I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In her latest book, Girlhood, the essayist examines her own coming of age and finding the words to forge a new self.
The first time I met Melissa Febos, she was teaching a corporeal writing workshop at Seattle’s Hugo House. I had not yet read her books, but her presence in the classroom was energetic, grounded, attentive. And every sentence was uttered as if she could only think and speak deliberately. After the class, I walked to Elliott Bay Book Company and picked up Abandon Me, her 2017 memoir-in-essays examining obsession, from drug addiction to intense love affairs to reconnecting with long-lost family members. Along with her first book, Whip Smart, which traces the four years Febos spent working as a professional dominatrix in Midtown Manhattan, Abandon Me became for me, as it is for many, a guiding light of both content and craft. Febos is widely considered one of the most respected and beloved contemporary essayists and memoirists, and a pillar of thought and encouragement for other writers.
The essays in her latest collection, Girlhood (Bloomsbury, 2021), read like sculpture: sentences chiseled and combined into profound, moving works. Whether she’s writing about a childhood soccer game or a cuddle party or a hike in France or sex or Greek myth or addiction, her essays dance between philosophical, humorous, and sensual. I spoke with Melissa over—what else?—Zoom, on a dark November afternoon. She spoke about bodies, lying as a generosity, the power of naming things, and, ultimately, about the inherent possibility of queer love.
Sarah Neilson You write throughout Girlhood about the corporeality of capitalism: the way bodies experience it, how that’s gendered, and how the patriarchy and capitalism go hand in hand. Can you talk about how corporeality and capitalism intersect for you?
Melissa Febos People who are assigned female at birth are conditioned from the earliest moment to think of their bodies as commodities and to value the appeal of their bodies as potential commodities that other people might desire. At its core, that is a capitalist value. To be constantly revising and estimating one’s value on its appeal to other people is a corporate mentality. I’ve often thought about how relationships—from interpersonal relationships to relationships to one’s body within a certain set of values and beliefs, particularly about gender and sexuality—can mimic the way that corporations seek to relate to their employees. I read this article likening emotionally abusive relationships to corporate dynamics, wherein employees are conditioned to be loyal to the corporation over their own health or their families or what’s good for them. I have experienced this to some extent within every institution that I’ve worked for, and in a few personal relationships. Where we just value the power over ourselves, over our sanity, to the extent where we start to over-identify with those authoritative forces, and it obscures what we even think. I guess that’s one way of describing a kind of false consciousness.
One of the main things I wanted to write about in this book was the way a self and a self’s impulses and character can exist simultaneously within those internalized values and allegiances and thoughts. We can have simultaneous ticker tapes in our minds that are running a capitalist script, a patriarchal script, and also our own instincts and thoughts and ideas and reactions to things. That tension can be agony. And we’re not given any kind of language to talk about it. We need it, immediately. Negotiating those conflicting values is deeply uncomfortable.
Capitalism may be the most insidious influence because it is literally everywhere. It is in feminism; it is in queer culture; it is in cultures that people who are disrupting the gender binary are a part of. That’s the genius and the evil of it: it can pervert and corrupt any set of values or identities for its own uses. It’s like the Nothing in The NeverEnding Story.
SN You brought up agency, and I wanted to talk about this idea not just in Girlhood, but in a lot of your work: choosing your pain. In Abandon Me, you write about it in relation to tattoos: “Tattoos helped prepare me for life without heroin; they taught me to hurt without leaving.
I discovered that surrendering to the pain lessened it, and let me move through it.” To me, tattoos feel like planting a flag in my body to reclaim it. Everybody experiences pain that they don’t choose, so it’s empowering to choose it. I’m curious about when you think pain is healthy and generative and when it’s not.
MF That’s a topic I’m really interested in. I think pain exists on a spectrum. Or in a constellation. Or a mush. I completely identify with what you just said about choosing your pain feeling like an answer to the pains that you didn’t choose, to harms that have been enacted on us. Choosing our own pain or challenge, or sometimes you could call it harm, feels like an antidote to or rebalancing of that. It’s also the way that many of the people I know who have described themselves as cutters would describe that practice. I don’t mean to say that that’s not harmful—obviously it can be dangerous—but I don’t think the impulse behind it is so different.
