MARCH 12, 2017
I FIRST MET Melissa Febos when a sitcom pilot I’d co-written about an S&M dungeon coincidentally had the same title as her first book, Whip Smart. We agreed that whoever hit the big time first would hire the other. We’re still waiting, but in the meantime, she has emerged as one of our most creative and most unflinching memoirists, essayists, and teachers. Whip Smart told the story of her descent into, and emergence from, both heroin addiction and sex work; it was as tender as it was brutal, beautifully written, emotionally complex, and excruciatingly honest.
Her new book of interconnected essays, Abandon Me, is in some ways even braver. She dives headfirst into deeper, murkier waters, writing about her childhood as an often-absent sea-captain’s daughter living in a small coastal town with her mother and brother, and interweaving two recent journeys of her own: meeting her biological father and his family, and an obsessive, all-consuming love affair that becomes an addiction and a recovery of its own.
We met over coffee to discuss writing, sex, compulsion, biological instinct, post-modern romance, and whether or not to co-parent a baby.
DAVID GORDON: You invoke a lot of writers in this book — Hemingway, Borges — but the real guiding spirit feels like Rilke.
MELISSA FEBOS: Yes. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was really important for me, and I still teach it all the time. He has this line: “Ask yourself, would you cease to live if you could not write, does your life depend on it?” And [when I first read it] I said, “Yes!” because I was 15 and everything felt like my life depended on it. Then I was like, alright, that’s pretty fucking dramatic, you can’t ask that of everyone who wants to write. And now I’ve come around again and I think, actually yes, it has to feel like my life depends on it.
When people ask my advice about being a writer, I feel like saying: “Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to.” Being a third grade teacher is way more important. So is being a baker — at least people get fresh bread.
Maybe it is as small and selfish as doing the thing that will let me go on living. If I can steer that toward a place that feels useful, good. I wouldn’t be a good third grade teacher.
No one would want to eat the bread I’d bake. No one’s ever suggested that I’d be good at anything else.
We’re very similar in that way. I’ve been thinking about getting another tattoo and I think I might get this phrase from the Annie Dillard essay “Living Like Weasels.” She’s talking about instinct and ways of living — and for me, ways of writing — and she describes the weasel’s instinct as “yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of a single necessity.” That engraved itself on my mind. I feel that’s the only way to do it — you let that be your number one necessity, and everything else runs into that like tributaries.
You are who you are, and it comes with some gifts, but you don’t get to pick. I am sort of glad about my extreme personality, or at least for the gift of having identified it, because it’s so much easier to just yield to my nature. I’ll deal with the life-threatening stuff, but for the rest of it, I’m just going to jerry-rig my life so that I can use it for good.
That reminds me of Jung, whom you quote as saying drug and alcohol addiction is a low-level spiritual search. Certainly for Rilke too, sexual and romantic love is a substitution, or a stage on the way to spiritual love, to God’s love. How do the relationships you discuss in Abandon Me tie into that?
I think that in all of them, I am looking for that divine love. If I can talk about the book somewhat reductively, if there is a principal theme, it has to do with attachment and the fear of abandonment, and that desire for the perfect security and trust of a parent’s love, the unconditionality of love. If that gets disrupted or interrupted, we will transpose it onto our adult relationships. In the case of a parent, it’s appropriate; in the case of a lover it’s doomed to fail, because they can never love you and indeed shouldn’t love you the way a parent does, or the way that a god does.
Early in my childhood, not through any huge fault of my parents but because of an element of my nature, I experienced the insecurity of a parent’s absence and that feeling of abandonment. Rather than moving through it and learning that they always come back, I decided to just cut myself off and become totally self-sufficient, and carried that with me into my adult relationships, and it stayed with me for a really long time. Then, in the relationship that I wrote about in the book, I opened Pandora’s Box.
In some ways that feels inevitable, given your background.
