In reading and in life, I steer clear of anything that stinks of rose petals. I like telenovelas, but only to make fun of. I roll my eyes at Disney. I avoid romantic comedies like the plague. “I like things to be a little tragic,” I once told a lover as we parted ways. And I do.
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, a meditation on the underpinnings of love and attraction, is some such tragic book, but it is also a searing examination of the self by putting our desire to love under a scalpel. In Abandon Me love is longed for, looked for, unrequited, requited, and then lost in all the traditional ways, yet at every corner there is ash and bones and mirrors and startling specters that surprise both Febos and her lover, a married poet.
“Every story begins with an unraveling,” Febos writes. “This story starts with a kiss. Her mouth the soft nail on which my life snagged, and tore open.”
Febos’ first memoir, Whip Smart, explored the author’s drug addiction and work as a dominatrix, but Abandon Me is a journey to dissecting hunger, which is another of Febos’ words for love:
Tenderness toward the object of our desire becomes an expression of love partly, I think, because it so defies the nature of want, whose instinct is often less to cuddle than to crush. My want was more gnash than kiss, more eat than embrace. I cared for my lover, but that kind of desire precludes many kinds of love. Hunger is selfish. I wanted her happiness. I also wanted to unzip my body and pull her into it, or crawl into hers. It is no accident that we go to the pulse. Lust is an urge to consume and perhaps there is no true expression of it that does not imply destruction. I can’t say. But even my tenderness for kittens includes an impulse to put them in my mouth.
There is something pioneering about the way Melissa Febos talks about love, connecting it to all its binary shadows.
In the paths forged by Eve Ensler and the futurist Mina Loy, Febos routes a new pathway. My favorite Ensler quote — That we find freedom, aliveness, and power not from what contains, locates, or protects us, but from what dissolves, reveals, and expands us — could easily have been dropped at any place in this book.
Febos is a reader, a lover of stories. The adoptive daughter of a sea captain, Febos spent many hours in waiting of him. As an adult, she chose an unavailable woman she could wait for. She likens their relationship to the myth of Andromeda, who is stripped naked and chained to a rock so that her city may be spared from the wrath of the sea monster Cetus. Andromeda’s mother offended Poseidon, god of the oceans, and thus Andromeda paid for her mother’s transgression. “Like Andromeda, I knew already that fastening in me,” Febos writes, “but not which of us was rock or goddess or monster or rescue.”
While at times the author’s scattered attention to dictionary definitions and symbols are mentioned so quickly as to be off-putting, this book as a treatise on the siren call that leads us to re-stage events that have wounded us, so that we can produce a different ending, is absolutely luminous. The writing is crisp and unsettling. And Febos’ view of love denudes all romanticism from it, which is as refreshing as it does ring true: “And when you love, when you become the home for someone else’s heart, you are like a house with a prisoner in the cellar. Your beloved hears the thump of that cellar door.”
Melissa Febos appears in conversation with Mallory Ortberg at Green Apple Books on Ninth Avenue in San Francisco on Thursday, March 16, at 7:30pm. Details here. Febos also reads at Diesel Bookstore in Oakland on Wednesday, March 15, at 7pm. Deatils here.