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It’s easy to fall in love with Melissa Febos’ gorgeous new memoir of short essays, Abandon Me. Over the course of the eight pieces contained within, Febos brings a relentless curiosity and startling intimacy to the page.
The first seven pieces in Abandon Me are short—essays you might discover in high-tier literary magazines (where, indeed, many of them first appeared) and never forget—and they cover a remarkable amount of ground: coming of age, addiction, heartbreak, identity, music, tattoos, psychology. Despite this, the collection feels layered rather than scattered: the pieces are threaded together by a captivating, abusive love affair and the tenuous relationships Febos strikes with both her adoptive father and her birth father.
In the opening essay, “The Book of Hours,” Febos writes: “Our favorite stories can be like lovers. Make sense to me, we ask them. Make sense of me. Here, fix these hurting parts. And stories do, sometimes better than our lovers.” This intertwining of fierce desire, pain, seeking, and storytelling runs throughout Abandon Me. Abandon is, not surprisingly, an important theme, neither in the sense of being abandoned (by family and friends, by society or the world) nor abandoning oneself (to love, drugs, literature, madness).
As the book progresses, Febos’ wisdom continues to expand. In “Labyrinths” she uses the cult classic Labyrinth and Greek mythology as means of examining her drug addiction and her brother’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Through this, she eventually discovering that, “The Minotaurs we need to rescue are never our half brothers. They are always those monstrous parts of ourselves.” In “All of Me,” the pain and sweetness of Billie Holiday’s music meld with the pain and sweetness of marking one’s body with ink and needle: “The thing about pain is that it pins you to the moment, to your body.”
The eighth, title piece comprises the second half of the book—were this fiction, we’d call it a novella—and delves more deeply into the stories Febos has expertly set into place in the earlier essays. Here we meet Amaia—the seductive, dangerous lover—more fully, their love affair unfurling painfully and beautifully, over many months. And we meet Jon—Febos’ biological father—in real time, as Febos struggles with her desire to know and be known by the family whose Native American blood she shares.
“Abandon Me” is brutal both in its honest portrayal of human need and of the things we do for love, for recognition, for safety: “I suspect anyone is capable of anything under the right circumstances. We don’t want to believe this. We want identity to be solid, but even science proves that it is reactive, changing all the time. …We are in constant collaboration with our contexts.” Over the course of “Abandon Me,” Febos’ relationship with Amaia falls apart, while her relationship with Jon knits itself, often uneasily, together. Like all the earlier pieces in the book, there are many threads holding this memoir together—astronomy, geology, Native identity, history—and like the other pieces in the book, “Abandon Me” circles an essential question: How do I write my story? If there is an answer to this, Febos comes close: “You must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. That do not spare you the trouble of knowing what made you, and what into.”
Many memoirs fail because in their insularity: the story becomes so focused on the writer’s experience that the rest of the world, and thus truth, falls away. But in a good memoir, like Febos’, the story becomes a means of imparting knowledge, both of the writer’s experience and the world at large. No matter the subject, in her stories Febos lays the world she lives in bare—“In them,” she says, “I become a woman who can look at things. Who knows what to do next and how.” This world is undoubtedly intimately hers, and yet with her careful observations and introspection, she transcends isolation and captures the boundless nature of human emotion. Abandon Me is a fierce exploration of love and obsession, but it is something else as well—the story of woman who is unafraid to explore the harsh truths and choices that shape our lives.
By Melissa Febos
Hardcover, 9781632866578, 320