“We get to live for a while inside that new life,” Melissa Febos writes in the last essay, “Les Calanques,” in her new essay collection, Girlhood. When she arrives in Cassis, France, she writes of startling at the song of the cicadas, which she hadn’t known to expect. Febos’s new collection could be thought of as a song—one whose music speaks to girlhood, lost, now reclaimed. Regardless of gender, one need be simply human to recognize the melody, however faint, of the child lost to the invisible social structures in which we are embedded.
Any reader of Febos will see a progression in her work from her first book, the memoir Whip Smart (Thomas Dunn Books, 2010), to her first essay collection Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, 2017), and now to her second, Girlhood, forthcoming from Bloomsbury on March 30. In Girlhood, over and over, we witness a narrator who, like the cicadas in “Les Calanques,” tunnels her way to the sunlight and climbs out of her old body. Febos describes her writing as “writing my way out of things.” This book is a testimony to that possibility for all of us, as well as a model.
Febos and I spoke over the phone. Febos was in Iowa City, where she lives and teaches creative writing in the English department at the University of Iowa. We spoke about the purpose of retelling stories, the importance of being a scholar of one’s own experience, and, of course, about growing up inside of girlhood.
The Rumpus: Did you work on “girlhood” as a concept to start with, or did it come piecemeal with each essay, and then you began to see the arc of it?
Melissa Febos: It totally was piecemeal. I’ve only written two books of essays, but this was true for Abandon Me as well. I approach each essay as its own world and its own work, its own trajectory. I wasn’t thinking about the essays as part of a collection. What really happened was my agent wrote to me asking if I had another essay collection. So, I asked myself: What have I written, what am I writing, and what do I want to write that feels exciting to me? And what do all those things have in common?
It was both obvious and surprising that the answer was Girlhood. I had written in peripheral or oblique ways about my girlhood and the subjects that are the foundation of this book, but I had never looked at them directly or as minutely as I do in this collection. I was just writing about the things that called to me and it so happened they existed in this constellation of ideas that were related.
The book is very much a transcript of my process of recognizing conditions or patterns or problems, and then burrowing into them and excavating, interrupting, intercepting, problematizing them and in many cases resolving, or at least moving in the direction of resolving them. I wanted the book to contain my whole process and to, in many ways, function as a kind of model for how it can be done, a testimony that it is possible.
Rumpus: You have so many stunning sentences in this book.
Febos: Sentences are the cornerstone of the pleasure of writing for me. I love working at the sentence level. That’s the part of the process when I get to fully set loose my obsessive tinkering tendencies, where I’m just swapping words and whispering to myself and rearranging things. It’s my favorite, the most pleasurable part to me. I appreciate any attention that gets given to my sentences because I work hard on them.
Rumpus: In one of the epigraphs in the beginning of the book, Judith Butler asserts, “Destruction is thus always restoration—that is, the destruction of a set of categories that introduce artificial divisions into an otherwise unified ontology.” Girlhood sets out to destroy the artificial divisions in an otherwise unified ontology of being a girl. How did you come to recognize those divisions in yourself and then to write about them?
Febos: Everyone grows up with levels of consciousness of the way society introduces divisions into our conception of selfhood. Human beings categorize feverishly. And any kind of categorization seems to me violently reductive and often also necessary. But when we’re talking about the divisions brought about by a social system, a kind of dominant hierarchy, then it becomes violent in a different kind of way, where the goal of categorizing and defining parts of the self or kinds of humans, is not simply to sort but also to subjugate.
As a child, I can remember my burgeoning awareness of the ways in which my selfhood was reduced by my being categorized as a female. Awareness is encoded; we don’t have a language for it. I did not know how to articulate the ways having a female body in public became such a degrading experience almost instantly, as soon as I started to sexually develop.
Writing Girlhood was a process of naming the parts of those experiences that I didn’t have language for at the time. A lot of it has to do with femaleness and sexuality but it’s not only that; it’s also about just being human. Human civilization is deeply weird, and I understood that at a really young age. It was sometimes scary, sometimes sublime and for the most part I felt completely alone in relationship to it.
Rumpus: That makes me think of the beautiful story in the essay “Wild America.” As a young girl, you’d go out into the woods and pretend you were an alien who had just been dropped out of the sky. You write about wiping the slate of your memory clean, and asking yourself, what is this?
