Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
Bloomsbury, 2017; 308 pp.
Reviewed by Gardiner Brown
If you’d like to pick up a memoir this week, let it be Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. This striking and masterfully crafted book is built of eight essays ranging from twelve pages to nearly two hundred. Each is satisfying on its own, but they make up something more evocative as a collection. Though I have not yet read Febos’ first memoir, Whip Smart, which tell the story of her time as a professional dominatrix in New York City, I will have to now that I’ve read Abandon Me. Even as I finished this book, I wanted to be reading more of Febos’ clever, moving, and highly intelligent voice. I wanted to see what other surprising narrative leaps she could guide me through with skillful precision. Abandon Me is the sort of memoir where, as I read the last lines, I sighed in intense satisfaction.
In her memoir, Melissa Febos explores what it means to be abandoned, to abandon oneself to something else, and to abandon a loved one. In one essay, Febos writes about her childhood as a sea captain’s daughter, the insecurity of having a father who is always coming and going for months at a time and a mother who is never any less heartbroken over his absence. In another, we are given an intimate description of Febos’ tattoos, in particular one of Billie Holiday; it is a copy of a photograph of Holiday in a time period when she had given herself up to heroin, a feeling Febos knows. In Abandon Me, the subject of abandonment itself inhabits the sort of layered interpretability of a tarot card: abandon can mean loss or heartbreak, but it can also mean collapse, surrender, revival, or relief.
At one point in the final essay, Febos meets her half-sister and compares the two of them to the child’s game “exquisite corpse.” She and this estranged woman each contain the unseen part of the other made seen by their meeting. The essays in this collection fulfill a similar function, each piece unfolds, revealing another facet of the others. At nearly two-hundred pages, the collection’s final essay, “Abandon Me,” could be a book on its own, but by being alongside so many other essays addressing the same subjects, it takes on a greater affective power. The reader enters “Abandon Me” already knowing many of its characters and familiar with the conversations Febos is having with herself.
Febos’ psychotherapist mother, her married lover, her sea-captain father all appear throughout the collection, but are seen at different angles from one essay to the next. These changing portraits are part of Febos’ sleight-of-hand: she uses her format to do the work of revealing each person in many dimensions. The essays are beautiful stand-alones and the characters well-developed, but the collection offers greater depth. The effect is similar to that of the Wunderkammer or “cabinet of curiosities” that Febos’ lover gives her: a chest built of small compartments, each with its own strange, little object inside.
Febos takes notice of the ways that our early relationships inform our actions and reactions later in life while at the same time resisting pathologization of herself or others. She sees her failures and those of her loved ones not as symptomatic but as causal: different choices could have been made, but Febos makes sense of the choices that were. She strikes the delicate balance between acknowledging personal responsibility and understanding how one action begets another, one abandonment making way for the next. “Pathology comforts in its reductiveness, but it is no true authority, just a bunch of words invented by men” she writes in “Labyrinths,” an essay that focuses on her addiction as well as her younger brother’s bipolar diagnosis. “Labyrinths” was one of the essays I found most personally moving in the collection: though her brother appears less frequently in the rest of the work than any of the other supporting characters, in this essay her deep tenderness for him is so moving and so apparent.
Abandon Me is a compelling read not only for its subject matter and characters, but for the joy of reading Febos’ lively non-fiction. Every shift in setting or subject feels more like a poetic leap than a narrative turn. The connections she draws feel natural in unexpected ways. She lingers on the sound and feel of words, playing with the musicality of language. Her metaphors are startling in their lyricism and still somehow exact. She inspects herself so deeply and so unflinchingly that she makes her raw self-analysis feel sensible and even necessary to the craft. Her honesty is so unyielding that reading her work can feel dangerous, as though the reader shares this experience of dissection with her, as though by bearing witness to her darkest parts we might awaken those parts within ourselves.
Febos lays much of herself bare in this collection. She tells stories that illustrate her own capacity to hurt or abandon those around her, such as her father, The Captain, for whom the book is dedicated and who she reveals was deeply hurt by the stories she told in her first memoir. She explores her history of addiction and voracity in various forms. It’s plain in the writing that Febos’ goal here isn’t to make a voyeur of her reader but to find understanding.
I once saw essayist Leslie Jamison respond to being asked if she ever worried about writing “just another addiction memoir” by wryly pointing out that this is precisely the point of the recovery journey: your story is not unique because it is a story you share with so many others who are also in recovery. A similar notion is perhaps implicit in Febos’ essays where her own story is viewed as just another iteration of one that has passed down through her family, albeit with a different ending. Febos has not written “just another addiction memoir” in that this is not a memoir about addiction; addiction is but a small gear in the elaborate work she has pieced together. Instead, she historicizes this part of herself, makes it a kind of belonging. And it is precisely these questions of belonging and to whom and what we belong that drive Febos’ story. So often, it’s difficult to neatly tie together all the narrative threads at the end of a memoir in a way that is both satisfying and untrite. Febos manages this masterfully.
Gardiner Brown graduated from Hampshire College with a concentration in Creative Writing and Cultural Anthropology. He now lives in his hometown of Austin, Texas.