The Rumpus Interview with Melissa Febos


In her essay on Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Didion tells an anecdote about taking her seven-year-old daughter to the Art Institute of Chicago. After staring a while at O’Keeffe’s huge cloud canvas, the girl asks “who drew it.” Then she says, “I need to talk to her.” I need to talk to her. That’s the same feeling I got reading Melissa Febos’s new book, Abandon Me, a fiercely intelligent and remarkably intimate essay collection about the border between love and obsession.

I needed to talk to Melissa about confessional writing, Billie Holiday, reenacting trauma, cataloguing narratives, and the search for identity, even after an agent tells you to write something else.


The Rumpus: You and I have a few things in common: we’re both the daughters of therapists, we sang torch songs as teens and dropped out of high school, and we spent our early twenties in the grips of addiction—you with heroin, me with a troubled man. We both kept our addictions secret for as long as we could, fearing an intervention (fearing being seen) more than we feared self-destruction. You write that, over a decade of sobriety, “I have replaced my instinct for secrecy with an instinct for confession.” Could you talk a little bit about how you see personal narrative writing as confessional (or not)? Are you revealing yourself in order to illuminate something in your reader? Can writing ever be too confessional?

Melissa Febos: “A few things” is kind of an understatement, don’t you think? I’ve never met anyone who shares all those things with me. Or even more than one of those things! I think they likely all spring from the same neighborhood in our personalities, or at least, have a causal relationship. That is, I am secretive. Always have been. And one way that secrecy manifested in my early life was that I was adept at juggling multiple social realities: I could get by no problem in many social arenas (including that of high school), but also felt alienated and totally uninspired by everything that happened there. When you conceal inner reality, this pressure builds. You often don’t expose yourself until it reaches extremity, a breaking point, and what emerges is a dramatic shift—at least in the eyes of others, from whom you’ve hidden the truth. So, dropping out of high school was like that for me. I was fine, I got straight As, I had friends, and then boom, I was like, I’m done. Similarly, I hid my addiction until I finally got sober. I hid my job as a dominatrix for years, and then published a book about it. Big moves that were a long time coming, though few knew that besides me. Maybe you relate?

It makes sense to me that while living inside of this pattern, I loved torch songs. Torch songs are confessions. They are an expression of feeling that cannot be concealed or contained or minimized. They are marked by anguish, yes, but also by yielding. Listening to, and then mimicking, Billie Holiday allowed me to express what I could not directly. Similarly, I used to go to Catholic church sometimes with my abuela, who was this tiny, fierce, very religious woman. I always wished I could go to confession. I was so full of things I couldn’t name and had an instinct to hide. I felt burdened by the loneliness of my interior life. I wanted some container that I could empty myself into, some ear that would never be shocked, even if it offered me some kind of penance.

The turning point came when I discovered the necessity of telling my secrets to getting clean. I could not kick heroin to save my life, literally, until I started telling my secrets. It was some of the clearest evidence I’ve ever found of anything. It was the only immediate change in behavior I’ve ever undergone. I told the most frightening truths, and I was free.

I suppose writing provides that for me now, and that I perform a similar alchemy, or sublimation, with it. It is the torch song, the confessional, the unshockable ear, the room where I say everything for the first time. And it’s a kind of loophole, because no one else enters the room until I let them in. The craft work, too, becomes a mediator between me and my secrets, between me and the listener. It’s as close as I can get, and maybe that’s close enough.

Rumpus: The torch song as confessional! I never thought of it that way, but that’s brilliant. I always felt when I sang that there was a freedom in the mask of the performance… I could sing such sad, moody songs and pretend that I was voicing a “character,” but secretly I wanted everyone to intuit that I, the singer, was just as sad.

