“Every kind of social movement has begun with people sharing their common experience,” says Melissa Febos on a Wednesday afternoon in January, her face glowing on the computer screen. She is Zooming from a family member’s house in Boston, where she was forced to retreat after a debilitating sciatica flare-up. “There are experiences that I had when I was younger that I thought I was alone in for a really long time,” says Febos. “As an adult, I know that I wasn’t, but I still never compared stories with other women. And when I started doing that, it felt so good, and so restorative, and so infuriating. Just to hear about the ways that we’d all suffered in isolation.” Secrets, silence, internalized misogyny, power, desire, and the catastrophic — yet very common — ways in which girls are harmed as they grow into women are all themes that Melissa Febos examines in Girlhood, an essay collection that blends memoir, journalism, and cultural critique.
Febos fans will be familiar with the second essay in this collection, “Kettle Holes.” First appearing in Granta in 2016, the essay braids Greek mythology with her early sexual encounters and experience domming in New York City’s dungeons — a past career she examines in her critically acclaimed debut, Whip Smart. This essay, along with the prologue, “Scarification,” were the first seeds of Girlhood. “It’s been my experience — and it’s my hope that this continues to be true — that our best work is usually beyond the scope of our skill,” says Febos. “We become better artists to make the things that we need and want to make. And that was definitely true of Whip Smart. I didn’t know how to write a book, but I needed to tell that story. And so I figured out how to write a book so I could tell it. ”
Girlhood required a similar calibration. While her original aim was to scrutinize and reevaluate her own beliefs about being a woman, she also wanted to, “find a way to stop doing those incremental kinds of harm that I was conditioned to do as a girl.” After submitting the proposal to her editor, she decided to conduct interviews with women both in and outside of her community in order to broaden the scope of experience represented in the book. She soon discovered that she was out of her depth. “I’m not a journalist,” says Febos. “And, like most forms of writing I haven’t done, it scared me because it always seemed like journalists have to be in a hurry. They’re on a deadline and they have to get the story. And that is my nightmare. I like to be very alone and very quiet and have all the time I need to figure out what I think about things.”
After considering applying for a graduate degree in journalism, Febos’ girlfriend, Donika — who has cameos in multiple essays — convinced her that she didn’t need another degree to finish writing Girlhood: “She was like, ‘You said that last time [you were working on a project], but it was a different kind of program. So maybe you don’t need a degree. Maybe you just need to keep going.” Donika, it turned out, was right. Although she had to rewrite the majority of the essays and push her publication date — she describes seeing the end ahead as “always a fucking mirage”— Febos forwent the degree and eventually finished the book.
Each of Girlhood’s chapters is punctuated with an evocative line drawing accompanied by a corresponding caption, à la an illuminated manuscript. The images, rendered by writer/illustrator Forsyth Harmon (whose own book, Justine, was also released this year), mandate a pause from the reader. The inherently splintered structure of an essay collection mimics the split between how women and girls reconcile their public and private selves. “I’ve read some smart things about how the fragmentary nature of some kinds of non-fiction reflects the ways that… marginalized folks have been restricted in our thinking and talking about our experience,” muses Febos, adding that the book “is very much the artifact of me trying to pull together the pieces of a consciousness that I actively tried to subdue for most of my life.”
One of the most striking essays in this collection, “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” explores consent through the framework of Cuddlist, a series of commercialized cuddle puddles — running since 2004 — meant to aid the touch-deprived. The reader follows a pajama-clad Febos as she climbs a narrow Manhattan stairway to the “Holistic Loft,” where the party is held. We watch her interact with a man in a teal onesie, a woman with “swingerish energy,” and a nervous guy who asks to spoon her and instead settles for delivering an uninspired shoulder massage. Febos’ internal recoiling at each instance of touch — and her own surprise as she nevertheless permits it — leads her to a nuanced examination of how and why women grant physical permissions.
Like many of the essays in this collection, this one draws data from interviews and surveys that Melissa Febos conducts in Girlhood, while also weaving in psychology, early feminist theorists, and snippets of philosophical thought. She also examines parallel negotiations she engaged in during early adolescence, such as offering a hand job instead of the expected blow job. She eventually concludes that girls and women often bestow “empty consent” as a self-protective measure. “We shouldn’t be sluts, we shouldn’t be prudes,” writes Febos of the double bind, “we shouldn’t say no because they might rape us, because we might embarrass them with our no or by holding them responsible for their actions or even by remembering what wrongs they did us.” And so, Febos concludes, women say yes.
While the eight essays in Melissa Febos’ Girlhood traverse a great deal of terrain, it is these grey areas that Febos seems most interested in and often boomerangs back to. Her sweeping selection of references ranges from the more contemporary (Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I was a Girl and Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex) to older samples from the feminist canon (Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde). And it’s this juxtaposition of the new versus the old — such as examining slut-shaming in the 2010 romantic comedy Easy A against Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth, as she does in the third essay “The Mirror Test” — that allows Febos to underscore how long the same issues have been plaguing women and dominating the zeitgeist. Such slow progress, however, makes sense when dealing with structural problems. Says Febos: “Just because we understand how the system works doesn’t mean it doesn’t work on us.”
Febos is aware that these conversations about growing up, sex, autonomy, and power are constantly evolving and gaining nuance, especially in the wake of #MeToo. “I’m careful not to believe or to claim that I’m doing anything new,” she says. “But I do hope that I’m adding to it in a way that will be accessible maybe to new eyes.” While these topics may not be unexamined, her holistic, multi-faceted scrutinization of each subject feels fresh, as does the constellation-like way she manages to link and layer them. “It was only by looking back that I could understand how much I had changed and how possible it has been for me to liberate my own mind,” she says. “It is possible to change your own ideas. It is possible to help other women to do that. It’s only possible when we help each other to do it.” Melissa Febos’ Girlhood lays bare the things that women intuitively know but — whether due to nihilism, embarrassment, or the more urgent need to focus on surviving — rarely discuss.