Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
New School alum and bestselling author Melissa Febos sat down (virtually) with Public Seminar intern Madeleine Janz to discuss writing about those you love most, complicated “almost” traumas, and the inherited shame of female adolescence. Febos’s newest book, an essay collection entitled Girlhood (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), was on The New School’s Alumni Bookshelf this year and is available for purchase here.
Madeleine Janz [MJ]: To begin, what was your experience like studying at The New School and how did it inform your writing?
Melissa Febos [MF]: I only applied to two colleges because I didn’t really know how to use the Internet yet and because I was a high-school dropout. A very ambitious high-school dropout who dropped out because I wanted to be a writer, and I thought that they weren’t teaching me correctly in my public high school. The hubris of it is astounding to me now. I’m very grateful to that young person, but I’m so established in my instincts now that I’m amazed by her.
I knew I had to apply to schools that would be interested in folks with an unconventional educational background who were good writers, and so I applied to Eugene Lang and Hampshire. And they both said, “Yeah, you seem like a good fit.” What I liked about Lang was that it was in the middle of the Village, and it looked like you could make up your own curriculum, and that’s what I’d already been doing since I was like 14. It seemed like a good fit, and that turned out to be true.
MJ: Why write and publish Girlhood now? Where did these essay ideas come from?
MF: I started writing Girlhood around the time that my second book, Abandon Me, came out and I think I would’ve been repelled by the idea of writing a book that used my own female-identified embodied experience during adolescence had it occurred to me too soon because I’ve already done that. Other people have already done that. Who wants to go back there? So, I didn’t propose that idea to myself. Instead, I just did what I always do: I picked at the questions and the topics that called loudest to me. And often they were sort of oblique to the topic of girlhood.
I never stopped and said, “I’m going to write about girlhood.” I asked, “Why did I like to spit on men when I was a dominatrix?” And then followed that question and it led back to adolescence. Or why didn’t I tell anyone about that very scary Peeping Tom that I had? And I followed that back to adolescence. It was sort of like that with all the essays. I do think that there was an intelligence behind that decision, even though it wasn’t conscious, and I think I am at a place in my life where I feel safe and clear enough in my own independence of mind that I can go back to the past and extricate some big chunks of those inherited and internalized stories. It was a good time for me to go back and do a next round of revision of what socially conditioned scripts were still running in my thinking about the past, and the present to some extent.
MJ: You have said that your first books, Whipsmart and Abandon Me, were a practice in writing what you couldn’t talk about. Does Girlhood fall in the same path, or has your writing process changed?
MF: To some extent, it still does. When I was younger, my inhibition in talking about my experiences was motivated by fear more so than it is now. I really thought these things were unspeakable. Something bad will happen. I will be hurt or humiliated. I was afraid of being seen. And now, I’m just willing to go deeper when in the privacy of the page. Girlhood is still full of stuff that I haven’t talked about with other people, but not necessarily because I thought it would be bad, but because I just hadn’t gone there yet.
MJ: In your interview with Interview magazine, you talked about having notebooks that go back ten years that help you with memory retrieval. How do you access the memories from before then? How do you know what your memory is from when you were 7 to 15?
MF: I think the process of writing and remembering is a process of unearthing. When you start digging things up, you find other things, so it is a generative form of rumination. That’s part of it, but the truth is also that there’s no way of fact-checking that stuff. I can’t always be assured that what I’m remembering is what happened. I’m sure in many cases that it’s not what happened, to some extent. And in some cases, this has become part of my work as a writer.
There’s an essay in my second book, Abandon Me, where I interviewed both my parents and my brother about a voyage that my family took on my dad’s ship, and everybody’s memories are different. They don’t always contradict each other, but we just have different stories about what it meant. My job as a memoirist and someone who writes into my own history is not only looking for the truth but thinking about what truth means and what its value is and why we create narratives in our memories the way that we do.
MJ: What is it like going from the privacy of the page to the public?
MF: It’s not as scary as people tend to imagine, because I don’t stand in Barnes & Noble reciting the most personal passages of the book, which I think is sort of how we imagine it before it happens. There are definitely awkward moments sometimes at readings where I’m not quite prepared for someone to comment on a particularly exposed part, but that’s rare, actually.
The thing that I think is hard to imagine before you’ve published a really personal work is that my relationship to those subjects and those experiences is utterly transformed by the process of writing. Subjects about which I feel incredibly vulnerable, afraid of being seen, and unclear in my own thinking, don’t feel the same once it’s in Barnes & Noble or the Strand. What was hot has gone cold. I feel really comfortable with it. I’ve processed it. I’ve had my own sort of reckoning, and where it felt like a stranger, it now feels like a companion that’s been integrated into me psychologically.
MJ: The essays include other voices via interviews you conducted. Why did you include other people’s voices, and what was it like to sit with these women and hear their experiences?
MF: As I moved through the more private processes of writing the book, I found it to be so enlightening and so full of helpful revelations that I immediately had the urge to talk to other people. Revelations have that effect. I was like, oh shit, that’s what happened, and this is what I did with it in my mind afterward, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Most of the interview processes came out of me having a conversation with my partner, me having a conversation with friends, then expanding to other friends, then expanding to people I didn’t know as a sort of organic, grassroots creative process.
On the other hand, as I was writing the book, I gave a lot of thought to writing a book that talked in broad strokes about female adolescence and that mine was a very particular experience constrained by my own identity. I wasn’t comfortable speaking for people of other identities, but I wanted to have some of those experiences in there, both for analytical reasons, but also so that a larger number of readers would be able to see themselves in the book. The interviews that I chose to include tended to be people who had different experiences than I did or identified differently in terms of class or race or geography or age.