Febos: I hadn’t thought about that time until I wrote the essay. When I remembered, I felt so much tenderness and awe at how much sense childish instincts make in the context of everything that we must navigate as we emerge into human society, and also at what was behind that impulse to walk into the woods and pretend that I was starting over and discovering things for the first time. Behind that seemed to be this clear recognition that the way we designated things at large was perverse and didn’t make sense.
Rumpus: Another epigraph you included, by Adrienne Rich, says, in part, “To say: no person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be alone.” It speaks to the hope for healing. I think the essence of Rich’s words foreshadow and encapsulate the great question of Girlhood: Why do we feel so alone, so isolated in our girlhood?
Febos: Exactly. An experience intrinsic to much of my childhood, and even my young adulthood, was the particular loneliness of the possibility that I was the only person feeling or thinking or experiencing what I was, and in many cases, those experiences were particularly gendered ones. The nods to Butler and Rich, for me, feel like a way of acknowledging that nothing I’ve written in Girlhood has not been said before by other theorists and feminists and scholars, particularly in the work of Adrienne Rich. I’ve been reading her poetry and essays since I was in college, maybe even before college, and in writing this memoir I was like, “Oh God, it’s the same. I’m trying to say the same thing.”
Sometimes I feel discouraged by that, like, Fuck. You’re just saying the same fucking thing again. And then sometimes I feel heartened by that and I can assign it to a larger dynamic, which is that this has always been the case for humans generationally. We’re not born with the implicit knowledge of all our foremothers. We learn it again and again. We retell these stories so that we know we’re not alone. Only then can we progress and start to assign responsibility for harms where responsibility is due and create social change.
Rumpus: This is the book I’ve been waiting for my entire life.
Febos: That makes me so happy. It was something that I had to reassure myself about through the course of writing the book, because there was this persistent voice that would pop into my head and say, Who cares? It’s been done before. Nobody cares about girlhood. There always comes a point in every essay where I think, Oh shit, I can’t believe I didn’t realize I’m totally not qualified to write this essay.
Sometimes I can remind myself, sometimes my partner can remind me, often it’s a friend who reminds me, “Oh no, no, no, no. You’re not trying to do what scholars or theorists or the feminists of past or even present are trying to do, or what journalists do. You’re trying to do what Febos does, which is grasp these truths in my own story, through the lens of my own experience, and combine them in a particular way that no one else can.” And that is the only thing I need to aspire to. I don’t have to replicate anyone else’s work or be qualified to do so and it’s such a relief every time to remember that.
Rumpus: Throughout the book we do hear from many different experts, scholars, and theorists, as well as interviews you conducted as research. But what really struck me is the way you are writing from your own experience rather than attempting to deconstruct or explicate that of others.
Febos: It’s something I have learned from being sober, and just to preface—this is something I think lots of writers are navigating right now and it has made me feel grateful to be primarily a memoirist and personal writer because it feels like a dicey business to be writing other people’s stories. I don’t feel qualified in most cases to be commenting, or explicating, the experiences of anyone but myself. As a sober person, I’ve mentored a lot of other sober women and the rule of thumb in doing so is to only speak from my own experience. It has trained me in my thinking to not offer secondhand advice, to not assume that I know about anything other than that which I have gleaned directly from my own experience, which is a deep and great bounty.
Rumpus: I had an epiphany of sorts that what I was reading could be described as “experience as scholarship.” That’s what it felt like.
Febos: There’s a quote, by Paul Valéry, who said something like: “All theory is in some part autobiography.” Which is sort of the inverse of what you’re saying. I think every memoirist has to make themselves a scholar of their own experience.
Rumpus: I was reminded, particularly while reading “Wild America,” of another essay you wrote, “Mind Fuck: Writing Better Sex,” which is all about craft. It’s not in the book, but I’d recommend it as an adjunct. In that essay, you make a distinction between transmission and transcription in the context of writing better sex.
Febos: The word transcription always gives me pause because it evokes the incredibly annoying misconception or bias against personal writing that it is just a transcription or a diary. Words like that can be used to dismiss the aesthetic work of making art out of your own experience. I have tried to look for a synonym for it and transmission is really right. I want to transmit something.
It happens through every aspect of the work, through the form, through the sound of it, through how it looks on the page, through the voice. The reason I’m a writer is because that feels like the only way to transmit some things. I can’t speak them, I can’t enact them, I can only do it through this form.
Rumpus: You wrote that when you first read Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” you were not ready for it, like, Okay, great, moving on. But then there was a time when you were.