You write about music again in the final essay, when talking about the Imago theory of relationships, which says we are wounded early on by our primary caretakers, and we spend our lives seeking out lovers that replicate the very best and very worst of those first caretakers. “Every pop song on the radio is an anthem to an Imago,” you write, “the compulsive, consuming, devastating, regressive, mad attachment that goes all the way back to the beginning of us, to our oldest need, when love really was the thing that kept us alive… Abandonment by a lover won’t kill us. But it awakens the parts of us that remember when it could.” I notice this all the time with pop songs (“Now that I’m without your kisses / I’ll be needing stitches”). Do you have any thoughts about what is it about music that connects so viscerally to what we desire and fear? Are there written texts that make you feel that same jolt of recognition? As writers, are we limited but what we can do on the page without the musical accompaniment?

Febos: I think writing is inherently set up to fail at representing these feelings, because the place to which those feelings are tethered is often a time before we could name them. The absence of objectivity is intrinsic to them. The screaming baby isn’t reflecting on why she is screaming while she is screaming; she’s whirling in the maelstrom of her own need. Desperation precludes reflection. That is one of the reasons why smart people can get involved in very obviously unworkable relationships. Like addiction, that deep, Imago attachment is more powerful than logic, and in fact disables logic. So, any explanation or analysis or reflection on such a feeling is already many steps removed from the experience. Music, on the other hand, isn’t seeking to comment on the experience or transmit some finding about it—it is only seeking to express it. The vicarious experience is much more accessible. We all recognize the sound of that howling, because we all have a similar howling inside of us, however we heed it or hold it or muzzle it or repress it or live in bondage to it.

I think trauma gets a reductive treatment. We tend to think only violence or molestation or total abandonment qualify as “childhood trauma,” but there are so many ruptures and disturbances in childhood that imprint themselves on us. Attachment begets trauma, in that broader sense, and so if we’ve ever been dependent on anyone, I think there is an Imago blueprint in us somewhere. Winnicott writes about this, how the pain of detachment and differentiation includes some mandatory trauma. It’s not “bad”; it just is.

I do believe that we all have these stories inside of us, these scars that we compulsive worry as we do wounds, and that drive for redemption, to change the story or resolve it, governs a lot of what we do in love. We are irresistibly drawn to opportunities to reenact those traumas out of a desire to heal, not to punish ourselves. We often think that “bad” relationships are motivating by self-loathing or a wish for self-destruction, but I think that loving people who hurt us is more tied to a profound and earnest wish to soothe ourselves and recover from older hurts. And I’ve also found that having empathy for that urge is the best way to move through it, and beyond it.

Because of the irresistible nature of our own Imagos, I think the replication of it in music is a siren song—we love those tormented songs, and we listen to them over and over and over the way that we smash ourselves into our lovers, or the same kind of lover, over and over. That drive is tireless, until it is resolved. And we can “enjoy” it safely through music, which is a simulacrum we have power over. You can turn off the song the way you cannot the actual experience. I do hope that people can do the same with my book, in some way.

Rumpus: There’s so much desire in this collection, but there’s also an obsession with edges and boundaries to contain, or limit, the yearning. You tell an anecdote about swimming in a pool in Florida as a child, and your mother asks you why not swim in the ocean. “Because the pool has sides,” you tell her. It seems to me that a book is kind of like a pool, with a specific depth and sides (and a ladder). It isn’t bottomless or vast as an ocean. How do you create boundaries and limits for yourself in terms of work, to contain the personal material?

Febos: That is a perfect analogy, and I guess it’s mine. The book is a pool, but even more so the essay. Fiction stymies me with its possibility. I can’t see the bottom and I freeze, cling to the side, or just choke. In nonfiction, particularly that which takes personal narrative for its primary topic, I have a finite space and a finite amount of material. I can’t fabricate material, I can only shape and burrow into it. The constriction turns it into a puzzle, and I love puzzles. I would rather transform or solve something than invent it, I guess. I think I’ve been doing this my whole life. The infinity of my own interior, those of other people, the world, always felt like too much. I think I scare myself with too much possibilities—things that could happen, things I might be capable of. A lot of the experiences I write about could be described as grasping for boundaries, trying to find the limits of things. At a glance, addiction, sex work, mad passion, and all forms of extreme behavior might look like pushing or trying to obliterate boundaries when, more honestly, they are a search for them. I want to find the endpoint, the place where my own powers end, so I can yield to something that I’m certain is bigger than me.

