108 Melissa Febos
“You know, it was like very hot – with that particular hotness of a terrible, terrible thing driven by desperation beyond the immediate situation.”
Melissa is a literary phenom who has won a gazillion awards for her incisive, honest, colorful writing. Her third book, Girlhood comes out in the Spring of 2021. I was her camp counselor for 3 years when she was in Middle school.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): There was a period of time in 1996 when I tried really hard to seem as normal as possible: pretend I didn’t have my past, pretend my heart wasn’t just a little bit dark, pretend I could small talk. It was when my ex-husband and I were newlyweds and he was a seminary intern in a small church in Oregon and I was new to this whole Lutheran thing and I just really didn’t want to screw it up for him in his new church. So, you know, I covered all my tattoos, I took out my tongue ring, and I’m ashamed to admit this now but, I even wore clothes from The Gap.
But it didn’t matter, because the truth about who I really am was still there—and all the chinos and cardigans in the world couldn’t cover it up. And the fact was that no matter how normal I tried to look it was as if, in this almost animalistic way, the nice church people didn’t buy it. It was like they could smell it on me, like, *sniff sniff* this one isn’t from our pack.
Which was true. And that’s the thing about the truth, the truth will totally ignore our desire for it to just go away. It will hover around us, buzzing annoyingly in our ear. Often the truth will show up uninvited and often disguised as something else. The truth about ourselves and our lives, if ignored, will just repackage itself as anxiety and wake us up at 2:00 AM. The truth is a bitch like that.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into the Confessional. It’s like a carwash for shame and secrets. My guest today is someone who also tried to ignore her truth, but despite her best efforts, it showed up in her life in surprising and harmful ways. For listeners joining me in The Confessional for the first time, stay tuned after the interview for a blessing I’ve written just for my guest, but maybe also for you.
Joining me in The Confessional today is Melissa Febos, who is an essayist, a memoirist, a professor, and an old friend. Welcome, Melissa.
Melissa Febos (MF): Hi, thank you.
NBW: I am really curious what story you have to share with me or what confession you want to leave in the booth, as it were.
MF: So, in my late 20s, I was living with someone, with a man, and we’d been together for about three years. And I was out of love with him and I didn’t know how to leave. So I didn’t for a while. I waited until I fell in love with someone else who happened to live sort of two blocks away from where we lived in Brooklyn, and it was a woman.
It ended up being real love, and it was the healthiest and most fun and most loving relationship I’d ever been in. And then 18 months into our relationship, my girlfriend got very sick, and for a while we didn’t know what it was. She had all of these crazy symptoms that included migraines and joint swelling and aches and pains, these sort of hematoma bruises that would just pop out, mental confusion. And my response to it inside myself was total terror and panic, because I have always been afraid of being engulfed in relationships and sort of trapped. And, you know, I was like twenty nine years old and I just knew I wasn’t ready to be somebody’s caretaker—insofar as anybody’s ever ready to do that. But I was just afraid that her sickness would take over and then I would be sort of stuck taking care of her forever, and that would be my life.
NBW: Is there a moment that you can recall that sort of demonstrated that or when there was like a dissonance between what was happening inside of you and what you were saying?
MF: Yeah. There was one time where I was teaching as an adjunct professor at the time and I was commuting on like five trains to go, you know, an hour and a half away to teach for peanuts. And one day I was coming home at like 11:00 p.m., totally exhausted and I got a call from her that she was in the E.R.. And so instead of going home, I lugged my little wheeling suitcase full of all my papers down to Beth Israel in the city and went to see her in the E.R., where she had been in so much pain that she had just taken a cab there and they still couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.
But I remember lying in bed that night and just sort of thinking, as I often did those days, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I can’t do this. Right? And it was just the part of me that was like desperately clamoring to run away from the situation. Right? And instead, I was like getting her a cold washcloth or figuring out how to try to get insurance to pay for the hospital visit. And after that night, I think I basically just decided that I couldn’t leave, right? So I just decided that I was going to show up for the experience and get her through it as far as I could and effectively, I think I just shoved it all away.
