Melissa Febos’ secrets are widely known. As she points out in her new collection of essays, Abandon Me, to read her available work is to understand intimate details about her life. She documented everything from her sex work to her drug addiction in her first memoir, Whip Smart, and her sophomore book highlights the dark influence of her desires and fears with a similar vulnerability.
Abandon Me reads chronologically in only the vaguest sense. Each essay’s backbones take us through Febos’ life—from her childhood on Cape Cod waiting for her sea captain father to her heroin addiction in her early twenties to an emotionally abusive relationship in her early thirties. The essays leap back and forth in time, overlapping to create a Venn diagram that gradually reveals a complete picture. At the point where the essays meet sits Febos herself, a woman willing to confront challenging questions about her life with openness and honesty.
Febos’ birth father was an alcoholic, and her mother left him and met another man who raised Febos as his own. These family bonds became a source of pain as Febos grew into a teen, during which time she started to engage in near passive sexual behavior; the line between what she wanted and what she allowed out of a desire to be wanted is unclear. Febos eventually dropped out of high school, became addicted to heroin and started working as a dominatrix (a career that was by turns empowering and exhausting). All of these scars are laid bare in her writing, twisted and turned for the reader to examine.
What is most striking about this collection is Febos’ ability to hold many moments of her own life in conversation. Influences like Labyrinth and Carl Jung’s Red Book are woven into interrogations about her drug addiction or her search for security. These threads are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate the young girl reading picture books with her father from the heroin addict cradling a phone on her shoulder in case she needs to call 911 as she shoots up. “This is the same person,” Abandon Me demands the reader understand.
The titular essay is the book’s longest, describing in alternating passages Febos’ relationship with her birth father and her long-distance relationship with a woman named Amaia. Amaia is abusive—manipulative and controlling, condescending and unbending. It is painful to read about Febos giving in to Amaia’s power, accepting her gifts and her constraints in equal measure.
It’s in this essay that Febos dissects the meaning of abandonment, illuminating her essays in an unexpected light. The word “abandon,” Febos learns, has a dual nature, with etymology connecting it as much to the idea of being left behind as to the idea of giving up power or land or authority. Abandonment, in this light, is a theme in Febos’ life; she fears her father will abandon her, she abandons herself to drugs, she becomes a vessel for men to abandon themselves to desire. In her relationship with Amaia, Febos proves willing to abandon her identity to receive a controlling woman’s love. To abandon or to be abandoned is a constant shifting of power and perspective.
Febos’ writing is unflinching, and her willingness to delve into her darkest corners avoids becoming overwhelming only because she handles it with strength and delicacy. Abandon Me finds the universal in her own story and taps into many people’s fears, pushing the reader to question what they might abandon themselves to or let themselves abandon.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.