I spent so much of my life wondering why I was so fucked up when I didn’t deserve to be. A lot of what my first book is about is renegotiating what trauma means, and looking at it as a kind of interruption or disruption, rather than some mark of Cain. That was part of my rationale for never seeking out — or even allowing myself to be curious about — my birth father. I didn’t think I had earned the pain; I have a father who did that work, without the biological connection, and I felt I had to have been missing something, or be wounded in a very fundamental way, to deserve to be curious.
My mother left my biological father when I was an infant, and he never reached out or sent a birthday card, for reasons that I understand now and don’t think have anything to do with me. But at the time I was invested in him being nobody to me, because I was uncomfortable with the idea that I had been affected or defined by his absence.
Even the word “biological” takes on more connotations, when you start writing. We are confronted with this idea that there are things that are just coming through our body, from other people’s bodies.
That word “biological” was given to me as a kid. And it makes perfect sense: the more scientific the language, the less intimate it becomes. But then it shifts, once you start to look at it in terms of biological inheritance. I can keep all the love I got from my dad who raised me, which was a much bigger gift, because it was voluntary. I never felt like I didn’t have a father. So a big part of my curiosity had to do with biology.
I guess what I’m saying is that on the other side of this book, I believe more in nature. I have a greater sense of how nature and biology have informed who I am. We have a really inflated sense of our own identities and the degree to which they are solid. Meeting these relatives for the first time, so many of the parts of me that I grew up thinking, “Where did this come from, what’s wrong with me, why do I have all of this?” I recognized instantly in them. I recognized the glimmer of the particular kind of shame that comes from knowing that there is some part of you that is capable of anything, that is dishonest, that is always desperate.
I think there is a logical connection between that and your feeling like a wild creature in your house and among other people.
Yeah, it’s a different kind of weasel. I didn’t know where it was going when I was writing this book. I’ve never written anything so blind in my life, which was terrifying, because I’m a pragmatist and an outliner and that’s how I manage the unmanageable in me, is by making notes and maps. This book defied that, because I was writing my way into the conclusions, and doing so not even through narrative structure, but through language.
Did you have a conception of the whole book or was each of the essays its own thing?
Each was its own thing until the final essay. I wrote them in not so distant an order from which they appear in the book, and I thought that they wouldn’t be able to go together because of the redundancies in them. There are multiple scenes that get repeated in different places. And the essays were in such different forms; the focus is almost on phonics in some, and others are narrative. I thought there was no way they could be in one book, but I kept writing them. The title came to me before anything else, which is backward. That had never happened to me. I knew that was going to write a book called Abandon Me about this skin-peelingly intense love affair and meeting my birth father, but I didn’t know that these essays were a part of it. And then it was almost like all of these islands migrating closer and closer together and I realized they were a constellation or an archipelago.
Part of what I thought worked really well about the repetition is that it’s certain key scenes that get repeated, like flying across the country to meet the lover, or certain experiences with your father, the captain, leaving and returning.
The editorial process was one of the lightest I’ve ever done, but one of the things I did do was look at the scenes I revisit and make them very intentional. I thought about which could become prismatic, and seen anew — the scenes that I had mythologized in my own mind. Repetition is a big part of art, but you can’t just repeat any image and have it accumulate meaning. It had to be inherent to the thing, a natural sort of symbol. Those were the scenes that I most highly romanticized, whose meaning changed most dramatically in hindsight, and that I had to detach from my own mythology.
So rather than a more sentimental idea of art-making as creating myth, you’re saying writing this was a demythologizing?
The repetition becomes an exfoliation; I start to slough off those layers of romance and sentimentalism. I start to scrape off the story. A friend of mine said the ending is almost like an anti-ending. Because it’s not like you have this insane relationship and this extremely painful break and then you heal from it; it just ends the moment that it ends. She said she felt like she was skidding off the edge of the roof at the end of it because it doesn’t give you this cozy little bassinet of resolution at the end. It’s a severing.
Do you know Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”? You reference a lot of Greek myths, and of course just by total coincidence I am teaching Joyce’s Ulysses this term.
Total coincidence …
Exactly. And that led me to revisit Tennyson’s poem, which imagines Ulysses back in Ithaca after the whole epic has ended and he’s with his wife and son and basically he starts to get restless. He is no longer at home in Ithaca, he doesn’t belong anymore. He is a captain, like your father, and he is going to rejoin his crew and set off again and not return:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
That reminded me of your book — the imagery of repeatedly smashing your boat into things, but also that the ending is not a homecoming. You’re going to continue this journey.
I relate to that, and I think it carries into now, which is the story after the story. I’ve never written anything as close to its happening as I did this book.
How much later was it?
I wrote it as it was happening. The first three-quarters, and even part of the final quarter, I wrote while I was in that relationship and meeting my birth father. I was writing my way toward the end. My understanding of what needed to happen sort of dovetailed with my writing it. I’ve always experienced writing as a process of coming to understanding, but it’s never been so syncopated as this was … I don’t actually recommend it! I don’t think you could choose to do this, but I think I had to write my way through the story.
I relate to that poem in the sense that no ending is an ending, it’s just the trough in the wave. And what happened afterward is that I had been in love for most of my life, I had been in relationships, and in this one I had really confronted that: she was my Calypso, she was my Siren. And if anything, the Penelope of my story is myself. I am the woman I came home to. And the coda on that is that shortly after we broke up, I decided to embark on a six-month period of celibacy, and it was some of the best six months of my life.
I imagine it was almost like the honeymoon phase of when he comes home to Penelope. And they’re like fucking all the time and not taking anything for granted. I’d never been alone with my own desires and preferences and company. I discovered all these parts of my personality that I’d never had access to, because I was never not negotiating with the needs and presence of another person. I was always falling in or out of love.
But at the end of that six months, I thought, “Now I’m going to be a different person. I’m going to operate totally differently in relationships, and I’m never going to abandon myself again.” And I’ve been dating again, and as at turns out, I’m still me.
Yeah, I can relate. Not to the willing celibacy part …
No dramatic odyssey can make you a different person. I will be tangling with these impulses for the rest of my life. There was a big shift as a result of this experience, but the drama of experience doesn’t always translate directly into material change. It’s always a much slower trajectory.
What was the big shift?
I had always played it very safe, emotionally, in a way that was linked to my childhood. No one had ever broken up with me. I had only ever broken my own heart. I had spent my whole life terrified of being needy or desperate or longing too much or being denied. I suspected it would be this incredibly painful, hideous disempowerment. And it was! In [the relationship in the book] I was needy and desperate and I cried all the time, and was mortified by the ways that I begged for something that she couldn’t give me. I became the person I had always feared becoming. It was a dramatic reversal of self.
So I fantasized that once I came out of it, I would be cured. That I would be able to suddenly have balanced relationships, where I’d be vulnerable and yet not co-dependent. But unfortunately that’s not what happened. I went right back, after that, to being the person who is always in control. I do think it has given me insight and helped crystallize what I want, but it doesn’t fix it. Now I have to actually do the work. The pain of that relationship was not the work of self-transformation.
But your worst fear happened to you, and you survived. The Odyssey metaphors are endless, but you made it through that storm. You were wrecked, but you were thrown back up onto the shore at the end of it. And it is very empowering, but it fucks you up in other ways. The scar tissue builds up.
It’s complicated. I feel like on one hand that kind of devastation makes you softer, because I want to be more vulnerable and I know I can survive it, but on the other hand I have all this scar tissue. So the takeaway is I have to be more vulnerable in relationships, but my instincts have actually gotten more careful.
I went through such an excoriating experience of jealousy and desperation, and trying to control, and craving for that unconditional God-love. It went so far that eventually I just hit bottom with that, and in the few romantic situations I’ve been in since, I don’t feel possessive, I don’t feel jealous. I’m done fighting. I might even be done with my idea of monogamy, I don’t know. It’s not coming from an ideological place, it’s coming from an experiential place. I’m yielding to the fact that that shit has never worked for me. I have had exit affairs out of almost every relationship I’ve ever had, because I hit two years and my capacity for it is done and I have to start forcing it and I buck against having to do anything that’s against my nature. So I’m not going to force myself into a model that feels unnatural, and I’m not going try to force anyone else into that either. And that feels incredibly liberating and a huge relief, but at the same time I think: now what’s going to happen?
I don’t know what model is going to replace that. Maybe my life is now going to be like writing that book where I just figure it out by doing, but I’ve never done that before. It requires staying in constant conversation with yourself about what’s happening and how you’re relating to it. I think you have to be really honest — I guess that’s what I’m doing right now. But I’m also at an age where if want to have kids I have to figure that out.
Yeah, me too. If you want to have a kid let me know.
Haha! I actually don’t know when I will be excited about having another person sleep over. I am so into going to bed and waking up alone that I hurt everybody’s feelings.
Well, I’m a cuddler. My problem is, “I have to go into that other room and work now.”
I have to go home and work.
That’s good too.
My relationship ideal has changed from the Gertrude Stein–Alice B. Toklas version to the Susan Sontag–Annie Leibovitz version where you live in adjacent but separate homes, and if one person wants to have a kid and the other doesn’t, that’s fine. I have a growing faith in the importance of differentiation from your partner.
The relationship in Abandon Me was inexhaustible, because I was always hungry. But most of the time I have been a sort of enmeshment-style lover, where we’re just going to drink each other’s spit until we can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. But you can’t do that forever. Eventually we collapse into each other and the other person’s body feels like my body, so I don’t crave it anymore. You can’t do that and continue to love. I don’t think the answer to maintaining sexual interest in a person has to do with dressing up in costumes. You don’t have to, because it’s difference that remains attractive.
Do you mean literal costumes?
I mean literal costumes! The cultural story about how to revive your sex life is literally to defamiliarize the other person by giving them a new persona. But I think keeping some things separate, and remaining separate people, is how you keep sexual attraction alive.
One way to think about role-play or kink is as another kind of intimacy, a more specific desire that can actually be fulfilled completely. Someone wants or needs something and you give it to them and both parties are happy, instead of asking a lover: solve all my problems forever.
This feels true to me, based on my own experience. I want to replicate that and multiply it in a relationship. So that rather than saying, “Come fill my God-shaped hole forever,” which will always fail, say, “Let’s live side by side and have a series of freelance contracts.” Like: Help me raise this child; let’s go through the Trump administration together; let’s go on a road trip; let’s fuck. And you have to ask for it, and say: “This is what I need.” And the other person says, “I can do that,” or, “No, I can’t.”
Like with monogamy, when we say “forever,” how can you make that promise? But you can say: “Right now I’m with you and not with anyone else.” But also to give that other person their freedom and not try and keep them as yours, entrapped. It requires that you overcome all these other parts of your personality and withstand the pains of not knowing how it will be forever.
Is that possible? Does anybody pull it off? I feel like the only people who ever even come close to that are certain highly evolved older gay male couples.
I don’t know why that is.
How do they do it? This might sound sexist, but I’ve always thought it has to do with hormones, that it’s easier for men in some ways to separate sex from attachment.
It absolutely is, but I also know on a certain level that I’m still jealous and possessive, so I think your sexist explanation is like 70 percent true.
But you’re also in the love world of women. And the vast majority of women aren’t capable of that, so it’s not very possible for you. The world of gay men is a very different culture, and you’d have models for it.
So it’s my feminine side getting in the way again.
I can say I’m ready for the first time in my life to try not defining it that way. I feel like the right person is going to come along, but she’s not going to look like you think and that’s kind of what this book is about — I thought I knew my deal, and this person came along and blew that shit up.
How do you deal with the whole other-people-knowing-you’re-writing-about-them thing?