I’m actually working on an essay right now about cosmetic surgery. I was curious about the experience of mine and of some other people, and about what we call “self-harm” or “mutilation” or “unhealthy” or “pathological.” And what we call “medicine” or “survival” or “resilience” or just “psychology,” without the stigma attached to it. When you look at whose chosen pain is stigmatized, it’s not straight, able-bodied white men. Getting tattoos and working out or whatever—those male-coded ways of redeeming one’s unchosen pain with a chosen pain or challenge—are glorified and valorized. Whereas those that gender-nonconforming, queer, or female people choose are often pathologized. And the reaction to that is often to try to take away our agency even further.
I have a lot of respect for all the ways that I have tried to assert agency over my own body. So much of our economy is dependent on the assumed belief that we all want to run away from pain. As if the goal is to have no pain and no discomfort ever, as if that’s an achievable goal and by spending money on the right things we can have it. When I was in college and started studying Buddhism, I felt profound relief whenever I remembered that the first noble truth is that life is suffering. Life contains suffering. Yet in our culture—and I do think it is because of capitalism—we resist that truth. There is a part of me that finds it really satisfying to confront pain, choose it, experience it, and be totally okay.
SN You have this fascination with Greek mythology and ancient myth in your work. In “Thesmophoria,” you write that “a myth is the memory of a story passed through time. Like any memory, it changes. Sometimes by will, or necessity, or forgetting, or even for aesthetic purpose.” What draws you to myth and etymology, and how do global political histories, ancient myths, and personal narrative intertwine for you?
MFAs a kid, I was completely infatuated with Greek myths. That contributed to my understanding of my narrative structure. I think they’ve persisted all this time because they speak to these archetypes that we understand in our lives, throughout history, and in ourselves maybe most of all. In some ways, memories are all myths. A memory is a story you tell yourself over time.
And I just love etymology. I find it so comforting. What I’ve learned from etymology is that words are little suitcases in which our entire history is packed. The history of colonization and imperialism is packed into every single word in the English language. But so many other things too. In a sense, a word is also a kind of myth through which you can understand the character and the history and the nature of a nation or a culture or whatever mouths that word has traveled through in time. I like to use theory in my work sometimes, but it wasn’t written for me. I’m not a scholar or a theorist. And I find it really comforting that you don’t have to be fluent in any kind of academic language to tease apart where we come from and what the truth is. It’s encoded even in the language that lies to us about what our history is. It’s in there, in the online etymological dictionary!
SN You wrote, about hiding your addiction from your family, “Lies make fools of the people we love. It’s a careful equation, protecting them at the cost of your betrayal.” So much of your work is about telling the truth. I’m curious about your thoughts on how the lies we tell in our darkest moments continue to wound, and how the truth heals or doesn’t heal.
MF I was a fantastic liar when I was a young person. I’ve completely lost that power, which is both dismaying and comforting. I was secretive, and I was deeply afraid that I was alone in my experience as a human. Just as we don’t have a language to describe the inner conflict that results from having so much social prescription and capitalist prescription, we also are not given a language to describe what it’s like to have a consciousness and to live in human civilization. It’s deeply weird and fucked up to be a human animal. To be a little human animal dressed in clothes, riding school buses, trying to understand electricity, having mystical experiences. All of those things require a kind of buy-in to a single story about what life is. I felt really freaked out by that as a young person. I remember having thoughts like, Isn’t it weird that we’re animals, but we act like we’re not? We pluck our eyebrows, and we watch TV, and we all just pretend like it’s the only way things could be. How do you talk about this as a kid? I can barely do it now. My secrecy in some ways came from being afraid that I was strange, that I was the only person who was thinking and feeling all of these weird things. Secrecy also begets shame, almost inevitably, over time. And my reaction to shame was always further secrecy. I wanted to protect my family from the ways that I was defective or wrong. I also wanted to protect my weirdnesses, so I could continue to have them, to be who I was. All of this was a perfect recipe for succeeding at being an addict for a really long time.