This collection terrified me. I had no idea where each essay was going when I started it, and before that I’d been a very pragmatic writer—an outliner. Having clear limits—my name, for instance; the pleasure of hickeys; the act and experience of being read to—helped me move into and through this material, which was like groping through a dark room, but a room whose dimensions I could choose.

Rumpus: You know, I got asked a lot when I was promoting my own memoir about why I didn’t write it as a novel. I didn’t have a good answer for that, but what you say about the daunting possibilities of fiction makes total sense… I didn’t want to imagine all the possible outcomes or motivations. I just wanted to put down what actually happened, and grapple with what it actually meant.

Throughout this book, I see you constantly searching for the stories that will “transform” or “solve” the material of your own life. Children’s stories, for example, “force logic upon the gruesome facts of our lives. They mirror our troubles and submit them to a chain of causality.” Then you write that as you exchanged long emails with a new lover, you noticed her words were “weighted, as if she were already imagining our correspondence in retrospect. As if she were building the myth of us.”

I’m curious if there were ever moments where you had to step back and realize you’d absorbed someone else’s frame, or version, of something that had happened in your life. If you ever had to revise a version of a story you’d always taken for granted as true.

Febos: I actually see this book as a kind of inventory of such narratives. I think our lives are a long series of acquiring and then sloughing narratives. For instance, I think we all are born inside of our parents’ narratives. We stay there for a good while. We are taught their narratives about everything: their marriage, the world, God, gender, identity, etcetera. Then, at some point, our own narrative develops too much integrity to live inside that story. We don’t ever fully escape it, but we move into our own stories. And I do think we can let go of those original ones more fully with concentration and with help.

For instance, when I was a kid, I was told that I had a biological father, but that he didn’t have much importance. I had an adoptive father who was present, who loved me, who was up to the task. And he was. So, I didn’t question that story, until I was thirty-two, and suddenly realized that I was curious, that he did have something to do with me. Meeting him and figuring out exactly what that meant is a big part of this book.

The same thing happens in love. The lovers enter into a story together—“this how we met, this is how we were meant for each other”—and then at some point (in my experience, at least), the story splits, and they no longer share it. Then, you either change the story, or you break up. I’ve always broken up.

I didn’t realize it until I finished the book, but it’s a long investigation of recognizing those stories, and letting them go. Or at least acknowledging that all our stories are part invention— the way we’ve decided to make sense of what has happened.

It’s very meta, too, to write a book about this dynamic, because the book itself is an enactment of it. I am simultaneously creating a narrative to make sense of my own experiences, and the subject of that book is how we must recognize and destroy narratives to get at a great truth. In a few years maybe I’ll want to destroy the story I’ve written here, who knows.

Rumpus: I couldn’t help but notice the palette of nautical language you use throughout. As a family, you “counted time in waves” while your dad, a ship captain, was away. You woke in the morning after sleepwalking “salt-white.” Meanwhile, your mother was a “strobing lighthouse of missing.” The language is part of what makes the collection feel so beautifully cohesive. How did you build this vocabulary? Do you keep word lists? Or does the language come very organically to you?

Febos: It’s more accurate to say that this vocabulary built me than I it. Sometimes I see my students, especially the ones with a gift for the lyrical, reaching far outside the realm of their own experience for language and images. I understand this impulse. We think, in the beginning, that striking exotic words together will create something entirely new. That we must be worldly in our vocabulary. We idolize the styles of other writers and don’t trust or perhaps yet know our own. I try to repeat as often as possible that they don’t have to write like David Foster Wallace or James Baldwin or Maggie Nelson—indeed, they shouldn’t. Those writers are doing it better than they ever could.