The first book was somewhat easier because it was really about me. I didn’t include anyone else’s life-changing events, so I felt comfortable taking ownership. Their issues were more how they felt about my story. So I gave the book to my family and we became closer as a result, but it was very painful. My writing does the same thing in my relationships that it does within myself — it forces a conversation that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The hotness of the vulnerability drives me away from that, but my allegiance to my work leads me to overcome it in order to tell the story. And then we have to have the conversation because I’ve already written it.
So you just feel like you’re compelled to write it. Do you torment about it or accept that?
I made a decision when I was really young to always let the writer win. There are so many parts of my personality I’m trying to control and modify and snuff out. And the writer is the one part of me that feels like a safe container to put it all in, and I have more faith in the value of storytelling and literature than anything else — so I’m just going to let that go to town. That has remained true. It is the one place where my instinct is always to yield at every moment the perfect freedom of a single necessity.
I’m always that way, too, but I’m also the kind of person who, if I accidentally offend someone at a dinner party, wants to kill myself.
I think there’s a causal relationship between those, and it has to do with being a people-pleaser, wanting to be liked by everyone, and wanting to hide the parts of me that offend people. Just like other emotional burdens, there’s a price to pay. Writing becomes the valve for all the things we won’t air in mixed company. But that makes it doubly offensive. Almost everything I write about, I’ve never spoken aloud to anyone before. And this is where my sort of dissociative personality and my talent for compartmentalization and denial come in useful: when I sit down to write, I never think, this is going to hurt people, or this is going to be shocking. I literally don’t think about it.
With this book, how did you deal with that?
When I finished the long final essay in this book — part of which is a chronological telling in pretty great depth of the relationship and break up — I gave it to a very close friend who had seen me throughout the experience. They said: “This is a beautiful story, but that’s not what happened; you’re writing a version of things that she would be comfortable with, and in that respect, it’s fiction. People will read it and appreciate it, but it won’t be what you want to do in your work and it will be inferior as a piece of art in general.” Because I didn’t want to implicate her, I wanted to be generous. And also because she still terrified me — this was a person who’d had more power over me than anyone since childhood. So I had to go back and rewrite it.
I’m a fiction writer, which means no one expects truth or fairness. I don’t have to be right. So I can go wherever imagination or instinct takes me and hopefully discover something new. So why not just say, this is a novel?
I’m too avoidant. If I was able to say it was fiction, I would not look at that hard truth. I would still want to please everyone. It is only when I hold myself to the standard of nonfiction that I am able to go all the way into the truth that I don’t want to look at. And when I published the first book — I mean that was a book in which I described shitting on someone, as well as the contradictions within my own politics and sexuality — I finished and thought, “Well at least I’ll never have to write anything that personal again.” And I couldn’t have been more wrong. With this book I had to go even deeper and I had to implicate other people. I had a very different process with my immediate family, especially with my brother, whom I’d never written about. We went through a very painful process that’s still happening, because there’s an essay in the book about him being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which forced me to revise my automatic belief that the writer is always right and has license to take any story they want if they can make good art out of it.
And I don’t know that I believe that anymore.
With my ex, I didn’t want to hurt her, but if that was a side effect of telling the biggest truth I could find I was willing to accept it. With my brother, I felt differently. I wanted to preserve my relationship with him and I felt responsible for his comfort. My parents felt more responsible for me, as opposed to my younger brother, and so were more able to handle it. But the conversations I had with the three member of my immediate family after I wrote this book were three of the most intimate and adult conversations I’ve had in my life.
With fiction, if someone were to say something was not true or not fair I could say, “Of course it’s not.” I’m not even trying to be factual or correct. That’s why I named the character Mary-Jo, or whoever.
Listening to you right now, in this moment, right before my book comes out and the ax is about to drop, I am thinking, “That’s it, I’m doing that!” Write it as a memoir and call it a novel.
But even so, regardless of genre, there are really upsetting, uncomfortable things that I am happy to have put behind me in life and I don’t want to revisit, but that I know someday I will write about. Like part of me is already writing the story.
We have the same thing. You’re going to let the writer win.