thought of writing as activism and teaching as activism, and I've never felt that more strongly than I do now. It doesn't change what I do with my life or what I think is the best use of my life, but it has changed the urgency with which I do those things.

Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn.