“Abandon Me” Highlights How Abuse Hides In Queer Relationships

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Released: February 28, 2017 

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This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!

Throughout her riveting essay collection Abandon Me, Melissa Febos describes the intense physical and intellectual connection between herself and Amaia, a married professor who lives across the country. In “Leave Marks,” she describes how Amaia’s hickies provided Febos with “a satisfaction in those bruises, in being the object of her reaching, in withstanding it.” The two women are drawn together by sexual chemistry and literary kinship: Amaia reads Jorge Luis Borges and Ernest Hemingway aloud to Febos in bed, then writes e-mails filled with poetic allusions of seduction. Later, in “Wunderkramer,” Amaia offers expensive gifts and callous rejections in equal measure. Throughout their affair, Febos remains hooked on the addictive nature of their push-pull dynamic.

Eventually, Amaia’s emotional and psychological gaslighting takes a toll on their passion, as Febos offers a glimpse into the frequently undocumented cycles of abuse that can occur in queer relationships. Once Amaia leaves her wife, she begins to insist that Febos offer exclusive attention and devotion to their relationship. They fight over “why I had let some man stand too close to me, why she never answered the phone or called me back when she said she would… She withdrew and I swelled.” Febos sacrifices friendships, a trip to Fire Island, and even her mother’s birthday party to appease Amaia. And when it becomes clear that another woman has caught her lover’s eye, she at last wrests herself from Amaia’s control.

The entirety of Febos’s work is far more than the end of a love story. Abandon Me recreates the myths of Greece and Ferdinand the Bull, brought to her by her adopted sea captain father, a man whose affections are clear even as his proximity to his daughter remains perpetually remote. She explores the effects of colonization on her birth father, an Indigenous alcoholic left adrift in a family that both longs for and denies their Native heritage. One of the book’s most wrenching essays, “Labyrinths,” shows Febos hiding her heroin addiction from the younger brother she aches to protect, while he reveals to their family what cannot be hidden of his mental illness. Collectively, Febos weaves meticulous research on topics as diverse as Billie Holiday, Carl Jung, and the Wampanoag tribe with her personal history to reclaim her own mythology and identity.

While reading Abandon Me, I thought often of Catherine Texier’s 1998 memoir Breakup, a book derided by critics for its honest portrayal of romantic obsession and heartbreak. Nearly two decades later, Febos writes candidly about the dichotomy of being both the one who is left and the one who can leave: “We who fear abandonment are often the most capable of leaving. We build lives out of moveable pieces. Out of ourselves. It is a creative way to live, both variable and resilient, if sometimes lonely.” Breakup, despite the powerful lyricism of its prose, was dismissed as the ramblings of a scorned woman. But Abandon Me proves unequivocally that there must be room in the literary canon for the complexity of women’s stories on erotic fixation and loss.

This article was published in Family Values Issue #74 | Spring 2017
by Allison Mccarthy
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Allison McCarthy is a writer with a focus on personal essays, intersectional feminism and social justice.  Her work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian (U.K.), AlterNet, The Establishment, Vox, RogerEbert.com, Time.com, xoJane, DAME, Autostraddle, Ravishly, The Frisky, Medium.com (“Human Parts” series), Bitch, make/shift, Ms. (blog), Girlistic, YourTango, Hip Mama, Bustle, Global Comment, Role/Reboot, Shameless, The Feminist Wire, ColorsNW, The Baltimore Review and Hoax, as well as in several anthologies. A graduate of Goucher College and the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University, she currently lives in Maryland. She tweets at @allison_writes and her website is http://allisonmccarthy.net.

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