A real turning point for me was when I began trusting the constellations of images and words that were intrinsic to my own world—the place where I’m from, the symbols that already populate my memory and imagination. Rilke talks about this in Letters to a Young Poet—staying close to the objects that define you and represent the world that only you know. I grew up on Cape Cod, beside a lake, with a sea captain father. So the images most evocative for me are of those worlds—water, the sea, the stars. Particularly in this book, I gave them room, because the book is so much about those places, how they created me. And the questions I was trying to answer with this book are questions that were born in those places. Of course, at some point in revision, I had to weed out the redundancies and choose the ones that hummed loudest with meaning. But when I tap into a place that feels true, where I can hear the stream running under the story, the language comes pretty easily. See? I’m doing it even here in this interview. It’s all watery and “constellations” of images. I’m rolling my eyes. But I think if you comb through any writer’s work who has a defined voice, especially those who write about their own lives, I think you see it—the words and shapes they come back to, because they are fused with the writer’s own unresolved (unresolvable) questions.

Rumpus: In the book’s final essay, you say that in 2009 you had a dream about the Wampanoag tribe your birth father is descended from, and felt like you wanted to write the story. When you run the idea by your literary agent, he tells you, nah, readers “aren’t into Native Americans… Why don’t you write something more you.” The next hundred pages are a very satisfying fuck you (am I allowed to say fuck here?) to that, in which you delve into the history of the Wampanoag, the history of your birth father and his family, the intensity and unraveling of a romantic relationship in 2014, and the questioning of your own identity and to whom you belong. How long did it take you to write this? How much of it was written during the experience, and how much after with the gifts of hindsight? Were there questions you had at the beginning that you sought to solve by the end? Were there any parts of this essay that made you uncomfortable or fearful to write down?

Febos: [Laughter] This question is like a shotgun shell, full of a million deadly pieces.

One: It took me either thirty-four years or one year, depending how you think about it. The physical writing of the first draft happened largely over the course of a single month at a residency, where it hijacked me and wouldn’t let go.

Two: During that time, I was still involved with the lover I describe, so I actually had to stop, and live the ending of our story before I could write about it. I’ve never written anything that close to living it. After we ended, I wrote furiously for a few months afterward and finished it. I don’t think I could have done this if I hadn’t known for a long time (in an inchoate way) that that end was inevitable.

Three: Yeah, I had questions. Like, how is this going to end? Or, what is my connection to this stranger, my birth father, to this history, to this lover? Why have I done so many dark things? Why haven’t I ever had my heart broken? I wrote my way into all of the answers of that essay.

Four: Did any of it scare me? EVERY. SINGLE. WORD. This essay terrified me. It still terrifies me. After I wrote the first draft, I sent it to a trusted reader, a close friend who’d been privy to all of the events as they had happened, and who I knew wouldn’t pull any punches. She said to me, “This is lovely, but it’s fiction. You wrote the version you were trying to convince yourself of the whole time. Or a version that no one will want to argue with, or be hurt by. You can do that, but it’s not what happened.” I was shocked. She was entirely right, but I hadn’t known I was doing that. I think that’s partly a result of writing it so close to living it—I was still attached to the old story, even though I knew it was a myth. I was not wholly ready to let it go. And then I was. I went back and rewrote it, and recognized how it felt to be truly honest. And I was terrified the whole time. I had to put into words the things I’d been running from my whole life. I mean, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This is what writing memoir and personal essay includes. If it doesn’t feel at some point like peeling off your own skin, you’re probably not being honest enough.

Leigh Stein is the author of the memoir Land of Enchantment, the novel The Fallback Plan, and Dispatch from the Future, which was a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Allure, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, Salon, and Slate. More from this author →