In Review: Unraveling Personal Narrative and Truths in Girlhood by Melissa Febos

“We are like cicadas, I want to tell her. When we rise from the ground, we shed our old bodies, but we don’t forget them. We call the thing we need until it answers.”

Les Calanques, in Girlhood

Melissa Febos’ Girlhood weaves together autobiographical essays, interviews, Greek mythology, and media research to form an intricate tapestry of personal experiences that reflect a greater societal impact. Febos relentlessly interrogates the various truths of growing up in a society that prioritizes the feelings, opinions, and power of men at girls’ expense. In doing so, she asks the questions universal to all girls: Who am I really? What am I searching for? Am I enough for this? Where do I begin to heal?

Febos gained literary acclaim with her memoir Whipsmart (2010), which describes her time working as a dominatrix in New York City. Later came her collection of essays, Abandon Me (2017), which explores her abusive relationships with drugs and love. She currently serves as an Associate Professor of Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. Throughout her various essay collections, readers get glimpses of her early life in Cape Cod with her fisherman father and her compassionate mother (who later in life became a psychotherapist).

As a writer and an educator, she brings feminist rhetoric to hold conversation between social topics and her own personal experiences. In doing so, Febos allows Girlhood to speak volumes to the readers who  see themselves between the lines of her narrative. In blending the memoir style with sociological theory, scholarship, and interviews, Febos aims to quantifiably investigate trauma and societal stereotypes put onto women’s bodies and experiences.

Febos recounts her experiences growing up always waiting for something, always waiting for herself, always waiting to heal. Her readers can vividly imagine life near the seashore, with its magical appeal and its contrastingly mundane life. For many, growing up is awkwardly tumultuous, but Febos takes it further, interrogating that truth through her adult lens. We are able to experience the past through the mirror of the present. 

There is always the first boy, the first one that muddles the line between childhood and “girlhood” as Febos describes. The first boy was Alex, who would swim with Febos and the other neighborhood children in the local pond. Like the first steps into girlhood, this local pond—known as Deep Pond—was 50 feet of unknown at its deepest point. Febos recounts her childhood swimming just to the left of the center of the pond: “I could swim in it my whole life, and never know what lay at its bottom” (12). In Febos’ diary, Alex is mentioned and “a few months later, he spat on [her] for the first time” (12). It is here that we see the danger in that age-old myth that boys will treat you mean if they like you. However, Febos cuts the tie between that narrative and her own. 

It is Alex, and then the boys outside the bathroom, then the boy inside the bathroom with Febos. It is the men staring as Febos walks by them, the men catcalling Febos as she walks by them. Then it is the man that stands outside her New York City ground-floor apartment at night telling her he wants her. It is the man that touches her without asking. It is all these moments that accumulate to reveal the ways in which men cannot handle a “no,” forcing women to surrender their voices. The Deep Pond gets deeper—and yet we still swim. 

A woman’s physical body is shrouded as the male gaze replaces it. As Febos states in her Girlhood essay, “Wild America,” “In school, I learned to talk less. I moved slower and hid my body in oversize clothes…this is what happens when you give your body away, or when it gets taken from you,” (107). Febos’ “The Mirror Test investigates when the word “slut” yo-yos back and forth from a reclaimed source of power (in the case of Slutwalk, founded in 2011) as a perpetual reminder of the ways men use words to further incite sexual ideologies onto women’s bodies. Yet, Febos settles on the notion that some words should just be left in the depths, especially those that actually do more harm than any good.  

“Les Calanquesarrives as the last essay in the Girlhood collection, and with it, readers arrive at some peace and self-exploration. In “Les Calanques,” the reader navigates back and forth between Febos’ experience in her early twenties taking a one-way ticket to Paris where she finds friendship in a fellow addict, and her writing retreat with other fellow artists in her early thirties. Almost twelve years later and Febos is a different person. As her narrative switches back and forth from her life by addiction to a life where she goes through her daily “modules” to sustain the hold on herself and hiking with a friend to swim in the blue-green waters of the sea, the reader comes to a clearing of sorts. In this essay, readers are given the space to understand how life has its deepest points at the center and then we come up for a breath. Always, there is a breath. 

Her collection of essays never promises to hold all the answers, but there is something to be said about being brave enough to bring a mirror to the self and to society in order to investigate truth. In the end, readers can see flashes of familiarity amongst the individual experiences of women. There is, after all, solace in knowing that you are not alone.