How do you heal from the pain of growing up? This question, refracted through a feminist lens, lies at the heart of Melissa Febos’s essay collection, Girlhood. With psychological clarity and emotional precision, Febos revisits the past to rewrite the future.
Febos first shot to literary renown with her memoir, Whip Smart, which detailed her experience working as a dominatrix in New York City dungeons. She has since published the non-fiction collection Abandon Me and started teaching at the University of Iowa. Before her career began, however, she grew up on Cape Cod, the daughter of a Puerto Rican fisherman and American psychotherapist mother. Many of the ten essays of the book evoke that landscape, which she paints as both mythic—with its murky ponds and beckoning shipwrecks—and ordinary, with a small year-round population where parents work hard and kids go to school on a yellow bus.
It is against this backdrop we first encounter Alex, a neighbor boy whose burgeoning affection for Melissa turns surprisingly violent. In early adolescence, which Febos describes as a transition from childhood to “more distinctly a girlhood,” she recounts the shock of male desires crashing against her own, the mistrust of her own body’s signals, and the ways her reputation overshadowed lived reality. A pool party marks the end of a friendship; an afternoon of watching pickup basketball leads to a frightening incident behind a bathroom door; whispers in the school hallway result in the nightly calls of a threatening, gravelly voice.
While the anecdotes of her girlhood are achingly particular, Febos also emphasizes their familiarity. A throughline of the collection is Greek myths, which Febos reconjures in various forms. In “Thesmophoria”, an essay about mothers and daughters, Febos examines Persephone from the perspective of Demeter. Of the inescapable betrayal, she writes, “There is a difference between the fear of upsetting someone who loves you and the danger of losing them… Hurting those we love is survivable. It is inevitable. I wish that I could have done less of it” (190).
As the myths of Febos’ own girlhood are unstitched and resewn, stories of other women are woven in. Febos interviewed dozens of women for the book, often finding the traumatic effects of early sexual experiences to be most acute for Black and Brown women, compounded by the othering and discrimination of racism. In “The Mirror Test,” which takes on slut-shaming, Febos cites the feminist group Black Women’s Blueprint in their “Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk.” Slutwalk, founded in 2011, was a movement to reclaim the word and image of a slut. In the open letter, the group rejects Slutwalk’s premise, because slut is a word “tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property.” There are some terms to reclaim, and others to let wash away.
“Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself” is perhaps the climax of the book, its most complex and radical comment about the power dynamics of sex. In the sprawling 76-page essay, Febos moves from topics like cuddle parties and “skin hunger” to queer relationship dynamics, the Panopticon effect of the male gaze, and affirmative consent. In the essay’s wandering, searching form, Febos creates a whirlpool of space to explore the ripple effects of sexual harm, away from patriarchy’s surveillance, judgment, and worn-out tropes. She also comes to a better understanding of what healing looks and feels like.
The scars of girlhood may never disappear, but in this collection, Febos offers more than solace. In a way, the book is an invitation to all people who grew up female, to plunge their own depths and not rescue, but rather recognize and mourn, their former selves, and the selves they could have been if not born into a body the world deemed less worthy than other bodies. Within its pages there are windows, air, sky, from which others can retrieve their own memories, rewrite them, let them go.