Febos: That’s my hope for this book. It is a book about being ready to confront the radical shift in my own thinking and a respect for the fact we can’t do that until we’re ready, until we have the resources, and we are safe enough to really perform that intense revolutionary escalation of our own thinking. When we are ready, I want there to be texts that we can go to that say, “Here’s one way of doing it.” And my hope is that all my work provides that for the right people.
Rumpus: I have a granddaughter who’s eleven and that question, which you just addressed, in part, kept coming up for me. How do we change things? How can we raise girls in a way that honors their being?
Febos: In the big sense, it’s important to say it is not a task for any one mother or grandmother or single family. It’s not possible for us to take on; we can’t undo what the State is continuing to do to us. You know what I mean? Just like the emphasis on personal responsibility and wearing our masks during the pandemic is not enough. The State must also change; everything must change.
Girlhood, understandably, was incredibly painful for my own mother to read and there’s nothing more I want than to reassure her that there is nothing better she could have done.
Rumpus: We read, starting in the prologue, “How would my mother have explained it to me at ten? I can’t imagine.” Then later, “but there were things for which she could not prepare me.” That reflection is repeated throughout in reference to, I think, the invisible social structure that perpetrates the harm.
Febos: It’s just not something a mother can undo. The things we can do to mitigate it in a local way are to try to name things and talk about things, to give our kids a language to talk about the things that our society at large doesn’t want us to speak of, which means that we have to find a way to speak about them ourselves. That’s why naming things and starting hard conversations is such a big part of what I want my work to do, because it’s so hard for me in life. I know that is where all forms of radical change start—in a conversation, in naming something, even if I’m just whispering it to my notebook, if that’s the first place I do it.
Rumpus: Do you think many daughters tend to blame their mothers for not being able to prepare them? And most mothers try.
Febos: Absolutely. Somebody needs to be blamed and the workings of the State, the way that patriarchy and white supremacy, and colonization, have been wrapped around and throughout history are not made transparent to most girls. We don’t understand the forces at work. What we do understand is our mom and how she has failed us. I think that’s a necessary stage of separation: get mad at mom so that we can differentiate, right? There is a kind of empowerment in holding responsible those to whom we have access.
It’s so disheartening to rage at forces over which we have no power, which everyone in this country understands right now, maybe.
Rumpus: On one level, Girlhood is a love letter to your mother, and it deeply honors her. I think that is the hardest thing about being a mother; being unable to protect or prepare our own daughters. As a mother, I will say that by the time I unpacked my girlhood my girls were your age. I’m still unpacking it. But I’m also aware of all the ways that I enriched and empowered their lives at the same time. For example, I got sober when they were eleven and thirteen.
Febos: Ooh, that must’ve been an intense year.
Rumpus: Hello, it was. [Laughter] I don’t take any credit, but both of those girls have double digit sobriety now.
Febos: Wow. That’s so beautiful. In many ways it’s just like my mom; we were growing up in our own ways at the same time. It makes me so happy to hear that the book read that way to you. Every page of that book, not a fucking sentence of it could have been written without the parenting that I received. Which is not to say that’s always required. But for me, it was so fundamental to my ability to arrive at a place where I could look at this stuff and do this kind of nuanced work of liberating my own mind.
Watching my mom’s psychological and spiritual and feminist evolution has been so instructive for me. Although I know my writing has been really challenging for her in ways that only mothers probably know, it has also facilitated deep, incredible conversations between us that have been ongoing over the years. Our relationship is so intimate, the touchstone for every other intimate relationship in my life, truly.
Rumpus: That takes a lot of willingness and work on both sides. I know that this book is about girlhood but I’m wondering about the ways that boys or boyhood might also be caught in the machine that is a social structure, as you describe it.
Febos: Oh my God. Of course, it’s awful for all of them. Patriarchy is poison for everyone. Just like white supremacy is poison for everyone. Having power doesn’t preclude harm.
Rumpus: That brings me back to “Wild America,” where you write that sex with your partner is not an exchange of power.
Febos: Right. There’s such an emphasis on power; that is one way of describing the tensions that arrive—both pleasurable as well as fraught—between people, but that is not the primary model through which I understand my relationships. It’s just not.
There is not a power struggle between me and my partner. We have a lot of respect and admiration for the ways that we each hold power in our lives, in our household, in our relationship, in the world, and we have no interest in unseating that power in each other.
Rumpus: You write in this book, “When the dynamics of abuse underlie all of the heterosexuality conventions, even consensual interactions share trauma-related effects.” You also wrote about how you came to the point in your relationship where you were no longer playing the role of the boy or the girl.
