Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart, the essay collection Abandon Me, and Girlhood, which came out earlier this year. Arguably her best book, Girlhood is a moving collection where Febos tries to push the essay forms in different ways she’s never tried before. While the book is a deeply personal story, Febos talks to and interviews others about their own experiences, seeking a larger societal context for what she has experienced.
In these essays, she explores patriarchy and consent and the ways that we try to extract ourselves from many of the narratives that have insinuated themselves into our lives. We spoke recently about therapy and sexuality and the writing process, and her recent foray into fiction in the new anthology Kink.
ALEX DUEBEN: I’ve been reading you for years since Whip Smart came out, and I think that Girlhood is your best book to date. I’ve been reading one essay at a time because there’s a lot to take in. And I feel like you’re nodding as I say this, and you get why.
Melissa Febos: I do. My mother said the same thing. [Laughs] I’m sure there were other facets to the intensity of reading it for her in particular. Whenever I sit down to write, I sort of fantasize that I’m going to write a short, whimsical humor piece. That hasn’t happened yet. Oh no, another dark, searching, intense fifty-page essay. Maybe next time.
Girlhood is a book of essays, and structurally, people will compare it to your previous book, Abandon Me, but they’re very different books. How did you start thinking of this idea of a book, or was it just disparate essays?
MF: I had written maybe three of the essays, and then I took a look at everything I had written recently, and everything I was planning on writing and that I was interested in. It became immediately clear to me that they all had this common denominator, which was actually a surprise. I didn’t set out to write a book that used my adolescent girlhood as a kind of touchstone, but it was through following my own creative impulses that I arrived there. Once I clarified it, then I was able to think about it a little more consciously as I was making choices about what to write next and how they might sit together in this book with the essays I had previously written.
Was the process of writing the book and thinking about it different from how you wrote Abandon Me?
MF: Very different. I’ve found that every time I write a book I have to relearn how to write one. All of them have depended upon such different processes. When I was writing Abandon Me, I was still experiencing the events that I was writing about in the book that were pretty central to it. So I didn’t have a lot of perspective, and I was really writing my way through those experiences. As a result, it was impossible to outline or think about the narrative because I didn’t really know what it was. I think I relied much more on lyrical modes and image systems and more poetic devices.
With Girlhood, the essays are similarly mixed in form. Most of my own experiences were pretty firm in the past, so I was able to really think more structurally and think about how I wanted my own experiences to sit alongside the elements of investigative journalism or scholarly research or pop culture analysis, so it was a little more pragmatic of a process. But there were plenty of surprises along the way, too. I didn’t plan on the more journalistic aspects of the essay, but they were an organic outgrowth of the process.
Could you talk a little about that and why you felt it was needed.
MF: The personal experiences that I write about in this book were all things that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about for a really long time. In fact, some of them, writing about them in this book are the first words I ever put to those experiences. After I had set them down, the experiences of being sexually harassed as an adolescent, consenting to sexual experiences that I felt really ambivalent about, as I wrote them, I felt, wow, these affected me a lot more than I had been willing to admit in the past.
I had this really powerful urge to talk to other people and see if they had similar experiences. Part of the reason they had felt unspeakable to me before that was because I was afraid I might be alone in them. And I think a lot of young people are in those experiences that we typically don’t talk about. As I wrote about them and placed them in this larger cultural context, I could see exactly the ways that my social conditioning had primed me for those experiences and made it unlikely that I was alone. I first started talking to my partner and my friends, and my mother, and it grew outwards from there. I ended up interviewing lots of women and conducted surveys. It was a really powerful experience to not only verify that I was not alone in those experiences but also to invite these other women to speak about their experiences. Often for the first time.
In many essays, it wasn’t that you were writing a piece of sociology but instead de-centering your own experience and finding a way to talk about those experiences of your own as a universal experience.
MF: My first book was a straightforward memoir, and I stayed really focused on my experience the whole time. I started to weave in other sources, but it was really focused on my experiences. In this book, the gaze really starts to turn outwards. I felt that my own personal narrative was integral to the book, but I was using it as a tool to get at larger ideas and to take a broader view of the social structures that created those experiences.
Some of these experiences are things that you never talked about, things none of us ever talk about. And it’s about what is seen and visible.
MF: I was really struck when writing this book that we don’t talk about experiences — no matter how ordinary they are — we don’t have words for them. And if we don’t have words for them, it’s hard to talk about them! So I observed this cycle that reproduces silence about certain subjects and has for generations. In one of the essays, I come up with the term “empty consent” for consenting to forms of touch we actually don’t want or feel ambivalent about. I can tell you that pretty much everyone who’s read the book has said, as soon as I read that term, "I knew what it was!" We’ve all been having these experiences and never talked about them. It really brought home the importance of naming things.
It’s a book about intimacy, but not in the way we tend to use that word.
MF: I think that’s a really astute assessment of it. It is very much about intimacy in the sense of what it means to have real, honest, vulnerable communication with other people and with the self. Really listening.
In the essay “Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself,” you wrote about a cuddle party and skin hunger, and the book came out during the pandemic.
MF: [Laughs] It’s interesting because I wrote it at a different time. I finished edits of a version of the essay, and I had to reframe it. The editors said to publish it now, saying "how can we reframe this into looking forward to the end of the pandemic?", like thinking more mindfully about how we negotiate touch. It was fun to bring that essay up to date. It’s funny because when I was researching it, I came across “skin hunger” and thought, wow, how interesting. I had never seen it in my entire life and now I feel like everyone has "skin hunger" now. [Laughs] But it was new to me in 2018.
I feel like every time cuddle parties were written about pre-pandemic, there was an element of how sad, and desperate, and lonely. Which we may still think, but are we all sad, desperate, and lonely now?
