Abandon Me: Memoirs

  • By Melissa Febos
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis
  • April 3, 2017

A smart, compelling collection of essays blessedly free of self-pity.

In Renaissance Europe, the homes of the wealthy often featured a Wunderkammer, a cabinet specifically designed to display the owner’s collectibles: artifacts of ancient Anatolia; the skeletal remains of zoological specimens; and wooden weaponry from the East Indies. Wunderkammer also is the title of the sixth in this lovely collection of eight essays by Melissa Febos, and it could serve just as well as a metaphor for the whole.

Just as a Wunderkammer’s contents fascinated in part because they objectified something fundamentally unknowable — the ancient past, the ocean depths, exotic ethnologies — Febos invites readers to examine the contents of her life. Alcoholism, drug addiction, desire, dependency, she fearlessly lays them out before us and probes them with the analytic eye of a diagnostician. And nothing does she dissect more painstakingly nor with more honesty than love.

In her first essay, “The Book of Hours,” she introduces three narrative threads: the power of stories, her passion for another woman, and the dark side of love’s coin, abandonment. Almost totally unfamiliar with her birth father, Febos considered her mother’s second husband her true male parent. A devoted, loving man, his career as a sea captain required him to be absent for three, four, five months at a time, and while he was gone, Febos’ mother was wretched, her brother had nightmares, and Febos became a 7-year-old somnambulist, searching in cabinets and closets.

Eventually, Febos learns to seal herself off from the pain of the captain’s absences. “As time passed,” she writes, “it was not so much he who changed at sea but we who changed back home. It no longer seemed worth telling him about my favorite books. By the time he understood the new landscape of my interests, he was gone again.”

The marriage falls apart, Febos starts to drink, becomes sexually promiscuous with men and women, drops out of high school, and becomes a heroin addict and a dominatrix.

Eventually, however, she goes to college and earns an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. Clean and sober, she is living in Brooklyn and teaching at Monmouth University the evening she walks into an auditorium to hear a woman she identifies as Amaia read.

“The dark was thick with heat. All of us listening. I carried a story of my own into that room, but her voice silenced everything in me. There was a pool of light and in it she gripped the podium’s shoulders. Listen to me — and I did not remember myself until she let go.” Oh my!

Despite becoming sexually active early, and even having sustained meaningful relationships for many years, love as intense as what she experiences with Amaia represents virgin territory for Febos. Amaia lives in the Southwest and is married. Negotiating that distance and enduring the time it takes to obtain a divorce becomes excruciating for Febos.

To reassure her, Amaia bestows exquisite gifts, a basket of oranges topped with a bouquet of lilies, beautiful clothes from Bloomingdales, a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. And as a 33rd birthday present, a Wunderkammer.

“A wooden, glass-lidded box, its interior divided into small compartments. In one of these a corked glass bottle of snake vertebrae. In another, a molded pewter human hand. Every curiosity in the cabinet was a totem, pulsing with meaning. To it, I added the shards of sea glass and the stones.

“The best gifts are like these: beautiful and a little gruesome.”

At Amaia’s urging, Febos begins to reconnect with her birth father, a member of the Indian Wampanoag tribe whose remnants live in Connecticut. The last chapter, “Abandon Me,” alternates the narratives of Febos’ love and her quest, while entwining information on subjects as varied as King Philip’s War, the etymology of “abandon,” and Jungian psychology. This technique of braiding together disparate stories with other material is one Febos employs throughout, but not always successfully.

The structures of the best memoirs are recursive, much as the human mind operates — a little of the present, a little of the past, and back again. But it’s a structure demanding astonishing control. Febos is a learned, lyrical writer, as well as an associative thinker.

But, in places, her detours are distracting and the thread wending its way back to her principal narrative doesn’t hold. In one scene, she is 9 years old and the captain has taken her to an Indian powwow where, as night falls, she watches a game played with a flaming fireball while the crowd screams, “Pick it up. Pick it up.”

She then concludes, “I didn’t need to belong to feel that fire, to understand that a burning thing could heal, if you were willing to take it in your hands,” a sentence meant to serve as both an oblique reference to her passion and as a link to the next several pages and a more recent past when she spent days following Hurricane Sandy with Amaia. But for this reviewer, a single sentence isn’t enough to bridge the gap between one experience and another. Too much of the work of association is left to the reader.

That said, Abandon Me has much to recommend it: candor, a tone blessedly free of self-pity, and, for all those who ever flipped over the shiny side of love’s bright coin and discovered dross, hope.

Patricia Schultheis is author of an award-winning collection of short stories about Baltimore, St. Bart’s Way, published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, published by Arcadia Publishing. She is a lecturer in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins University.   

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