Burn the Village Down: Melissa Febos on “Abandon Me”

Many readers have called Melissa Febos’s second book, Abandon Me, “emotionally devastating,” and that’s just what she wants. “I hope for nothing more,” she says, “than to burn the village down with my writing.”

A memoir in essays, Abandon Me centers on the consuming, emotionally abusive relationship Febos fell into with a married woman while she simultaneously reconnected with the birth father she hadn’t seen since childhood. Both relationships push Febos to explore the many ways in which abandonment played out in her childhood and early romantic relationships. The book focuses in particular on her relationship to the man who raised her, a sea captain who, while loving, was absent from her life for months at a time, propelling Febos into a protective self-sufficiency that kept her from experiencing the pain of being left for most of her adult life. The particular magic of this book, however, is, that while it may burn the reader’s village to the ground, it also equips the reader with the tools to build a better, more resilient village. The book explores shame, loss, and the meaning of family with such tenderness and vulnerability that readers can’t help but look at their own wounds through a more empathetic and, hopefully, healing lens.

I spoke with Melissa in her Brooklyn apartment about heartbreak, writing as an act of faith, and how the most frightening and painful experiences are the ones that set us free. —Amy Gall

The Barnes & Noble Review: You once told me that your writing process for this book was completely different from anything you’d previously written. Can you say more about that?

Melissa Febos: I’ve long been a pragmatic writer. I do outlines, I make lists, I impose structure. This book just wouldn’t allow for that. I had to find my way into the narrative and meaning of all the essays in this collection pretty much blind.

The first essay I wrote for the book was “Call My Name,” which is about my reaction to hearing people say my name. I entered the writing of it completely phonically. It made sense, because my relationship to my name is so fused with sound, but it was unlike any kind of writing I’d ever done before. I made my way through each paragraph very slowly, sound by sound, and that led to another paragraph where I did the same thing, and it went from there. I groped my way through without knowing what I was writing about or trying to say. Once I had what I thought was a draft, I took that draft and completely broke it apart and shuffled around the paragraphs endlessly and then I hammered each line for months. It was the only thing I worked on. I say to my students that by the time you are done with something you should have it completely memorized and you should have a relationship to every shape and every white space on the page, because every single aspect of what you write should be a choice — and that was 100 percent true for this book.

The revision process was the same for all the essays. Once I had a draft, to figure out the structure I would literally print it out, cut up the paragraphs, and organize them on the floor in piles by theme, by narrative thread, by subject, and then I would arrange them in an order that seemed right and make notes where I needed to add transitions, and then I would tape it all up on a board on the wall. It looked crazy, like some formula out of A Beautiful Mind, but it became a map that saw me through. Without fail, every essay I did this for I’d have this background voice in my mind saying, “This is ridiculous. This is a very elaborate form of procrastination. You are failing.” I’d think, “You’re right. This is impossible. But I don’t know what else to do and it worked last time,” and then at some point, seemingly out of nowhere, it would work. It was totally frightening, but I knew I had to keep the blinders on and go. This was the most spiritual writing I’ve ever done, because it required so much faith.

BNR: How has your definition of abandonment changed since you wrote this book?

MF: So much of my narrative of myself and my relationships is about leaving and being left. And I had the idea early on, maybe when I thought of the title — which I came up with before I wrote any of the book — that I wanted to find the other meaning of abandonment, which was to let go of yourself, yielding to something in a liberating way, rather than having something wrenched away from you. And that felt really beautiful and open to me, especially since it had never been my experience.

Even though I’ve had very intense life experiences and it seems kind of wild and crazy to have been a junkie or a dominatrix, I’ve always been incredibly controlled. And in fact those experiences were my way of attempting to show that I was in control. Even pushing boundaries is a way to prove that you have power.

So I wanted to give myself to something that felt soft and free and joyful. I wanted to give myself to myself. That was the dimension that I did find in writing the book. The whole process was this big circle through all the abandonments of my life, back to myself.

From the age of seven until thirty-two I think I was very committed in a conscious and unconscious way to not being abandoned, and by that I mean to not feeling the way being abandoned felt. I made sure I was never left and never had my heart broken by someone else. I was successful at that and it made me safe in some ways. But it also kept me in bondage to a smaller realm of experience. But, in living the relationship I write about in Abandon Me, that wasn’t an option any more. I got hurt. And there’s something incredibly freeing about being hurt. Because, if you survive it, you know that it’s possible.

BNR: In some ways, it’s freeing to be hurt, too, because you bear less responsibility.

MF: Yes. While less painful, it’s lonelier to be the person who leaves, because you are the one who made the decision and you can’t fight against yourself. Whereas, in my relationship with Amaia, I gave away all my power, or convinced myself I had, so I had someone to beat my fists against and to blame and long for, and before I had never had that. I had never wanted something that fiercely from someone. I had only had people want that of me.

BNR: Did that relationship and the experience reframe your sense of past relationships both romantic and familial?