MJ: A huge theme in Girlhood is trying to name or talk about things that don’t fit in boxes: experiences that aren’t yet trauma by definition but have impacted your life deeply. Why do you think it’s important to talk about these things or even to name them?
MF: I’ll use the cuddle party essay as an example. I had the experience throughout my life of consenting to sexual experiences that I wasn’t really enthusiastic about, and all of the sort of psychic consequences that came from learning how to tolerate those experiences. I never really talked about it, and I never even said what I just said to you. I never reflected on it. I just did it. And I did it as an acknowledged feminist for decades, as a queer woman who mostly slept with other women. It wasn’t until I wrote “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” which is the longest essay in the book, that I started talking to other women and actually saying it out loud.
It’s cumbersome to say, “I consented to lots of sexual experiences about which I felt ambivalent or actively did not want.” That’s a mouthful to repeat over and over and over again. So, what I did was come up with a kind of placeholder as I was talking about it, which was “empty consent.” And it’s amazing: once I started using that phrase, the people I was interviewing would just pick it up and start using it because all of us had had this experience, but we hadn’t had a name for it. And now, at least in the discourse around my book, it’s a term that people use.
Language is driven by our behavior, and our behavior can also be driven by language. In the privacy of my own thinking, I can be really creative in my interpretation of things that happen. Mostly I construct a narrative that I can live with, and that’s not always the truest version.
But it’s in talking with other people and articulating it in writing that I just can’t tolerate that kind of fantasy or dishonesty, although it is sometimes necessary. Writing is like a truth serum for me. No matter how much I’m afraid of the truth, I can’t tolerate anything less than it in writing.
MJ: It was hard for me to pick a favorite of the essays, but I do think my favorite is the one about your relationship with your mom: “Thesmophoria.” How do you write about someone that you love so much?
MF: I first drafted that essay for an anthology called What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About when I was at this residency in the South of France in this unbelievably beautiful place in this weird sort of castle-like building with no air conditioning. It just felt like an alternate reality. It was an alternate reality. My mom and I are very close, and we talk about most things, so I made a list of what I was too afraid to tell her, and that essay is basically a narrative articulation of that list. In the end, I would say, it’s all the ways that I know that I’ve hurt her and that our relationship has been really painful for her. Both of us wouldn’t trade it because we have such an amazing bond now, and we always have, but there were times when it was really, really hard.
MJ: And what was her reaction to it?
MF: I think in the way of all my work, it was really painful and also meaningful for her. But that had been partly the goal of it. I wanted to acknowledge the ways that I’d hurt her, and I couldn’t do that in the course of our relationship until I wrote about it. She has a lifelong practice, as a result of my work, of wondering what she could have done differently, and I think it sent her back into that a little bit, but that then prompted a really good conversation between the two of us.
MJ: The interviews you included addressed how girlhood has changed. There’s one section where you say that although class, race, and age intersections have a huge bearing on life experiences, it seems that it’s almost unavoidable for girls and women to be having these kind of empty consensual relationships or sexual experiences. Do you think girlhood has changed since you were a girl?
MF: I don’t want to overstep my own knowledge here because I don’t have children and I don’t teach children, but I do teach college students, so I have some pretty consistent contact with folks in the generation behind me. A lot of things are the same, and some things are different. My experience of students being in touch with their queer identity and having comfort talking about it and finding community seems radically different from my experience. I was the only person I knew in my high school who was out and queer.
It required more creative researching skills to find stories of people who were outside of the dominant narrative. We had to work a lot harder to find those kinds of mirrors, and now there’s TikTok. It’s easier now to find people who are like you and to get to know things about people who are not like you.
I’ve also talked to people at readings and events around publishing the book who teach sex ed and they say things like, “We’re talking about consent. What’s your advice?” So, I know there are people out there doing a different kind of work than was happening in my public middle school in 1992.
MJ: If you were to raise a girl, how would you do it?
MF: I would try to model everything I wanted to teach her and have that be the priority. There’s what you say to kids, and then there’s what they see, which is way more than what we tell them. I don’t think that you can, in good faith, impart wisdom to a kid that you haven’t internalized yourself.
So, if I were going to have a daughter, which is unlikely, I would do the work I’m doing now as earnestly as I could to free my own mind, to access my own agency, to develop a vocabulary for talking about my experience beyond that which we’re given for what happens to us as female-identified folks in the world. I never had a conversation about consent—not one—that equipped me with the tools to navigate those interactions I detail in Girlhood. I would really be focusing on doing my work so that I could be actively modeling that in all of the granular ways that we do for young people.
MJ: Is there anything specifically that you want readers to take from Girlhood?
MF: My first hope for it, just like all my work, is that it provides company to people who feel alone with the experiences that I describe. When I write, I’m imagining the reader as someone who is just a few years behind me in terms of having these experiences and not having spoken them yet and feeling that really familiar sort of worry that they might be alone. I hope that the book functions as a kind of companion and a kind of evidence that they’re not.
Read an excerpt from Girlhood, courtesy of Melissa Febos and Bloomsbury Publishing.
Melissa Febos is an author and Associate Professor at the University of Iowa in the Nonfiction Writing Program. Her books include the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), the essay collection Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, 2017), and a new collection of essays on adolescence called Girlhood (Bloomsbury, 2021). Read an excerpt of Girlhood here and purchase a copy here.
Madeleine Janz is a journalist and graduate student at the New School for Social Research studying Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism. Her writing has appeared in Document Journal, i-D, BUST, and World Wildlife among others. Read more on her website.