Melissa Febos is one of those authors that writes at the sonic level. Each sentence seems to be crafted with notes instead of syllables, many of which occupy a person’s mind like an earworm of a song. Since releasing her first two critically acclaimed memoirs, Whip Smart and Abandon Me, the Lambda Literary Award and Publishing Triangle Award finalist has continued to command the literary landscape with her trademark lyricism.
Febos has always possessed a strong sense of self. In her new collection of essays, Girlhood, out now from Bloomsbury, she revisits her youth and examines how her definition of self changed alongside her body. Over time, Febos has continued to question the influence of growing up in a world that relegates the personal safety, happiness, and freedom of girls and women to the orbit of men’s feelings, pride, and power. Girlhood sets out to prove the nefariousness of the patriarchy and reframes the values and beliefs that women have long been taught to refute. It is, above all, a rejection of expectation and an acceptance of unfiltered selfhood.
Girlhood is searing and poignant, inviting complexity and allowing room for the bevy of emotions women have been conditioned to suppress. And while it is an anthem for generations of women, it is required reading for all.
The Millions: Tell me about how the idea for this collection came to be. Was the concept always simmering under the surface, or did it come together in pieces?
Melissa Febos: I had no idea that I was writing it for a long time. I like to trick myself into writing books this way. I would have resisted the idea of the book if it had occurred to me before I was already waist-deep in it, because I thought I had already written about girlhood. There was a voice in me that would have piped up: “Who cares?!” But I had never really faced my own girlhood, and that voice isn’t mine. It’s an internalized mechanism installed by the patriarchy that wants to keep me quiet about the ways our society might change. So, I wrote a bunch of essays that felt very autonomous, that just happened to be about my adolescence, and then suddenly, I saw that I was writing a book and it was too late to turn back.
TM: What was it like to face your own girlhood in this book as opposed to when you’d previously written about it?
MF: Well, it was analogous to, say, reading the SparkNotes and then reading the book, except the book has a drastically different plot than you thought. Not my best analogy, but you get the idea. It was full of surprises—the kind that often made me sick to my stomach, but that also were thrilling to uncover. Admitting the truth to myself has always been both painful and immediately liberating. It’s such a relief to put down the invisible weight of a narrative that is hiding the truer story.
TM: I can tell that every syllable is intentional. I mean, the sentences in this book! It’s like a record where every song could be a smash hit. I approach writing comedy this way; sometimes it feels more like I’m composing a melody. The sound of a sentence is just as important as its intent. What goes through your head when you’re putting together a sentence?
MF: Thank you. That’s honestly so satisfying to hear, because I labor intensely on my sentences. They are my greatest pleasure in writing, the work that I long to lose myself in. I try to wait until I have a draft before I get out my little watchmaker tools and go to town on the sentences, because otherwise I’d never finish anything.
I don’t think much goes through my head when I’m doing that close work; that’s part of why I love it. It’s all about relying on an intelligence that doesn’t think about what I’m doing so much as it listens. I’m just whispering to myself and tapping my knee, sometimes even rocking in my chair a little. It isn’t something I can do in public. I love that you used the analogy of songwriting! I suspect that a composer would absolutely understand that state.
TM: Oh my god, are you telling me you’re a fellow writer who can’t write in public? I can’t be one of those writers on their laptop at a café, ever. I like to pace, use my arms, sound things out. I chew on my sentences like they’re tobacco!
MF: Honestly, I’m really sad about it, because I used to love writing in cafés. I wrote huge sections of my first two books in Brooklyn coffee shops. But I have gotten more eccentric with every passing year, and have yielded more and more to the tics of my process, leaning in to the music. Ultimately I’m grateful for that progression, but it has had the unfortunate side effect of requiring isolation. I do also love to write in airports and on airplanes and that I won’t ever stop, because it actually sort of works as a deterrent for any talky seatmates. I mean, when airports are a place I go to again.
TM: In Abandon Me, it was pretty clear—at least to me, as the reader—that you possessed a strong sense of self as a kid. What was it like mining those memories when interrogating girlhood in this book?
MF: It’s interesting because I absolutely did. I was very much myself: confident but secretive, independent, extremely verbal, hyper-emotional, funny, a kind of physical tornado. It was actually pretty heartbreaking to go back and closely examine the ways that I fought to suppress and tame and erase the most essential parts of me, and to what degree I succeeded at that project. In a way, writing this book was like running through the evil lab and unlocking all the cages, letting all my little feral past selves free.
TM: Another thing you interrogate, besides girlhood, in this book is language. Trauma, self-destruction, even deconstructing the word “slut” in “The Mirror Test.” Do you think language is moving to a place that is more inclusive of people’s experiences, especially when some of these terms don’t fit neatly into one box or another?
