Alright so I haven’t seen that many people read/review this one. But about a month ago when I was shelving at the library it sort of jumped out at me from the shelf and I decided to bring it home and give it a try. It took me awhile to start it, actually, and thankfully I’m a library employee because I definitely renewed more than the allotted two times (though no one was on hold for it, so I felt ok about doing that). But once I started…oh my goodness. This book hit me so hard that I had actually ordered my own copy of it before even finishing it the first time around, because I know, even though I’m not really a re-reader, that there are essays in this collection (and one in particular) that I’ll be coming back to again and again.
“Belief in the sovereignty of female bodies is far from universal and still so new where adopted that our own minds have yet to catch up. Our culture and thus our minds are riddled with contradictions.”
Let me just start by saying that this collection is the closest I’ve ever come to naming a book “life-changing.” I mean there are books that I have loved, books that transported me, books that taught me new things, (many) books that adjusted my perspective, but honestly I’m not usually one to throw around the term life-changing. It’s a grand claim. And I have learned that, for me, change happens with time and evolution and not in one major fell swoop. That being said, there is absolutely a chance that had I read this at a different time in my personal evolution, it wouldn’t have been quite as impactful (though I cannot imagine ever not being impressed by it). But for where I currently am, this book was…a revelation.
As an overall commentary, I’d like to start by saying that the writing was breathtaking. It was graceful and smooth and mesmerizing and so, so smart. It’s the kind of writing that makes you have to read sentences, whole sections, more than once to make sure you not only fully understood all the concepts presented, but also to bask in the beauty of how all the words and thoughts came together. Related, I loved the way that so many themes/buzzwords/philosophical questions circled each other and were woven together and ultimately expertly connected both within each individual essay and across the collection as a whole. It’s a writing style that is always so impressive to me when an author does as effortlessly (as in not feeling forced) as Febos has here. While it makes for a slightly longer (and at times more arduous) reading experience, the effort is worth it for the quality.
I usually only do the following for short story collections, but I had so many individual reactions as I read through this collection that I am going to separate out this review, and my thoughts, by essay. I think I need the structure here.
Kettle Holes – The interweaving of different stories/focal points that are all brought together around a primary theme was on display to perfection in this opening essay. There was so much in this that was recognizable to the young girl in me, the one who was always told “boys tease the girls they like the most” as some sort of blanket excuse that never really made sense. Also, the questions raised about the conventions and expectations around showing and holding gratitude, especially from unasked for sources, are important.
“We are all unreliable narrators of our own motives. And feeling something neither proves nor disproves its existence.”
“One can only redeem a thing that has already been lost or taken. I did not want to admit that someone had taken something from me.”
“The true telling of our stories often requires the annihilation of other stories, the ones we build and carry through our lives because it is easier to preserve some mysteries. We don’t need the truth to survive, and sometimes our survival depends on its denial.”
The Mirror Test – Reading the trajectory of the word slut, and the meaning Febos assigns to the evolutions, was fascinating. Plus, the conversation about sex ed difficulties under this current operating idea of “slut” resonated deeply with me, considering that’s what I do for a living and the (incredibly frustrating) “moral” roadblocks involved. A bit intense, but validating, to read about the way any social distinction/outsider characteristic of a woman is distilled into sexually shaming her, even if the original issue is totally unrelated. Just a thorough exploration and calling out of all the interwoven ways that “hatred and fear of female sexuality is baked into the foundations of civilization,” used to maintain power over the women (with social pressure, ingrained beliefs, language, media) who might threaten patriarchy/white supremacy by using a forced narrative to ostracize them from society and “rewrite” the way they/we think of/see/believe of themselves. Holy. Shit.
“The acceptance of poor treatment has often been interpreted as validation of such treatment, at least by its enactors, who are not interested in questioning their own humanity.”
“…the double bind that insists that teen girls exhibit performative sexuality and then ostracizes them for doing so is not subtle…”
“You don’t have to recognize power for it to be wielded over you, it turns out.”
Wild America – I’d never before considered some of the points Febos makes in this essay. Considering the conceptualization of how we have inverted nature so egregiously that puberty causes females to regress to the opposite of anything that would help us survive at a base/natural level was a real intellectually stimulating exercise. And then the way she highlighted how hard it is to break that conditioning, even after we learn that it is, in fact, just conditioning… Phew.
“Your body is no longer a body, but a perceived distance from what a body should be, a condition of never being correct, because being is incorrect. Virtue lies only in the interminable act of erasing yourself.”
“However painful, we often cherish our own self-hatreds, mistake them as intrinsic to our survival.”
Intrusions – Speaking again both from a personal and professional lens, I thought the conversation in this essay about the lines of consent in any type of sexual activity, and the consequences of not having those conversations, was important and unfortunately too infrequently had. The way that Febos is able to clarify the understanding that women “overreact/exaggerate” fears, but that those reactions are based on real truths about sexual predation, not paranoia, is very affecting. And speaks to me very deeply. Related, the consideration of the many ways the message that our (women’s) lack of sense of safety – physical or otherwise – is worth the cost of the feelings of “good” men. Oh, it made me angry to see it so plainly written like that, because it’s so freaking true. Finally, this essay talked about who gets to define what is considered a “real” violation, what can and can’t be stopped/protected against, and how any violation will/won’t affect a person for life and the primary point, that it’s really never the person who is actually violated who gets to decide that for themselves is, again, so angering.
“The belief in our own culpability encourages our silence, and our silence protects the lie of our culpability.”
“Because those practices [“atypical” sexual practices] have been marginalized for so long, there still isn’t a familiar enough public discourse on them for the layperson to differentiate between the healthy and the harmful. […] The difference between consensual voyeuristic practices and nonconsensual in analogous to that between sex and rape. By condemning these practices wholesale, we make it that much easier to erase their complexity, the vast spectrum on which they function.”
Thesmophoria – This one was, at least personally, more of a miss (as far as how much it resonated with me). However, it was still a really well written and communicated meditation on mother-daughter relationships. Painful, but real and ultimately hopeful.
“There is a difference between the fear of upsetting someone who loves you and the danger of losing them. […] It has taken me some work to discern the difference between the pain of hurting those I love and my fear of what I might lose. Hurting those we love is survivable. It is inevitable. I wish that I could have done less of it.”
Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself – This essay. This essay. This is the essay that pushed me over the edge in deciding to call this book life-changing. There are so many points and philosophies and conversations in this essay that were mind-blowing, for me, to see collected and communicated so clearly and understand how widespread they are, when they were so personally recognizable and sometimes feel unique to me (or I at least feel solitary in my experience of them). Of note, Febos speaks to a mental state regarding things that are not a reenactment of trauma, but rather a preoccupation with the threat of it. She talks of the problem and necessity refusing without saying “no” (so as not to put oneself in an even more dangerous situation). The way she drew the line that empathy and accommodation are not synonymous; that really spoke to me. And, oh, this idea of empty consent. The way that she describes how years of being socialized not to reject others’ touch conditions one to consent to touch one doesn’t want – in general and out of fear of something worse and to provide emotional relief – was conceptually revelatory, and deeply, horribly familiar. When she proposes the idea that all of us need re-socialization regarding women’s bodily autonomy in order to combat that insidious false belief in our own ability to consent truthfully, it hit hard. Febos equally places blame where it belongs, but with the complications of how we now all buy into and preserve this reality, and suggests how it will take conscientious and consistent and possibly boringly repetitive action-based effort, not just knowledge or belief, to change it. And really, I’ve just never been more affected by a nonfiction essay in my entire life. I would have bought the book just for this essay (even if the rest didn’t stand up; though, to be clear, it does).
“I have often wished for a different word, one that implies profound, often inhibitive, change, but precludes the wound and victimization inherent in trauma, which has become such a charged and overused term outside its clinical definition. […] I am not interested in defining my experiences as wounds so much as in examining their consequences.”
“Desperation can be a profoundly self-centered state. The desperate do not necessarily see the world and its other people with the easy detachment of the contented. They have a heightened sense of potential resources. My past has taught me that the devotion of the needy – which I had known from both sides – while complete, is not always loving. There can be a mercenary quality to it.”
“When the dynamics of abuse underlie all of heterosexuality’s conventions, even consensual interactions share trauma-related effects. A girl can experience or reinforce harmful symptomatic consequences as a result of a sexual experience without having been victimized by her partner, without the experience qualifying as trauma.”
“Where we should draw the line between the abusive nature of a patriarchal society and abusive acts by individuals is not always clear.”
“That seemed the heart of it: that both men an women prioritize the comfort and well-being of men over women’s safety, comfort, even the truth of their bodily experience.”
“The more we want to exploit a body, the less humanity we allow it.”
Les Calanques – After the intensity of the previous essay, this was a beautiful and slightly less intense closing essay. Febos examines the cyclical patterns of life and potential for a kind of redemption and reinvention in that, presenting the outline of a sort real life palimpsest. It was a lovely finale, with the hope of self-acceptance, including a grace and love for the younger person we once were, and a tenderness towards the harshness with which we treated that younger self.
“The hardest part of sadness or pain is almost always my fear that it will never pass. It tells me that I will never fully recover, that this particular experience of discomfort is my new life.” (This is deeply recognizable to me, as a black hole of thought that is impossible to climb out of.)
“Foreign beauty is of no comfort to the homesick.”
“Even the fiercest love can’t treat what you conceal from it.”
“Rejection could easily turn sexual interest into cruelty.”
“Sometimes our best efforts at self-preservation look like a kind of violence.”
Final thoughts: just wow. This is such an incredibly philosophical, simultaneously intimately personal and universally recognizable, meditation on the truth of being a girl and a woman in the world. It’s fierce in questioning and facing down ugly realities, yet soft enough to give the reader comfort throughout. I haven’t had to concentrate this hard, or make such an effort to be engaged in a text, in a while. But it was worth every bit of that effort. I will be recommending and revisiting this book for…well…probably forever.