The Alchemy of Pain: Melissa Febos’s “Abandon Me”

By Ellen Wayland-SmithMarch 12, 2017

The Alchemy of Pain: Melissa Febos’s “Abandon Me”

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos

SIGMUND FREUD SPENT most of his life asserting that the biological instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain was the motive force of all human action. Civilization was nothing but the process by which the instinctual id — all drive, all desire — learned to accommodate itself to the “reality principle,” to accept “pleasure deferred or diminished” in exchange for a place at the table of polite society. We are all programmed to chase after pleasure, in however muted and sublimated a form. Yet in examining the therapeutic situation closely, Freud observed, we stumble upon a “remarkable fact”: all manner of childhood experiences, even those that could never have been pleasurable in the first instance, are subject to compulsive repetition in analysis. Patients doggedly reenact all their earliest narcissistic wounds in therapy, scheming with “the greatest ingenuity” to revive the specter of parental rejection in the person of the analyst. What, Freud wonders, could account for the mysterious pull of this pain?

His answer to the puzzle came in the form of a thin little monograph, published in 1920, entitled Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He formulated his theory of a “death instinct” — could only have formulated it — in the numb aftermath of World War I, which had dispensed once and for all with any cheery Enlightenment faith in historical progress. In this context, Freud’s postulate of a “primary masochism,” a self-destructive instinct more primal even than the push for pleasure, made a certain amount of sense. Maybe, he ventured, humans weren’t programmed to go anywhere at all, least of all forward: maybe our fate was to push back relentlessly toward the inert state of matter from which we were originally pulled. Maybe life itself was best understood as merely a “circuitous path to death.”

Melissa Febos knows something about the secret threads binding pleasure and pain, the heliotropic pull of the light and the hypnotic tug of darkness. In her early 20s, Febos led a double life: by day, a brilliant undergraduate studying poetry at The New School; by night, a heroin addict and dominatrix in a New York dungeon. In her first memoir, Whip Smart, Febos chronicles the arduous process of freeing herself from addiction. Her new book, Abandon Me, treads different terrain, leaving behind the lurid gleam of Bowery shooting galleries for the lighter air of the classroom and the conference hall. Though it’s primarily a love story, rather than a recovery narrative, it is no less a chronicle of addiction: the love she falls into is incandescent, obsessive, impossible, dark. Falling in love, Febos is forced to confront the specter of her old addict self, albeit in a new shape.

At the heart of Abandon Me, like Whip Smart before it, is Febos’s lifelong struggle with her childhood fear of abandonment. Febos’s New England sea-captain father — who adopted her when she was two years old — left the family for months on end when she was a girl, turning her into a “widow walker” at the tender age of six. In order to parry the grief of abandonment, which soaked the house with sadness, Febos learned to leave first. The leaving starts small. At eight, she stops crying when her father goes to sea. Then, in the words of Elizabeth Bishop, she begins “losing farther, losing faster”: at 12, she gives her body away to boys. At 18, she disappears herself in cocaine and smack, “the crackling splatter of me in that hot glass skillet — the abracadabra of evaporation.”

The dominatrix, in rib-crushing corset and towering stilettos, appears at first glance like the obverse of the vaporized junkie. In fact, Febos discovers, it is just another way to send the self and its messy needs packing: the dominatrix is the very embodiment of the cool control she seeks, beyond desire, and thus beyond the disastrous possibility of its rebuff. Both the drugs and the domming, she comes to realize, allow her to stave off desertion by beating it to the punch: give yourself away before anyone else can. Want nothing, desire nothing, and no one can tell you “no.” Febos clings to “the safety of that emptiness,” as she calls it in Whip Smart, for a long time, and the process of abandoning it is brutal. As she slowly learns how to “hurt without leaving […] surrendering to the pain” and moving through it rather than bolting like a panicked animal, she is able to get clean and quit the dungeon. Having liberated herself from the bindings of power, she soon finds herself in a “healthy relationship.” She moves into a leafy Prospect Park neighborhood with her partner; she writes, teaches, goes for walks in the park with her dog. “The normality of my life,” she observes toward the close of Whip Smart, “felt sometimes like a huge practical joke.”

It wasn’t a joke, of course. But Febos’s skepticism turns out to have been well founded: the dark isn’t finished with her yet. One night when she is 32 years old, Febos kisses a stranger, whose mouth becomes “the soft nail on which my life snagged, and tore open.” She has never felt this kind of desire before, this blank, animal thirst, and lives in terror lest the object of her feeding be taken away from her. “My whole body was a mouth,” she writes. “My heart was a mouth that only she could fill, that she could never fill.” The urgency of her need frightens her, “more gnash than kiss, more eat than embrace.” She can’t find the bottom to it.

As she disappears further and further into her lover, Febos feels suddenly compelled to reconnect with her birth father, Jon. It is as though the mechanical drive of bodily desire puts her in mind of biology: pushing back to the prima materia of her DNA, hunting down the molecular architecture of her hunger. Febos met her father only once as a child, and she retains nothing beyond the blurry image of a “drunk stranger living in a Florida trailer.” He is, like her, a hungry person: an addict and an alcoholic. Abandon Me pivots back and forth between Febos’s feverish love and her discovery of her birth family, threading the two narratives together like a double helix.

Her people, Febos discovers, are fragile, shambling, self-destructive. Her father leads her into the Connecticut house where he lives with his great-aunt Pat and sister Joan who, when she is “not speaking or coughing […] tucked a steady chain of cigarettes and antiseptic-smelling lozenges into her mouth, punctuated by puffs from an inhaler.” Joan is a recovering gambler; Pat is dotty now, but amiable as long as she has a steady supply of sweets and gets to the casino once in a while. Her father “stood too close, stared too long,” and repulses her with his raw neediness. But, she muses resignedly, “I have long known that loathing is nearly always a symptom of self-recognition.” And so she stays.

Febos had always known her father was part Native American, descended from the Wampanoag tribe. Her olive skin and green eyes had often elicited the school yard question: What are you? “I’m Indian,” she would reply, though she didn’t yet know what that meant. Over the course of the next year, she discovers her family’s repeated attempts to erase their Native American heritage. One snapshot drawn out of a box of family photographs shows a handsome, dark-skinned man: her great-grandfather. “That’s Pop Lightman,” Joan tells her. “He was an Indian.” A cousin recounts stories of walking in downtown Hartford with Pop: how the white men glared. When Mina, another great-aunt, decides to research her father’s genealogy, she refuses to talk about the “native” line. And Pop, of course, does his best to accommodate everyone by erasing himself as well. In a 1935 census Febos digs up in public records, she sees that, in the box indicating ethnicity, Pop had scratched the word “Polish”: “His small lie — a seed in the shook rattle of me.”

When a people are dispossessed and decimated like the Wampanoag were, the survivors start to do a curious thing: they begin to dispossess themselves. According to one study Febos cites, as many as 49 percent of natives polled have daily “disturbing thoughts” about the historical losses suffered by their people. Statistics consistently show that rates of sexual and physical abuse, addiction, chronic illness, mental illness, poverty, and suicide among native populations are as much as three times higher than the national average. They are a people who are reenacting historical trauma on the flesh of their bodies. Once, as an adolescent, Febos took a schoolroom dare to rub her wrist raw with the pink butt of an eraser, drawing blood. What she discovers in reconnecting with her Native American family is that her people have been subject to exile and erasure — and have been practicing self-erasure, the same trick of scrubbing themselves raw, on the “page or the skin or the census” — for generations.


The parts of ourselves that we dispossess — that we cut, tuck, stuff, and hide — never disappear. When they come back, they want something. Febos’s own outsized appetite begins to make more sense to her: “It is the hunger of the abandoned,” she writes. And now she knows just how deep its roots go.

Perhaps the most striking achievement of this memoir is Febos’s treatment of the alchemy of pain. To seek pain is not evidence of an instinct for self-destruction. “I was not a masochist,” Febos insists, in spite of her history of using her body like a hammer, pushing it to the boundaries of what it can endure. “I never wanted to die.” On the contrary, sometimes it is only by adding pain to pain that we can break through to healing. Similia similibus curantur, the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus declared: “Like is cured by like.” Healing isn’t always brought about by the law of opposites: applying balm to burn, or antidote to poison. Sometimes healing happens by abiding with the burn or the poison until the hurt transforms itself, through some alchemical process, into something else.

One of the most stunning passages in the book is also one of the most difficult to read. Febos flashes back to her time as a dominatrix, to a night at a BDSM gala:

When I was twenty-two, I saw a woman suspended from a ceiling by hooks dug through the flesh of her back. We were at a party in Manhattan. […] I stood on a staircase of a warehouse in Chelsea and tilted my head back. Lola’s eyes at half-mast, her face was beatific, body glittering with makeup and pearly sweat. The stainless steel hooks gathered and lifted the skin over her shoulder blades in two mounds. All 120 pounds of her hung from those two handfuls of flesh. The puncture wounds wept, but Lola did not. Her body glowed with the pain, as if electrified — as if Electra, brilliant with relief, with glory, with revenge, with kathartikos. She was beautiful.

Febos recognizes herself in Lola. She knows from experience that pain can be a choice, and that it can be holy. Reflecting back on that vision of pierced flesh and why it moved her so, Febos remarks, with breath-taking simplicity, “[M]aybe I already knew that my own healing would never look like a laying of hands, not the gentle kind.” Fixing, she concludes, doesn’t always look like fixing.

Another memory: When she is nine, Febos’s sea-captain father takes her to a Wampanoag tribe powwow. As darkness falls, the men play a game called Fireball. The ball, a bundle of wire and kerosene-soaked rags, is set on fire and tossed back and forth. The men think of the pain all their loved ones, living and dead, have ever suffered, and pray it is diminished each time the fireball scorches their hands: the lead of pain transmuted into the gold of healing. At the time, Febos didn’t yet feel connected to the Wampanoag. But, she offers, “I didn’t need to belong to feel that fire, to understand that a burning thing could heal, if you were willing to take it in your hands.”

Her family history is her pain, her hook through the flesh, the fireball she will eventually learn to handle. “He felt like a burning thing,” Febos writes of Jon the first time she enters his house, adding, “I wouldn’t reach for it unless I had to.” But compulsion tells her to go ahead and touch.


Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table. She teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of two books of American cultural history, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador, 2016) and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Her essay collection, The Science of Last Things, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press in 2024. She is a professor (teaching) in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California.


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