NBW: How would you characterize your relationship with your girlfriend after you made that decision?
MF: So I think at that point, like I was no longer in love with her in the way that I had been before that. Then it was you know, she was my best friend and my partner and she needed me. But the in love part of our relationship was over at that point. I don’t know, sort of sex and desire stopped being a part of our relationship basically then and I also think that the experience of sort of shoving away that very scared, very vulnerable part of myself made so many other parts of me inaccessible. You can’t sort of choose to be vulnerable in some ways and not in other ways and have any kind of precision in that process, right? Once you shove something in the attic of your consciousness, you don’t know what it’s going to take with it, in my experience.
NBW: Why do you think those two things couldn’t be coupled for you at that point? I mean, why was there that bifurcation?
MF: I think I didn’t know how to handle my own fear, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. The only sort of tool I had for dealing with a feeling that overwhelming was suppression. Like I had never had a conversation with a partner that was that vulnerable to say this terrifies me, a part of me wants to run away, I don’t think I’m ready to take care of you. I just, you know, it didn’t even honestly occur to me to say that to her.
NBW: Were you ashamed of that feeling? I mean, I could just imagine being in that situation and being like in this relationship in love, really happy, and then sort of what is demanded of you, like, aggressively shifts into something that you didn’t think it would. And, of course you have this like well shit, this is not what I thought I was signing up for. And yet only a really shitty person would say that, you know?
MF: Right, exactly. And I was not willing to be that shitty person, you know, I was just not willing.
NBW: Well I think also in those situations, like I had this friend who was sober, and I just kept showing up for her and I was in complete denial about the fact that she was relapsing on OxyContin. And she was like, I was commuting from one town to the other to go to graduate school and I had these little kids and she had little kids, and the only way she could have them overnight is if somebody else was there. And so I just kept showing up for her and I was exhausted. And I was like, not staying with my kids one night so she could be with hers and all this stuff. And I talked to my big sister, who’s just aggressively filled with wisdom and, truly, and and she knew I was so tired. And she goes, honey, you’re squandering, you have a limited amount of emotional energy and time in your life and you are squandering so much of it in this one situation just so you can maintain the idea that you like to have that you’re a good friend.
MF: Ugh brutal.
NBW: Awful, right? And I was like ughhh.
MF: Oh, the shiv of truth.
NBW: The shiv of truth.
MF: So painful.
NBW: But like, how often do we do things so that we can continue to maintain some sort of idea of ourselves.
MF: Yeah. Yeah. Even now it’s sort of unclear to me because I do think I really profoundly loved her and I could not bear the idea of her going through that experience alone, like it just broke my heart. And also, I could not bear the idea of having to assimilate into my self image this twist in our story of me abandoning her when she was at her most helpless and in pain. Like, I don’t know which was less tolerable to me, the idea of her being abandoned, or the idea of myself as the abandoner. I still don’t know.
NBW: Yeah there’s no PR…
MF: …that can clean that up. Yeah, there just isn’t.
NBW: Okay, so you’re really into her, you love her, great relationship, she gets sick, you’re like, oh, my gosh, suddenly everything shifts into being kind of a caretaker and less of a lover, and then what happened?
MF: So basically, after about 18 months of her illness she started to improve kind of incrementally. And at this point, I’d put a lot of my own sort of professional ambitions and relationships and our life was in large part sort of crisis management. And I desperately needed a break. And I got this kind of prestigious fellowship to this writers’ conference and I told her I really wanted to go, and she was like, go.
And while I was gone she had a kind of relapse and got really, really sick again. And I had no phone service, I was like out in the woods waving my phone around, trying to get a signal so I could call our neighbor to see if our neighbor could come take care of her and take our dog out ‘cause she was too sick to take the dog out. And when the neighbor did that, she called me afterwards and basically chewed me out for not being there and totally scolded me and said that I shouldn’t have gone away, basically. Which was horrible.