It’s interesting you quoted that line about lies making fools of the people we love and that negotiation the liar has to make when they’re trying to protect other people and their secrets at the same time. When my mother read that essay, she told me, “You have a real gift for naming hard, complex things in a simple way.” She cited that line, and it was meta but super intimate at the same time, because she was, of course, exactly the person with whom I struggled most with that. And honestly, Sarah, when I think back about all the years that I lied to her about being an addict and the truth about my experience in sex work, I don’t wish that knowledge of the past on her. I think I lied in large part for selfish reasons, but I also think that the consequence of those lies was a generosity, that she only had to know about it after I was already safe. It was humiliating for her on some level, I’m sure, and very painful, but I don’t know that it was more painful than it would have been to watch me go through that experience when I know that there’s nothing she could have done. It’s a really hard position to be in.
I have an essay I haven’t published that’s about the moral intricacies of affairs in relationships and the nature of protecting people from the ways that we are betraying them. In those cases, I don’t believe in taking away someone else’s agency to choose what kind of relationship they want to be in, but when I try to apply that to the secrets I kept from my mother, it’s like…what are my actual beliefs? It’s not totally clear. I do think that sometimes obscuring the truth can be a generosity. But I don’t know about the final math on that.
SN I wanted to return to what your mom said about you having this skill of articulating really complicated things. You do that a lot in “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” the essay about going to a cuddle party and negotiating with yourself what your boundaries for touch and intimacy are and why. I don’t know if that essay hits differently for you now that we’re in a pandemic where the skin hunger is like, really real.
MF Didn’t relate to it then. Definitely relate to it now! I got a massage the other day because of my back. And when the masseuse touched my feet, I was like, Ahhh… Anyway, go on!
SN You wrote: “I have often wished for a different word, one that implies profound, often inhibitive, change, but precludes the wound and victimization inherent in trauma, which has become such a charged and overused term outside its clinical definition.” And then you arrive at this quote that I love, about consent being “a form of communication that happens first within the self.” How do you work through your process of unpacking your thoughts around the language of trauma and consent in the essay?
MFYou know, durationally. (laughter) I went to the first cuddle party near the beginning of writing the book, and I went to the last one near the very end. I was writing that essay over a period of years. It was in a way a detective story. I had this experience of giving what I coin in the essay as “empty consent” and experiencing how bad that felt, consenting to touch I didn’t actually want. And I was like, How did this happen? I had to sort through my thoughts in writing, very slowly, to tease apart my understanding of trauma and consent, both the experiences denoted by those terms and what those terms have come to mean in a larger cultural, contemporary way. That’s how I got to those sentences that you read, which were hard-earned.
In many ways, I think that point about trauma is one of the overarching themes in this book: How do I name experiences that have hurt and changed and formed who I am without using this reductive shorthand that feels pacifying in some way? I think that’s why this essay ended up being about where agency and subjugation meet. Me agreeing to a form of touch that I don’t actually want and then being longitudinally affected by that. I was not victimized by the people whose touch I consented to. It was my own internalized need to agree with other people’s needs over my own. Digging out that impulse is not an easy thing. It’s not something we’re taught how to do. And it’s very slow work. I also didn’t want to undermine—in fact it was the opposite impulse—the idea of trauma. In some ways the widespread usage of the term these days erases the incredibly nuanced experiences that it gets used to describe. As I describe in the essay, a lot of my early sexual experiences were not pleasurable, but I did consent to them. I didn’t feel victimized, but they did affect me over time—in how I thought of myself, how I related to other people, how I related to men, and my relationship to my own body—in a way that could partially be described by the term trauma, but because it doesn’t fit exactly, I had no word for it. I’m coming back to this for not the first time in this interview, but for me the process of writing is often about trying to find words for things that once felt unspeakable. Because there are things in between. There are kinds of pain that are in between the pathological and the ecstatic, and there are kinds of touch that are not traumatic but that are deeply changing and inhibiting.
