Peering back at one's childhood and adolescence can be a daunting task.
We all tell ourselves stories about the days of our youth, no matter how far behind us they are, and it's easier to make these stories simple: a good childhood, a terrible one, or one so ordinary that there's no reason to think about it much.
In exchanging stories of our teenage years with one another, we might flatten the narrative into loving high school or hating it, the jobs we had to hold during the hours we weren't in it, the firsts that we may have experienced. But to take the time to really consider all the ways that our formative years, well, formed us, is difficult. Memories are inexact and patchy things, and it can be painful to admit how our spongy nature during these years meant we soaked in lessons and messages with lasting consequences.
Melissa Febos' third book of nonfiction, “Girlhood,” takes the task of looking backward seriously. Although most of the essays dip into the author's adult life as well, they keep trying to find the child and teenager that she was — how she learned to be, feel, believe, and react. In the first post-prologue essay, "Kettle Holes," Febos returns to some of the territory she wrote about in her debut, “Whip Smart,” about her time as a professional dominatrix in midtown Manhattan, but this time from a new angle. People would often assume, she writes, that she worked out a lot of rage at her job, and she would demur. "What did I have to be angry about?" she writes.
"My clients sought catharsis through the reenactment of childhood traumas. They were hostages to their pasts, to the people who had disempowered them. I was no such hostage — I did not even want to consider it. I wanted only to be brave and curious and in control... I did not want to admit that someone had taken something from me."
One of the most powerful themes running throughout these essays is Febos' nuanced approach to the harms that we live with, both those perpetuated upon us and those we walk into with eyes wide open. Febos understands trauma "as an event that changes a person, or for which a person changes herself, in order to withstand — an event that redraws the psychic or emotional map in some lasting way that later proves inhibitive." But not all such events start with a wounding, or include a clear victimization, and so Febos chooses to call some of these defining moments simply "events," because she is "not interested in defining [her] experiences as wounds so much as in examining their consequences."
These consequences are what most of “Girlhood” is ultimately about, in one way or another. "Kettle Holes," that first essay, looks at the ways Febos internalized the bullying of a boy named Alex, who spit on her repeatedly. Later, at her job in the dungeon, Febos spit on men who had signed up for such treatment. In "Wild America," Febos explores the lessons she learned in school and from other tweens about what was valued in a girl's body — smallness, delicacy, the ability to be contained; her "man hands," the breasts and hips she developed earlier than everyone else, her tan skin and dark hair — these were all wrong. When they right, it was only to those who would now begin to make a sexual object of her. In "Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself," Febos is deeply uncomfortable at a cuddle party (pre-COVID-19, of course) because she keeps yielding to touch she does not actually want, and sets out to discover how prevalent the practice of ambivalent consent is, and why and how it begins.
In "Thank You..." and a couple of other essays, Febos weaves in the voices of women she's interviewed about the subject matters at hand, which only benefits the book's tolling resonance. Anyone who has ever been a girl or a woman will recognize the patterns Febos uncovers: the unwanted touch, the expectations of our bodies, the way we become complicit in the traps laid out for us along the way by the patriarchal structures that govern so many of our social, professional, and interpersonal spheres. So many women say "yes" when they mean "maybe" or "not really" or "no" because the conditioning runs deep. "If I struggle to say no to a lunch invitation, a work request," Febos writes, "how can a teenager be expected to stop a man's hand as it reaches under her clothes? Some do, of course, which seems miraculous."
“Girlhood” is not a universal book: It is Febos's experiences readers encounter and her lines of research that they follow. Its specificity is precisely why it resonates. Regardless how distinctly varied our childhoods and adolescences are, so many of us hate or distrust our bodies, have difficulty in saying no. By following Febos's distinct paths between the past and present, we might realize there's room to forge our own, and that we've just been handed a flashlight that helps illuminate the way.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother's Lovers.
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