Home. It is an appropriate place to start a conversation with Melissa Febos about her writing. Much of her work, whether in the form of memoir or essays—or some altogether different, hybrid form of creative nonfiction distinctly her own—begins and ends, somehow or another, here. In her first book, the memoir Whip Smart (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010); her first essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, 2017); and now in her latest collection, Girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March, Febos has drawn a map of her early life on Cape Cod so vivid and precise, readers are able to trace her route to the school bus stop in their mind’s eye. As a girl Febos greeted the squealing door of that bus with her head in a book, an act she devoted herself to in part because reading passed the time while her father, a merchant marine ship’s captain, was away at sea.
If this sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, that’s not far off. Born in 1980, Febos lived in the only room at the top of the stairs in a house very much like a cabin in the woods. From her attic window she could see through the skeletal branches of the trees to a kettle hole pond that plunged fifty feet at its heart and stayed chilly even in the summertime. That room, Febos says, “was my little world.”
“There was a moment during the writing of Abandon Me when I made a conscious decision to yield to the images and the place of my childhood, which was something I had resisted until that point. When I did they swallowed me.”
She is speaking over Zoom from where she lives now, in Iowa City, with her partner, the poet Donika Kelly. They both teach creative writing in the English department at the University of Iowa. Febos sits close to the screen, in a long-sleeved flannel with purple, pink, and black tones that match her new book’s cover. The orderly office behind her, with paintings on the wall and neat bookshelves, belie her essays’ description of herself as a once messy girl.
During her childhood Febos read whatever she could get her curious hands on. That meant novels and books of mythology but also tomes on psychology, which her mother, a therapist, turned to for work. Until Febos was in junior high, the whole family kept up the nightly habit of piling in her mother’s bed to read together. These experiences, during which the future author encountered the symbolic and the fanciful while also being attuned to perception, analysis, and narrative-building, still shape how she thinks and writes. They account, too, for her interest in psychoanalysts like Carl Jung, whose work shines light upon the shadow self, not so the reader can flee it but in order to plumb the depths of the psyche and achieve a unified personhood. Febos has undertaken a similar exploration of herself, and the world in which she grew up, in the eight essays contained in Girlhood.
Each piece centers on a psychological scar, as her fairy tale childhood ended like so many classic Grimm tales did, with the pain of loss, not from a beast in the wood or a storm at sea, but because of something far more insidious. W hen Febos hit puberty—which for her was relatively young, around the age of eleven—she found that although she still thought of herself as a strong, athletic, wild, and free girl, the hungry male gaze of her peers and their older brothers saw her womanly body as something to control, possess, and use for pleasure. Within these dark currents of patriarchy, Febos floundered.
“I don’t consider myself as having had a traumatic childhood,” she says. “I think I had a very lucky childhood. But I did happen to be a girl in America.”
FROM the age of ten Febos thought of herself as a writer, but her journey to publication was one that took time and crossed genres. At fifteen, in true Riot grrrl fashion—this was the nineties—she dropped out of high school, believing she could better educate herself through books. After receiving her GED and holding a variety of jobs in Boston, Febos found her way back to the academy in New York City. She enrolled at the New School to study poetry, but a professor suggested she might be better suited for fiction, given her passion for novels. Switching tracks, Febos penned largely autobiographical fiction for years, and she attended Sarah Lawrence College for her MFA. There she wrote her first essay, as an assignment. It told of how, in college, she maintained good grades while hiding a heroin addiction from her friends and family, a habit she paid for via night work as a dominatrix in a Midtown Manhattan dungeon.
This piece turned into the beginning of her debut memoir, Whip Smart. “I was a student of human behavior long before I had the words to articulate what it felt like to be a watcher,” she writes in that book’s first pages. “For as long as I can remember, I saw people, their needs and worries and motives, as people assume children cannot. I thought for a long time that my driving force was my intrinsic curiosity about strangers and all the illicit things that other people do. I thought I sat on the outside, observing, manipulating, and drawing conclusions. I was wrong.”
Published in 2011, shortly after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence, the tale of her recovery from addiction landed the young author an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and was critically lauded for not just its vivid prose, but also the unflinching way Febos explored class, sexuality, and intimacy. “On one level, Whip Smart is a tantalizing twist on the classic artist-coming-of-age epic,” Marie-Helene Westgate wrote in Guernica. “On another, it’s queer critical theory disguised as narrative.”
“It was almost impossible to find a publisher willing to take a chance on a feminist dominatrix memoir in 2008,” Febos says. “It was rejected something like forty times. I don’t think anyone expected it to succeed to the extent that it did.”
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