Febos: I do think I have experienced a far greater freedom from those dynamics in my queer relationships. It’s a lot easier to drop compulsory heterosexual scripts when there’s no man in the relationship but certainly none of us are immunized to them because of who our partners are. We all live here.
It took me until my late thirties to feel that freedom you mention. Which is not to say I didn’t have the opportunity before. I have had partners who were interested in that project and I wasn’t ready. I was too scared. It really took like thirty-seven years of life and over a decade of therapy and ten or fifteen serious relationships. All of it. It’s every bit of living until now for me to be capable of setting those structures down and stepping away from them. It is no small task.
But the binary just never made sense for me. I always struggled with it and though I comfortably identify as a female, being a girl felt extremely hard and I hated having to categorize aspects of my identity along gendered lines. I remember getting to a wider social understanding of gender and being like, What? This clearly doesn’t make any sense. I’m going to go in the woods and pretend to be something that is not even human because I can’t get on board with this.
Rumpus: Tell me about the role of choice in Girlhood. We read, “It’s better to choose your pain than to let it choose you.”
Febos: A lot of my work is about experiences and choices that are commonly thought of as self-destructive or unhealthy or sick. They’re pathologized and, in many cases, that pathologization is gendered. It has taken me a long time to see my choices as the attempt at self-soothing and survival that they truly were.
I’m talking here about having disordered eating, about drug addiction, about being in relationships that erase parts of the self. I’m talking about sex work and how I chose all of those things as a way of trying to survive other things that I found harmful, and to express parts of my personality or experience that I wasn’t allowed to see or express in other forms. They were often spaces that felt more honest than the society I lived in. Sex work taught me about consent. The tattoos I got when I first got sober kept me from putting a different kind of needle in my arm.
Rumpus: Yeah, it’s like my addiction was what led me to freedom.
Febos: Exactly. And heroin was also that thing. I often describe my life as just a series of letting go of tools that are increasingly likely to kill me. And addiction was that, right? Almost every addict I know—sure, there is a biological drive on some level—but also, it’s a way of coping with an incredibly fucked-up world, the surplus of feelings and no other recourse for dealing with them. In some ways, for a lot of people, it’s an alternative to other forms of self-harm, to suicidality. And to tolerate situations that we’re in, over which we have no control or ability to leave. I think when people consider the harm or self-destructiveness of habits like that, they’re not thinking about the alternate story that we’re not being told—of what would happen if they hadn’t had that protection.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about sluthood, which you deconstructed so beautifully in “The Mirror Test.”
Febos: It was revelatory for me, writing this essay. I understood pretty quickly after writing it, that it was not cool, that slut shaming is wrong. But the initial writing about it absolutely did not free me from the shame of it, which I carried, which I still carry. I didn’t really look at it until I wrote this book.
I mean, I knew it was profound because I have thought about it and understood that it’s been a working part of my own relationship to my sexuality ever since, but I didn’t fully understand the breadth of it until I wrote “The Mirror Test.” Even though I understood that it was a mechanism born out of sexism and patriarchy and misogyny, it still felt like mine in the way that shame does. It felt like it was very personal and it’s not fucking personal. It never is.
Through writing the essay, I spoke to so many other women. It was healing and devastating and so clear that it was not mine or any of ours. It was like we’d been working in a factory whose production was the alienation from our bodies.
Rumpus: You write, “I don’t want to take the word slut back like I don’t want to own a gun. It was never mine. You’ll never hear me say it to any woman, not as a joke, not with pride or affection or irony.” Thank you for that.
Febos: I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of taking back that word. It’s always made me uncomfortable; it makes my insides tremble a little bit. But I didn’t come to that resolution until I wrote the essay. When I got to the end of it, I was like, “Fuck that. No.” You cannot trick me into colluding in the perpetuation of this, not for another second longer.
Rumpus: In one of its manifestations, self-loathing is at the core of addiction. But in “Wild America,” you wrote, “My self-hatred was not self-generated.” In my experience, the recognition that self-hatred, or self-loathing, is not self-generated is the way out.
Febos: That’s right. And that’s the mission of this book: I didn’t choose this, this way of thinking, this pressure to consent to forms of touch I don’t want. This was not my design. But it is to some extent within my power to undo it and to redesign it. And once I have the resources to be able to do that, I’m going to try to figure out how.
Photograph of Melissa Febos by Beowulf Sheehan.