MF: I do. Language is so plastic! We like to pretend it isn’t, but it’s like identity or personality, just a set of many moving parts that are always changing and reacting to its circumstances. I love messing with words, pulling them apart to see the history packed into them, re-visioning them to hold different kinds of meaning. I think it’s important to look at where a word has been, to see what it carries, and just as important to repurpose words, or invent them to name the parts of us and our experience that have previously been unspeakable.
TM: Yes! I don’t think it’s ever meant to stop changing, because we’re never meant to stop changing.
MF: Exactly! We love to dig our heels into things and say that there is a correct way to speak/act/be/write when actually these conventions are always fluctuating and evolving and thank goddess! Imagine if they weren’t.
TM: Speaking of language, I want to discuss the term empty consent, which is something you write about in detail in “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself.” It wasn’t until I read about it in your book that I realized how many times I had given empty consent to a number of previous sexual partners, all of whom were cisgender men. I realized I prioritized my partners’ desires before mine; I didn’t want to disappoint them. My selfhood was filtered through their eyes. It just goes to show how pervasive patriarchy is—an invisible and odorless gas not unlike carbon monoxide. What are some things you would like to hear discussed in more detail when it comes to patriarchy affecting spaces outside the cisheteronormative dynamic?
MF: Ugh, I know! I’m so glad it occurred to me to name that experience, because as soon as I did, I had so much to say about it. I hadn’t realized that my whole life was a timeline of consenting to forms of touch I didn’t want, or felt ambivalent about—with men, with women, it didn’t matter. There was a way I felt I owed my body to anyone who wanted it. Filtering our selfhood through other eyes is such an essential part of the experience of living as any kind of marginalized identity—we are conditioned to identify with the dominant group, to subjugate the parts of us that don’t fit its ideals, and prioritize its needs over our own.
I love that analogy of patriarchy as an invisible gas. It’s impossible not to be breathing it constantly. I think we basically have to be talking about it every day, cultivating an awareness of how it’s affecting us—otherwise we internalize it and can’t tell its voice from our own. I’d love to see a more nuanced conversation about consent, for sure. I’d like to see more conversations about how patriarchal dynamics can function within queer relationships, how abuse can easily go unseen because the perpetrator doesn’t look like a straight white cis-man. I’d like to talk about fatphobia for real, which seems to me to be one of the last places it’s generally okay to act/talk like a bigot, even among folks who are really careful about their language when it comes to gender, race, and ability.
TM: As a kid—and there’s been research done on this—we know who we are at a very young age. For example, I knew I was gay for as long as I can remember—since utero, as I like to say. It wasn’t until I started picking up on societal cues that I realized that my desire to kiss a boy in my third-grade class named Chris was deemed weird at best, an abomination at worst. I thought about this—self-awareness at such a young age before we’re exposed to the culture around us—when I read the line, “Before I learned about beauty, I delighted in my body.”
MF: I’m so grateful for that grace period, if we are lucky enough to have one. I was. I discovered my queerness and my sexuality before it was totally defined by society at large and that really gave me a space to build a relationship to it. I write about this in Girlhood, but, like, even when I hated my body and hated all the early sexual experiences I was having, I still loved masturbating and never felt shame or anything bad about it. It amazes me, now. When it came to being seen or touched by other people, there was so much interference—other people’s wants, cultural messaging, etc.—but no one ever said anything about (female) masturbation (a big problem with the sex ed. curriculum, actually) and so I was free to experience pleasure in total privacy. I’m so glad that my queerness was never an issue with my family, too, because that gave me a lot of space to get comfortable in my own identity before my self-esteem was decimated by the culture at large.
TM: As someone who lives with chronic pain as a result of a series of traumas, there were a number of sentences—especially in the last essay, “Les Calanques”—and including the line, “It’s better to choose your pain than to let it choose us,” that captured so many of the feelings I’ve been contending with for years surrounding my chronic pain. I wanted to burst into tears. And even though the context in which it’s written is different from how I applied it to my own life, there still seems to be an overlap when it comes to co-existing with an unruly body. It reminds me of a concept I’ve been learning in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): radical acceptance. Have you come across this practice, and, if so, have you tried applying it to your own life?
MF: I haven’t come across that practice, but I’m going to look into it immediately! My heart just squeezed so hard for you. The physical experience that I described in that essay ended up being just a prologue to a much longer relationship to chronic pain. I’ve been through a lot more of it since then and it has really changed me. Mostly for the better, because the kind of humility and strength required to live with pain is way beyond what I asked of myself before it. There is definitely an analogy between the kind of acceptance I’ve come to with my body in terms of its other unruly aspects, but pain is also different. There isn’t an option to exile it, to starve it, to argue with it. Fighting only makes it worse! I haven’t always met it with grace, but it has taught me so much about the nature of acceptance, how healing it can be, what mercy there is in yielding to that which I cannot change.
TM: I love to ask authors this question, but I’m particularly excited to hear your answer: what is one thing you learned about yourself while writing this book?
MF: That I have the power to change my own thinking. There are so many ways to get free.
—My Body Is Mine