by dein sofley
In her new memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos explores the legacy of her two fathers: her birth father, a Native American, with whom she reconnects over the course of the book, and the father who raised her, a sea captain.
Sections weave her quest together with moments taken from her childhood through escapist tendencies that manifested in sexual obsessions and a drug addiction in her young-adult years and into an obsessive love affair with a married woman that triggers Febos’ fear of abandonment. Historical tidbits expand the narration along with digressions into texts ranging from Homer and Jung to the film Labyrinth. The book confronts the legacy of addiction, the traumatic “legacy of abandonment, of erasure” that was Febos’ birthright, and considers the forces that command utter devotion that can both destroy and redeem us.
Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Her essays have appeared in publications like Tin House, Granta, and the New York Times. She’s on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and teaches writing at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: When I first read the title of your memoir, Abandon Me, it seemed like a dare. What was your intent in choosing the title?
MELISSA FEBOS: The title came to me suddenly; it wasn’t something I considered with intent. Usually, a title is the last thing I add to a piece of writing, but with this book, it came to me before I’d written the book. I suppose there was a lot of intention in it, but not of my conscious, thinking mind. It felt like a message from the deeper regions of my intelligence and imagination. The dual meanings arrived more as an instruction for how to direct the book. The title suggests the place I hoped to arrive at by the end of the writing process, and indeed, it was. That is, I wanted to move—both within myself and within the book’s progression—from one definition of abandonment to another. Perhaps the dare that you felt was a dare I made to myself, an entreaty to transform abandonment from a fearsome thing to a sought thing, a thing one might demand, through the alchemy of writing. So, I think the title helped guide me in some ways, like a lighthouse or North Star.
TCR: Portions of your memoir appeared as essays in various publications before the book was published. Was the aim of your essays to amass a collection and create a memoir?
MF: No. For a while, I was simultaneously writing the essays and ruminating on this book (for which I already had a title, written on an index card and tacked on my wall). About four essays in, I realized that they were the book. There was some repetition in the essays that I thought would be redundant in a book (if I ever thought about it), though it turned out that part of the book’s work was to examine particular events from multiple perspectives, to highlight the prismatic nature of pivotal moments and the multiple narratives we can build around them. I still consider the book an essay collection more than a memoir—the pieces are discrete, especially in terms of form, though I do think they cohere into one complete thing.
TCR: In the book, you seamlessly mingle your ruminations with astronomy, psychology, mythology, history and analyses of pop culture. Ferdinand the Bull, Jung’s Red Book and the film Labyrinth figure prominently. Many of your references circle around and through the larger story, bending time and elucidating overarching themes. What was your process in writing, researching and incorporating such a broad range of outside sources that you assembled into a cohesive narrative?
MF: The integration of outside sources was an organic process, and not one that I planned. The process of writing is also that of thinking, for me. I don’t quite know what I think about a subject until I write about it. It’s difficult for me to “think” abstractly, difficult for me to progress through ideas. I have to materialize the process somehow, and writing does that best. This book is, among other things, a record of my contemplation of a set of experiences and ideas: different concepts of “love,” identity, addiction, attachment, abandonment, and so forth. I had some urgent questions that were prompted by my own choices, such as: How could a person so versed in psychology, with so many years of therapy and recovery under her belt, have gotten embroiled in such a harrowing and compulsive, such an “unhealthy” love affair? Or, why had I never been curious about my birth father until I was thirty-two? Why this lifelong tendency for self-erasure through substances, people, and even stories? And how had building narratives been a survival tool, and also a way to hide from truths I feared? Since childhood, I have looked to texts for answers to my biggest questions. Books have always felt easier to ask than people. Unlike people, I am not beholden to them. They have no reaction to my confidences. I can put them down or return to them at any point. And they are consistent, even if my interpretations change over time. The questions I needed to answer in this book were so vulnerable. I had a lot of shame about the choices I’d made, ways that I’d behaved toward other people and myself. So, I went to my texts. Most of the sources that I bring into Abandon Me are old confidants—books or films or thinkers that I’ve consulted for a long time. I did some, but not a lot of research into new sources for the book. If the incorporation of those texts didn’t feel germane to the story, I wouldn’t have included them. But because it was so much a story about seeking insight, it felt very natural.
TCR: In your memoir, you wrote that “Books were my obsession, but music more succinctly captured emotion than any combination of words I found.” Do you listen to music when you write? Are there certain artists or albums that you listen to, to evoke a certain era or emotions when you’re writing a given topic?
MF: I do. I almost always listen to music when I write. Usually, I’ll find a handful of songs whose emotional tenor really matches that of the piece I’m working on, and then I’ll listen to them over and over for the duration of writing it. Sometimes, for an important scene, I’ll just play one song on repeat while I write it. The music works as a kind of emotional metronome, and helps me stay focused on the feeling that I’d trying to nail. It also helps me to easily re-enter the piece, or the scene, on a different day, or on an airplane, or in a café or a waiting room. Music helps me create a private space that I can enter and work, no matter where I am.
TCR: As a writer, writing her life experience, how do you maintain the emotional distance required for you to sustain objectivity of your subject matter?
MF: Oh, I don’t think I do. Objectivity is a fantasy! No one is ever objective, least of all about themselves. And in a significant way, I didn’t have much emotional distance from my subject matter, either. One of the primary storylines in the book is that of an intense love affair, and I wrote the majority of the book while I was still in that relationship. I consider this now, in hindsight, and it shocks me a little. Because I, too, have talked about the importance of objectivity and emotional distance to my students, as surely your teachers have. But I also know that this was the only way for me to write this book.
I think part of what we mean when we say “objectivity” and “emotional distance” is simply that our perspective has changed in some fundamental way. And sometimes that change can happen very close to an experience. It keeps changing, yes. And I’m sure I could write the story of that relationship with a more layered perspective from a farther vantage point. But that is not the book I wrote. And it isn’t the story I wanted to tell, either. I wanted that story to be primarily concerned with the immediacy of it all—I wanted to capture the blistering heat of it, the madness, the small ways that I abandoned myself over and over until the only thing left in my life was her. In a pragmatic way, I needed to be close to the experience so that I could remember it. I have a terrible memory! I take notes on everything I might write about, because I so quickly forget.
More importantly, the story I wanted to tell was of the trance of that love, the elaborate illusion of it. And so, in retrospect it makes sense that I wrote much of it from inside that dream. Because once you leave an experience like that—which is essentially an altered state, a different kind of reality with its own laws and logic—it’s hard to understand or even quite remember what being under the spell felt like. I think it’d be much harder to write a convincing portrait of it. You know that scene in Labyrinth where Sarah eats the poison peach and goes to sleep and she’s in this beautiful dream about a masked ball, and she’s in a beautiful dress, dancing with David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King? And then she realizes that she’s dreaming and she smashes the mirrored wall with a chair and the whole beautiful scene flies into shards and no longer exists? Well, it’s like that. If you’ve ever been in an incredibly fucked up, addictive, myth-building, relationship, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, well, I hope you escape that particular fate. I think I do, anyway. My point is, to free yourself from that dream, you really have to smash it. And once your denial is gone, it’s gone. You can never go back. It’s like any addiction. Once you look at the truth, you can’t un-see it. And the time when you lived in the dream seems unbelievable, your past self like a zombie whose logic you can’t fully enter any longer. The most accurate portrait of that time I could have written was from inside it, and so I’m glad I did. And there was a change in perspective, a dramatic one. I stopped writing the book for a few months and I lived it. And then I knew exactly how my book ended.
All of that said, I do think it helps a story to have access to a greater spectrum of understanding than is possible from inside an experience, or even shortly after it. The other half of Abandon Me, fortunately, is about my childhood. And it’s been a long time since then, so I had access to a greater range of insights, if not the same degree of detail that the more present timeline had. I’m not sure that either narrative thread would have worked alone. The childhood material was rich with reflection, but needed the immediacy and conflict of the love story to galvanize it. And the love story was relentless and vivid, but needed the insights that the childhood sections illuminated in it as anchors.
TCR: Jung posited a realm of the mind, sometimes conscious often not, called the shadow. He thought that the function of the shadow was to shut away thoughts, memories and feelings that we had forbidden to consciousness for one reason or another. My understanding is that all of BDSM involves explorations of parts of ourselves that we may have previously been aware of only in deep shadow, possibly buried beneath experiences of trauma and/or feelings of shame. From your experience as a dominatrix could what’s considered kinky merely be a desire to reunite with a part of ourselves that was lost in the shadow? Do you think that acting out sexual fantasies can provide another form of reclamation of forbidden feelings and foster healing?
MF: Yes. Though I don’t know if all BDSM involves that. I mean, insofar as everything we do does. I think we are always being driven by these shadow parts, often more so for their hiddenness. We fear them, and so avoid them, and so have little insight into the ways that they govern us. Freedom lies in facing them. So, I think any process that includes facing the parts of ourselves that we fear, or feel ashamed of, will be healing, will enlighten us. This is one of the reasons that I write. It is the primary way that I face my own shadow parts. It’s possible, even, to think of all human relationships as opportunities to do it. I love all of Jung’s writing about the shadow self, and to some degree think of my whole life as a long series of efforts to illuminate my own shadows. Through BDSM and my work as a dominatrix, the process of recovery, finding my birth father, and living through this painful relationship. I have often had to go to dark places to find those within me, to draw out their hidden parts. And writing is the way that I process those experiences, the way I come to understand their meaning.
TCR: In a New York Times interview you said, “So much of this book is about the prismatic experience of being seen, about how excruciating it is and how starved we are for it—especially those of us who have an instinct for secrecy.” The act of keeping secrets requires omission. Like the labyrinth that Sarah ultimately created to solve, as a child you used to take objects from your house, bury them in the yard and then hide the very elaborate maps you drew pinpointing the locations of your treasures. Do you think that the proclivity for secrecy is a necessary act of individuation that leads to the inevitable “discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects…” as psychiatrist R. D. Laing once wrote? Might the secrets we keep map our own transformation?
MF: It’s so interesting that you describe the labyrinth as Sarah’s creation. That is essentially how I came to see it, as I wrote that essay, but I don’t think I ever say it so directly. I mean, that’s a long chain of things to think. I’m not sure that progression is always, or even often true. Secrecy is certainly a natural and important stage of development for children (Jung also writes a lot about this), but I’m not sure that it always leads to revelation of our aloneness. I’m not sure that’s even true for me. Secrecy was an acute form of aloneness, yes. I love the idea of our secrets mapping our own transformation, and I do return to my own early instincts for secrecy a lot in my work. My secrets have mapped my transformation, yes, though I am very secretive! I’m sure unsecretive people have other habits that can be traced to decode some foreshadowing of their transformations. Here is what I think: we do build our own labyrinths, or choose them. We find ways of surviving the catastrophes that life deals us, and those survival mechanisms often lead us into the labyrinth. Secrecy is among these, for me. Letting go of them has been a big part of finding my way out. And the terrible beast that I face in the center, that fuming minotaur, is always me.
TCR: Writing has provided a way for me to express the things I’m too scared or not yet ready to say out loud. How has publishing your secrets affected your personal relationships and your relationship to writing about your life experience?
MF: That is too big a question to answer here. Or rather, it is too big an answer. I would need your whole journal for that, and the next issue, too. I will say this: I, too, began writing because it felt like the safest place, the only safe place, to put words to some things. And finding that tool saved my life. I mean that literally. I think I would have overdosed, or been killed, or killed myself, or at least been consigned to live a kind of walking death, had I not found I way to whisper the truth to myself.
And publishing those truths has also saved me, in a different kind of way. It has brought me closer to other people. Strangers, sure, but more significantly, the people I love. It has forced a kind of honesty that I am rarely brave enough to attempt in any other way. Intimacy is born in this risk. To be seen, you have to be seen. It is that simple. It is a terrifying exchange. Or, it requires what often feels like a terrible risk, a risk whose stakes might break you. And I won’t soften it: there have been moments when I felt like it did break me, exposing my most frightening truths, my most vulnerable self, and the consequences of that. But it has been worth it, entirely. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If the cost of intimacy is brokenness, then I will pay it again and again. We don’t know our own resilience until we survive, again.
TCR: In your memoir you wrote, “Sometimes you have to break your own heart to mend it.” You also thanked Amaia for enabling you to see the importance of belonging to your story in your acknowledgements. Do you think that longing begets belonging? Could you please speak about your experience of breaking your own heart?
MF: I don’t think that longing begets belonging, necessarily. I wish that it did, for all our sake’s. But maybe I do think that healing your own heart necessitates breaking it. So much of our suffering springs out of attachment—all of it, the Buddha would say—out of our devotion to a particular ideal, the object of a lover, a self-conception, money. We worship so many things that aren’t real. We are always chasing the stories of our childhoods, trying to correct them. This striving, chasing, and longing is a kind of love, or resembles something we call love. And to be free of it, we have to let go of that love. We have to stop believing that our lover can save us, or complete us, or make us happy. We have to smash the precious ideas of self: our victimhood, our self-hatred, our resentments. We hold these things closer than many things we supposedly “love.” And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it breaks our heart to let them go. In many ways, Abandon Me is that story. It is a story about all the things I held precious, that I worshiped even when they poisoned me, or isolated me from others, or prevented me from belonging, that I had to let go so that I could be free. So that I could finally sit down inside my own story and inside myself and claim all of it, including the parts that I had rejected or feared or abandoned. That feeling of belonging? I had not known it before.
TCR: I once read that desire is life’s longing for itself. Your efforts in unraveling your identity through writing may include, as you wrote, the desire “to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us.” After all of your struggles with various addiction, fearless self-searching, yielding to your feelings and scrutinizing over the details of your life, do you believe that it’s possible for any of us to be fully known?
MF: No. I don’t believe that we are knowable in a way that matches that particular desire. I don’t believe that the “self” is as solid a thing as we like to believe. Insofar as we can meet that desire to be known, to be unconditionally loved and seen, I think we must do so ourselves.
Dein Sofley teaches refugees English in the sanctuary city of Chicago. She earned her BA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. Her work is forthcoming in Writers Resist.