Some of the truest things I’ve read have been at the intersection of personal essay and reportage, where studied and reported fact casts light on a writer’s most private experiences. This confluence of different types of truth is the strongest element of Melissa Febos’ new book of essays, Abandon Me, a collection exploring her many inheritances, from her love of books to her addiction to heroin.
I found it difficult to pace myself as I read Abandon Me. The first seven pieces serve as a primer for the final, 173-page, titular work. The book takes place over the course of a courtship in which the writer’s lover, Amaia, is married. Febos examines this relationship by mining the details of the affair and relics of her past lives—her childhood, her family’s collapse, and her addiction to heroin. In “Leaves Marks” she serenades the hickeys bestowed upon her neck; in “Wunderkrammer” she examines her Amaia’s propensity for gift giving and possession. With each new piece Febos bends time. As she explores her past, recalling her brother’s struggles with mental health or her family’s trip to Egypt to visit her sea-captain father, she builds on the story of her fraying relationship with Amaia, with each essay serving as a foundation for the next. Febos obsesses, gets lost, and alienates her friends and family. You start to worry.
Her final essay, “Abandon Me,” moves quickly, filling in the spaces of the first seven pieces. Where the previous essays kept a tight focus on the details and themes of a particular experience, this piece opens up and gives us the landscape of this period in Febos’ life. As her relationship with Amaia becomes unsustainable, she relocates Jon, her biological father, and begins visiting him, despite her trepidation. The definition of abandonment comes into focus after exploring its possible meanings as they relate to her life. She has a heritage—Jon is a Wampanoag Indian—that takes on new relevance to her, despite it having been a part of her all along. Febos’ world implodes and regenerates simultaneously. To make sense of the destruction, she applies other sources of knowledge—movies, constellations and images, science and psychology—and effectively deepens the resonance of each experience she includes. When Jon stands in the middle of the road waving Febos off after an afternoon visit, the gesture feels so impotent that you recognize all the times you’ve been disappointed by something that is too little, too late.
For me, some of her most resonant passages come in the first essay, “The Book of Hours.” Shifting through different parts of her life, Febos describes the shelter she has always taken in stories. “Our favorite stories can be like lovers,” she writes. “Make sense to me, we ask them. Make sense of me. Here, fix these hurting parts. And stories do, some times better than our lovers.” There are nights she and Amaia read aloud to one another. Their stories are a home, a salvation. Later in the book, Febos recalls searching for her own identity. “I read the dictionary looking for a definition that fit. I took personality tests in magazines. I read horoscopes. I scoured the DSM-IV. I scrutinized the gaze of others, of mirrors, of lovers.”
Hunting for your own identity, it turns out, never ends. You start to recognize the girl in this book and the woman who is writing it as yourself. It occurs to you that you’ve always felt like a story and a horoscope were similar in the sense that both have the omniscience to tell you something about yourself. In her close reading and recording of her own life, Febos universalizes the pain of waiting—for her father at sea, for Amaia to leave her wife—and the need to tell and be told biographically affirming stories.
“How are you liking it so far?” My boyfriend, who is also a writer, asked me after a couple days curled up with the company of my black cat and Abandon Me.
“It feels like it’s giving me permission to do something,” I told him. It was a vague answer that I failed to clarify. He shot me a look. “I don’t know what but it has to do with writing,” I said.
After finishing the book and wanting more Febos, I saw that she had reviewed Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book that had crossed my mind a number of times while reading Abandon Me. Febos opens her review by confessing to being accused of writing too much about love, a revelation that causes her to feel embarrassment. Write about your life, our critics tell us, and you risk your work being brushed off and categorized as narcissistic. In her discussion of Nelson’s work, Febos addresses the stigma attached to writing about your own life and, incidentally, about permission. Febos nails this insecurity when she writes, “most of us inclined to write [personal narrative] worry our stories, imagining a threshold of confession that, if crossed, will invalidate our intellectual pursuit of ideas and answers and reduce us to diarists.” The Argonauts, and Nelson’s erudite alacrity, gave Febos new license over parts of her life, granted her permission to live without self-consciousness, to keep writing about her much-revisited topic: love.
But, for me, there was another similarity. The Argonauts is so acutely intimate and so legitimately intelligent that it leapt off the rails of whatever I perceived “memoir” to be at the time. The way Nelson conversed so fluidly with philosophers and feminists to make sense of her own period of family-building, the way she elevated her story to something much more than just a pregnancy memoir—it situated her story in a timeline of humanity. Febos, given permission by Nelson to tell whatever story she wants, holds herself to the same standard of perspicacity.
“Personal transformation and intellectual discourse are not mutually exclusive,” Febos writes about Argonauts. This was the first of two permissions I received when reading Abandon Me. The second was permission to turn the interrogation inwards. No subject is off-limits to Febos. She authorizes her reader to be braver, to dig deeper into their own secrets and to research those secrets in history. It is the act of keeping secrets that is dangerous, not the act of telling them. Confession is freedom. In combining research with her narrative, Febos is staking claim to her own existence, something on which Febos reflects in her book, writing, “All my life I had insisted: I am, I am, I am.”