MF: One of the things I appreciate about the pandemic experience is that everyone has sort of suffered in the same way. I mean, we’re always suffering, but rarely can you assume that other people are having the same experience that you are. The idea that someone being isolated from touch is lonely, sad, or pathetic is cruel. And ignorant in their arrogance of thinking that it couldn’t be them. Or that it’s only the fault of the sufferer. And now we all know.
Another way to think about it is being seen and seeing each other, which, I think, is so key to so much of your writing.
MF: It is important to me. No matter my starting point in writing, I often end up in a certain cohort of subjects. One of them is definitely ideas about being seen and seeing other people, really bringing a kind of reverence, and seeing that as an important and precious aspect of our lives.
Bisexuality is very tied up with being seen and what that means. It’s one of those things we don’t talk about, and a lot of bi and pan people have a lot of common experiences in that regard.
MF: Absolutely. In my current relationship, my partner is often pointing out my unconscious instincts for my own bi erasure. Depending on the scenario that I’m in, there are ways that I don’t acknowledge it. I think it comes from having an experience in the world of not being visible. Also as a femme presenting person, it’s always been a struggle because straight people always assume that I’m straight, so I have to find other ways of signaling.
When I was young, I don’t think I ever really wanted to be straight, but it would have been easier in certain situations. I wished that I was fully gay a lot of the time. I just felt like it would be simpler that way. I’ve finally reached a point now at forty where I feel sort of tender towards my own bisexuality — and happy to claim it. But also, at this moment, it’s becoming kind of an obsolete term because technically, I’m pan, but I think of myself as bisexual because that’s how I identified in my mind. It feels a little old-fashioned now, but it’s still what I use. It feels like an honoring of my history.
I know what you mean. And I keep thinking about the way some people older than us respond to the word queer, which for them has always been a slur.
MF: It’s true! I really like the term queer because it holds everything. In some ways, it feels more connected to community. I identify the queer community as my community. And that’s much bigger than other bisexuals. That definitely feels like where I sit socially. But there is a part of me that doesn’t want to disappear into it and feels a little bit protective of my bisexuality.
Identifying as queer feels like a lie of omission in certain contexts. Just like you can seem straight depending on the relationship.
MF: Exactly. It’s easier to hide there, in a way.
I did want to mention the Kink anthology and your short story.
MF: It felt like a very bisexual short story! [Laughs]
It was! Have you written a lot of fiction?
MF: I have written a lot of fiction, but I have not published a lot of fiction. My MFA is technically in fiction. I’ve written a couple of novels that I never did anything with. Fiction is my great love as a reader, and I hope to finish a novel someday. Nonfiction is, easier is not the right word, but nonfiction has a more central function in my life and the way that I think, so I do it more. Fiction takes me so long that I’ve never finished a long work.
That story was incredibly fun to write. The editors of Kink approached me and asked, would you write a short story? I was never good at writing short stories but I agreed because I liked the topic and I had such a fun time writing that story that it's made me think about going back to fiction after this book.
It is a very bisexual story, and the whole anthology is about desire and longing.
MF: The story is drawn from my own experience. When I’ve been in relationships with men, these compulsory aspects of heterosexuality just bloom in me in this way that I’ve always found really surprising. The conditioned psychological mechanisms just engage and start building strength. I have always found this very disconcerting and would have preferred to just jettison that part of myself in some ways. The story was me thinking how I might resist that conditioning even if I was in relationships with men.
The central character is dealing with a man who’s desperate and hungry for her — and she both likes and loathes that.
MF: Yeah, that sounds familiar. [Laughs] Definitely an experience I’ve had many times over the course of my lifetime. Not anymore, but my earlier relationships could fall on those lines. I definitely wanted my love interests to be totally obsessed with me and then almost immediately wanted to escape their attention.
Your mother is a therapist. Having been in therapy, I can see where you got certain terms or the way you write about some things. But you definitely try to think about life and other people in a way that I think you both share.
MF: In many ways, I think this book wouldn’t exist if I had a different mother. I know that she wonders if there are ways that she could have altered the course of my own girlhood, made it easier, prevented me from having certain kinds of experiences. I am also quick to reassure her that I don’t think that was possible. What she did do was care for me, and love me, and model for me a form of resilience that helped me move through those experiences — and ultimately make something useful out of them.
She is a person who has been growing and changing and remained curious about her own psychology for her whole life, and she taught me how to do that. This book is, in many ways, the artifact of my practice of doing that. Acting and then observing my behaviors and looking at where they come from and changing them so that I can have a different kind of experience. I learned that from her.
I don’t think I realized this until you were just speaking, but “practice” is a term that therapists and writers share.
MF: Yes! I love that. It’s a word that I love. It’s a noun and verb, and I love what it indicates in the space between there. Making a practice of something is also practicing becoming something.
At the end of one essay, you wrote “this is an essay about listening” and I feel like that sums up so many things you’ve written.
MF: I think that’s right. Sometimes when people have read my work, they make the assumption that I am a person who’s very in touch with myself and interested in examining my feelings and my thoughts. In a sense, that’s true, but my actual nature is kind of opposite that. [Laughs]
The reason why I have made a lifelong practice of self-examination is that if I didn’t, I would never examine myself. I would not know what I’m feeling and I would truly skate in a slightly disassociated way above what was actually going on in my body and my thoughts. I have a very escapist, dissociative instinct. I think I’ve developed these practices of listening to myself and to other people as a counter to that because nothing good ever comes at the end of following those instincts for me.
I will just say that reading you has helped me to listen, and sitting with all your books recently has been a joy. I mean, not necessarily joyous, obviously.
MF: [Laughs] Not always fun, but hopefully worth it. Thank you.