SN I find it really interesting how you explore masculinity and toxic masculinity as a burden to everyone across the gender spectrum. Can you talk about grappling with the trappings of gender in your writing, especially as it relates to concepts of masculinity, femininity, and the gendered gaze?
MF I struggled with the title of Girlhood because I didn’t want to reiterate a gender binary that I’m not on board with. Much of this book is about how the notions of femininity and of the female that I grew up with were so violent to my selfhood and my psyche and my body. In some ways, Girlhood is an ironic title because when I see that word, it makes me think of all of the prescriptions and connotations that are assigned to it by the gender binary–enforcing mainstream culture. I imagine the title as a little floofy pink dress, and inside of it is a bucket of mud or something. But I still feel a little bit ambivalent about it. Because girlhood was such a gnarly experience for me, and my experience as a person who was assigned female at birth just didn’t fit with anything that that term suggests.
I guess the title is a good sort of focal point to talk about my relating to ideas of gender in the book. It felt really complicated. In no way do I want to try to speak for anyone else’s girlhood or childhood or experience of gender, which was a big part of why I wanted to bring so many other voices into the book. I felt particularly torn about not speaking directly in the book to the experiences of women of color and of trans women particularly. There are so many writers of those identities writing that experience. The world does not need me to speak for them. But it also doesn’t need me to avoid them. I think this is a conflict that lots of people are grappling with right now: How do we address a larger experience through our own without speaking for or erasing other people’s experiences? I’m sure I didn’t do so perfectly, but I think it’s important to risk failing in the ways that we do so that we can figure out the best ways to do and not do those things.
There’s an epigraph from Judith Butler in the book, and there’s some theory in it. I was tempted to go further down that route in these essays because there is so much interesting work being done on gender, but what I kept coming back to and what made me want to write the book was my own experience and the conversations that I had had with other grown people who had girlhoods and the things that we shared that had felt unspeakable at the time and that we still struggled to find words for. That felt like my home base. Because there are people much smarter and better equipped than I am to speak theoretically about gender and the best ways to dissolve the binary. That’s not primarily what this book is doing. This book is mostly talking about how it was harmful to me as a young person and the ways that I found to undo that harm.
SN I think of the word queer as a verb, as a constant reshaping of accepted narratives, and as a perennial challenge to authority and the status quo. I feel like that’s something you actively do in your work. In “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” you write about “love” as a verb that applies not only to others but also to your own body and self. I’m reminded of Elissa Washuta’s book White Magic, where she has a line about “the empire doesn’t want us to love.” How do you think that we as individuals and also collectively in society can queer and love and queer-love each other in the empire that doesn’t want us to love?
MF I mean we’re doing that, aren’t we? This is how we do it. For me, it’s about continuing to find words, even within this limited language that we have, for the unspeakable, and trusting that the people who need them will hear them. I love that you brought up Elissa’s work because she does this. Whether we identify as “queer” in our lives or not, there are a lot of incredible writers right now who are “queering” our nonfiction, creating the structures that will hold who we are. Because the ones we’re given are never going to do it. Within the essay form, I have scared and satisfied myself so many times by reaching the limits of the forms that I learned were proper and realizing they didn’t fit the thing that I needed to say. And I have taken that leap into just letting the thing that I’ve come to say, or the thing that I am, dictate the shape of the container that holds it. Which is a very scary kind of work. It requires a confidence that I haven’t always had. A kind of confidence that is built by that very work. Which means that the process requires a lot of faith. And that’s analogous to the ways that we live, to the ways that we love, to the ways that we create a professional life, the ways that we speak. So I think that we’re already doing it and we have to be doing it all of the time, which is exhausting sometimes, but it also means that living is a creative work.
Sarah Neilson is a writer based in Seattle. They are the interviews editor at the Seventh Wave.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee