Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Drunken Boat, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.
Melissa, why, when the ocean was steps away, why the pool?
Because the pool has sides, I told her.
I was already spilling out, grasping for edges. And what chance did I stand against the ocean? How many times had the sea taken our captain and left her beating the shore with her hands?
The ocean disappears things. It is a hungry, grabbing thing. In its deep, there is nothing to reach for. Next to it, I was a girl gulping a woman’s grief.
If there is one book you read about love this year, make it Melissa Febos’s lyrical, aching Abandon Me. This collection of eight essays looks at the author’s personal history with abandonment and pushes deeper into the concept itself, sometimes with a physical closeness, sometimes with an intellectual detachment. With a fearless vision, Febos explores the unmarked miles of her familial relationships — with her biological father and her step-father — as well as the edges and innermost depths of an all-consuming romantic relationship.
The title essay is an incredible 170 pages of just that. In my reading, I likened it to a literary epic love ballad; it is an essay that made me think of every lengthy, intense conversation I’ve had with my friends on the topic of love, unrequited and otherwise. So many of the author’s reflections in Abandon Me ring true to my own experience, or, at least, to the experiences of people I know. This simultaneous universality and particularity — much like that of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight — is precisely what makes Abandon Me one of the most moving essay collections I’ve ever read.
And because I was so excited about the collection, the author herself was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her gorgeous new book.
This entire book of essays is an inquiry into all kinds of abandonment and the bittersweet nature of romantic love. Did you know that the main essay, “Abandon Me,” would turn into something so comprehensive when you began it?
I did not know. I’m not sure I would have been able to write it if I knew how comprehensive it would need to be. I would not have been able to bring such scrutiny to it a moment sooner than I did and the idea of doing so would have terrified me. My conception of the title essay was modest; I thought it would be about 40 pages, max. Then, I went to a residency and started writing it, and a month later it crossed the 100-page mark.
This has so often been my experience, that the work knows more than I do about itself, and reveals itself only when I’m in too deep to stop. Love can be that way too, can’t it?
As I was reading the title essay, I was reminded of how Anne Carson wrote of a lover projecting onto the object of their affection and that the projection of what the viewer sees in the object creates a third figure. Were you influenced by Eros the Bittersweet, or any other treatises on love while writing this?
God, that book is so good. I honestly could open up to any page in it and feel as though she is writing to me, about this book and the experiences therein. But likely all lovers feel this way; that’s how you know it’s a fucking good book about love. The best part is that I read this book after I wrote Abandon Me so it felt incredibly confirming—that all these dynamics I’d worked so hard to pin down were correct, were universal to eros.
She says a lot about triangulation, about time and waiting, and yes, about projection. These are all inherent in love to a large degree, but I never more so experienced that triangulation than in the affair I wrote about in this book. The most powerful third party was certainly a projection—the person I wanted her to be, or her me. Most of all, perhaps the third party of our love, the mythology we build of it.
I understood early that love was a mission to heal one’s own heart. We are attracted to the people who can open our wounds. And lovers want their healing to also be love’s happy ending.
But our healing is never dependent on love’s success. Sometimes you have to break your own heart to mend it.
I think often about her Midas, who’s golden touch is “a powerful symbol of perfect, self-extinguishing, self-perpetuating desire.” The eros that I describe in the book is similar, is a “perfect impasse,” wherein the desirer wants to keep on desiring and eventually extinguishes herself and her love.
I was influenced by a lot of other texts, and many of them made their way into the book. Jeannette Winterson’s work, particularly Written on the Body, has been a huge influence on me. That book was the first that I recognized as a model – the sort of writing that I not only loved but aspired to, in its integration of the corporal and intellectual. It is lush, passionate, erotic, and feral—both in style and content—but also so controlled, so technically astute. It blew my mind wide open. Lolita, for sure. I had a taste for tales of erotic obsession from the beginning, I think. I probably recognized it—already knew the part of me that held that potential.
Will you love me forever? she asked me. Yes, I said.
I couldn’t know, though. When that whistle spills over the desert, you can only hear the call of your own heart. When I looked at her, I wondered. Are you my wrecking shore? Are you my third rail? Or are you my hallelujah?
I was also quite wrecked by the essay “Girl at a Window,” particularly by this line: “Worship is the white whale. The thing we believe will fill our heart’s belly for good. Nothing can. And the ones we most believe in are the ones that break us. Worship always begets mutual betrayal.”
It may be destructive to place a lover on a pedestal, or, like Carson said, fall in love with your projection of what you want that lover to be. Do you think that this worship might also be a little inevitable?
Absolutely. In some sense I think that is what romantic love is—a collaboration between our conception of the other person and our self-conception, or what we wish to be. The lovers create an agreed-upon story, a play in which they each act out the other’s casting. This theatre of love is healthy to a certain degree – it is how we work out, or heal, or find redemption from the wounds of our pasts. But over time, that artifice needs to slough off, and the lovers become more themselves.
The problem, or maybe simply the end, comes when the lovers invest too much in the story, or don’t find redemption, and cannot continue to love each other as their real selves. The projection was the true object of desire, not the person behind it. Then, the lover becomes a Pygmalion.
A love like that can still heal us, but I don’t think that it can last.
I called and called. I walked into the meeting and sat for an hour. Heard nothing but the sound of breaking.
I walked home across the Manhattan Bridge. I was not myself. I was no longer a woman. I was the sound of breaking.
In addition to being a brilliant writer, you are a teacher and a kick-ass member of VIDA‘s executive board. How do you “keep the faith” as a writer and teacher of “baby writers” during an administration that has attacked both the press and may defund the NEA and NEH?
My faith, so to speak, hasn’t wavered. If anything, it has grown stronger with the greater sense of responsibility. We keep this alive by doing it, by transmitting the urgency of language, of voice, of dissent, to those baby writers, to each other, and through our work. VIDA is a big part of how it is done. I’ve always been an activist, but in some ways that work felt distinct from my artmaking and my teaching. Not anymore. It has always funneled together at a certain point, but since this last election that stream has tightened, consolidated. I am not doing different things, but I’m doing some things differently. The essays I’m choosing to write are more pointed, the things I’m choosing to emphasize in my classes—like empathy and action—are more focused and insistent. I have become more vigilant, because it is our responsibility to protect these freedoms, and to impart that sense of responsibility to our younger writers and citizens.
Abandon led me to Abaddon … Abaddon is described as “The Destroyer” and “The angel of the abyss.” Though in some religious texts, the name is synonymous with the Devil, in some cases, he is the angel who destroys at God’s bidding.
He is the holy destroyer.
If one song or album could encapsulate Abandon Me, what would that be?
PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me came to mind immediately. I didn’t listen to that album while writing this book; it’s not the soundtrack of my writing it. But it is one of the best albums ever recorded and it shares a lot with the book: passion, violence, grief, a certain spooky and startling depiction of the nexus between love and anguish and power and surrender. Its sound is incredibly muscular and vulnerable at the same time. It is a furious album and it encapsulates all the things I’m trying to pin down or name in my work, in this book and elsewhere.
I could describe Rid of Me the same way I described Winterson’s work, or eros—it is feral and astute, like a fox or a badger or certain kinds of birds—wild and perfectly attuned to its own nature. It wastes nothing.
You can also catch Melissa on her book tour,