MF: It gave a body to something I had believed in in name only. I knew that not knowing my birth father and that my [step]father leaving to go to sea for my whole childhood was traumatic. I knew that I had a certain reaction to that which was to become superhumanly self-sufficient and to never fall in love with anyone who didn’t love me a little bit more, as an insurance policy, and I knew that the feelings of grief I experienced with my birth father not being in my life and my father being absent probably still happened but I had never accessed them at all. And it genuinely didn’t feel like a conscious manipulation on my part. I didn’t go into relationships saying, “I will not allow myself to get hurt.” But that moment of recognition would always come where I said, “Fuck, I’m going to break this person’s heart and I’m going to be alone again.” And with Amaia, the story I had been making jokes about my whole life, where my abandonment issues were going to catch up to me and rise to the surface and I was going to go nuts and be the neediest person on the planet, happened.

This is maybe bad news for some people: needing someone and feeling disempowered and afraid and feeling like you can’t live without someone and having all of that childhood survival imperative attached to a love interest was as painful as I had feared. It was excruciating. But it didn’t last forever, and maybe it had to be that blunt because I have such a high tolerance for painful things. In order for me to get clean from heroin, it had to get really, really ugly. In order for me to stop being a dominatrix it had to get dark, and in order for me to really face my own shadow parts and childhood pain it had to be something I couldn’t negotiate with.

BNR: One of the sentences that really grabbed me happens to be on the first page of the book. You say of your childhood, “We were lucky and we were loved, which isn’t the same as happy, if you believe in such a thing.” Do you believe in happiness? What is the difference between love and happiness?

MF: I think of happiness and love as being in the same category insofar as they are not endpoints or sustainable conditions. They are processes. But I think love is an act. And I think that what we refer to as happiness is just a point in the wave of human emotional experience. It’s the peak rather than the trough. If you are a changing person, then you will have moments that you could call happiness, and then you will have moments that are many other things. So, for instance, in my family I had a privileged upbringing. I was loved and I never doubted that, and no violence was committed against me, but, my parents were sad and struggling and working through things. They were also inspired and affectionate and hilarious, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but it wasn’t all an unbroken line of happiness. I think families are simply more complicated than that.

BNR: Your connection to literature and reading is one of the most illuminating aspects of the book, and you incorporate other authors into your own narrative so seamlessly. How did you make decisions about what works to include?

MF: It wasn’t a decision or plan, it was organic to the material and also to the process, which was one of relentless intrusion. Different characters, different sounds, different texts would just come in while I was writing because I didn’t know where my next step was going to fall. Normally, if I was writing an essay and a quote from John Berger busted in I would say, “Get out of here!” But because I had no idea what the structure was going to be, I just let these lines in. It makes sense to me now because I was writing about my childhood and narrative and patterns throughout history and my understanding of all of this has come from other people’s words.

Some of the books I mention, like The Road Less Traveled or Franny and Zooey, were books that were on my parents’ shelf when I was a child or books that were central to the time in my life that I was writing about. Others, like the books by Jung or Winnicott, were books that I came to when I was living the adult experiences I describe in the book because I was grasping for a way to feel in control of what was happening to me. I felt so unhinged, and those were the kind of thinkers who made me feel like it was possible to make sense of things. Jung is a psychologist, but he’s also magic. He’s dreams and archetypes and delving into the psyche. He studies madness by practicing it in some ways, and that was what I wished for myself. I get asked a lot if I pursue crazy experiences so I can write about them. I don’t. What happens is, I get entrenched in crazy experiences and then I try to survive them by attaching a narrative to them.

I also have always been attached to books that make sense of pain. There’s something in us — that I think has to do in part with contemporary American culture, but is also human nature — where we recoil from pain and see it as a sign that something needs to be fixed. But, with emotional pain, there isn’t always something to fix. Philosophers and psychologists and historians have paradigms for understanding how pain is not always a sign that something is broken, and I need a lot of reminders of that, especially when I’m in pain.

BNR: Sometimes, I find it easier to be vulnerable on the page than face-to-face with another human being.

MF: Sometimes?! [Laughs]

BNR: That’s true for you, right?

MF: 100 percent. That’s why I’m a writer. Almost everything I write about is a conversation I couldn’t have with another human being. Only after I have a conversation with myself on the page can I put it out into the world. And after I’ve done that, I have to talk about it out loud to other humans, and I’m more comfortable talking about it by that point. But I am a secret keeper and a compartmentalizer, and I used to be a liar. It’s not in my nature to be forthcoming and vulnerable. All my instincts scream at the idea. And yet, I have figured out that my survival depends upon it.

BNR: What is your favorite thing about language?

MF: Language will never let me win. I’ll never be able to master it. I’ll never be able to make it do exactly what I want. And that’s why it’s the one thing I’ll never be finished with, because it will never give itself to me completely. Which also means, I’ll always be in love with it. So, read into that what you want. [Laughs]