Book review - Abandon Me: Memoirs is an uneven ride through a New York dominatrix’s complicated life and loves

In her first memoir, Melissa Febos chronicled her time as a dominatrix, and now she delves into her complex family background and an unhealthy love affair, but can’t let go of her ‘bad girl’ image

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 7:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 7:02am

Abandon Me: Memoirs

by Melissa Febos


3 stars

There’s a certain type of female experience that’s cultivated by the memoir-publishing industry: an unstable “girl” coming of age following an abusive childhood and/or drug abuse, a poor choice of mate, an anxiety disorder, divorce. Wrap it up in a pretty publicity photo, and you have yourself a book. Having a Master of Fine Arts helps, too.

Melissa Febos’ first memoir, Whip Smart, perpetuates this preselected (and very limited) view of female experience by chronicling the four years she worked as a dominatrix in New York as a way to pay for her drug habit and college.

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Her second memoir, Abandon Me, covers more terrain by discussing familial concerns, a heated but unhealthy love affair and the need to understand her complex ethnic heritage. But the ride is bumpy.

In chapters full of shifting characters, time frames and allusions straight out of cultural studies, we learn that Febos’ early life was shaped by the fear of abandonment.

The Puerto Rican man she calls “my sea captain father” adopted her after marrying her divorced mother. Frequently absent because of his work, he was a loving dad when home. Her half brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her mother became a psychotherapist who belatedly recognised her son’s issues and eventually divorced the sea captain.

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Febos hit puberty early, liked both boys and girls, and left home in the US state of Massachusetts at 16. Soon she turned to drugs: “Even the fiery melt of crack was an emptying: inhale it and exhale the unseen self in a smoky swarm.” Then came the whips and chains. Later are wrenching scenes involving her controlling lesbian lover, and Febos’ tentative reconnections with her biological father, a Native American who himself is “a career drug addict and alcoholic”.

Somewhere in this dramatis personae there’s an interesting story, even a compelling one, given how it crisscrosses so many ethnic and social lines of American history. Febos is a talented writer with a colourful personal history, but her short scenes and forced juxtapositions leave readers yearning for more connections and continuity.

Why does Febos feel as she does? Poetic technique, allusions and cultural references can’t bolster rather ordinary experiences: loneliness, bad romances, throwing up. Also, do we need to know about Imago Theory, Théodule-Armand Ribot, the theory of “psychic mechanics” and “intergenerational transmission of emotional trauma through amygdala-dependent mother-to-infant transfer of specific fear”? These academic digressions dilute instead of deepen the reader’s understanding of Febos’ abandonment, and they make for stilted reading.

Febos’ best writing is unmediated: “My story did not include regret until thirty-two,” she writes, when “I came to truly know my own fear.” Or, describing the moment when she meets her birth father: “My stomach clenched. Like a hovering wasp, his nearness made my shoulder smart.” Here are real, lived experiences, and we gobble them up.

Abandon Me is a step up from the lurid Whip Smart, because Febos links her self-investigation to larger adult concerns of family obligations and healthy loving. But her “bad girl” image still prevails. When she tells her agent she wants to write about Native American history, he advises her instead to keep it “edgy” and “urban”, as that’s what sells.

Unfortunately, what sells frequently typecasts and discounts female experience. A young woman wants to attend college but needs money for tuition. Will she pick up a whip or a student loan application? If she writes as well as Febos, and if she has a fearless agent, perhaps her memoir just might be a big seller. Readers await.