MF: And so, I was like, thanks and just got off the phone and then sort of like a zombie walked through the rest of the conference. And on the very last night, I was sober at the time, I was like 10 years sober at the time, so I was not drunk except on my own dissociation, and there was this woman who I had not even really been interested in, had sort of vaguely noticed peripherally. There was a big dance and a party and she made some gesture. She like, we were sort of talking and she looped a finger through the belt loop on my pants and sort of like tugged it a little bit. And that was, you know, just like very flirtatious, but we had barely spoken the whole time. We weren’t like friends, there had been no flirtation between us until then.
NBW: But surely the action plucked some kind of string in you, right?
MF: Absolutely. It was like a little metronome that started ticking
MF: and then I was like, “I really have to go.” And she said, “I’ll walk you back to your dorm.”
NBW: And what did you think?
MF: Honestly, I don’t know what I thought because I don’t think, I think I had chosen not to think anymore. I now wonder if it isn’t that sort of terror and panic that I pushed down and that I wasn’t feeling, but that maybe was continuing to grow in force over the past 18 months. Some part of me sort of rose up and took the controls and all the rest of me fell quiet and I just followed her, you know. And she walked me back to the doorway of my building and then we made out for like a half an hour standing outside of the doorway. People walking by, I have no idea who saw us, you know, it was like very hot with that particular hotness of like a terrible, terrible thing driven by desperation beyond the immediate situation. And, I did sort of have the wherewithal enough to sort of stop it there, and I just went back to my room and left her there.
NBW: What? Wait, what?
MF: I know, I know, I know. That’s what 10 years of sobriety will get you.
NBW: It’ll get you not laid.
MF: Not laid. Total betrayal. No orgasm.
Yeah and then I went home the next morning. I’m not a cheater, I’ve never had affairs, like I’m not good – I’m a terrible liar. I hate having secrets from my person. So I went home and I was a fucking mess. But immediately my partner was like, what’s up, what’s going on? in a different kind of way. And I was like, nothing, nothing, nothing.
NBW: ‘Cause you were avoiding her gaze?
MF: I was totally avoiding her gaze. I was just, you know, on one hand, completely detached in a new way, like sort of the gears turning thinking about this other person, and I couldn’t, even then, I couldn’t say, I want to break up.
MF: It was like, you know, honestly and this sounds kind of horrible. There was, I had showed up for so much difficult work in our relationship in order to avoid feeling like an asshole, and in order to avoid hurting her, that at that point to leave hurting her feeling like an ass-. I was just like, no, I am gonna to leave this relationship feeling like the good guy.
NBW: It’s the sunk cost fallacy like, I’m not that this house is a money pit, but I’ve put so much money into it already that I’m not walking away.
MF: I know. I’ve been waiting in this DMV line for too many hours.
So we spent this one horrible night sleeping in separate rooms. I was sleeping on the couch and she was in the bed, and it was just, I don’t know. I just remember being so fucking sad and wanting so desperately to do something that would fix it. There’s nothing I could do, there’s nothing I was capable of doing. And the next day I went to work and when I came back, my journal was open on my desk to the page where I had written a very detailed account the following morning of what had happened on the last night of the conference, and it was annotated in a red pen. And at the end of it, it said, “Good luck, Melissa.” And she was gone.
NBW: You know, it’s interesting ‘cause I feel like I’ve read in your own writing that restriction is the fastest path to fetishization. And then I feel like in a way, you’re describing a similar dynamic emotionally that if you are restricting yourself from the truth of what you’re really feeling, what you’re really afraid of, because then, if you’re trying so hard not to hurt someone and the way you’re doing that is by not telling them the truth, you’re eventually going to hurt them so much more because you’re not telling the truth ‘cause that shit’s going to come out somehow.
MF: Exactly. I think that’s exactly it. You know, that sort of postponement or the belief that there’s a shortcut or a way around it, like there’s no shortcut. Really through anything, but certainly through the emotional truth of a person, you know?
NBW: Have you made amends or reconciled in some way with your former partner around this stuff or is it still hanging out there?
MF: We did become friends again years after, because, you know, there was such a… both of us had so much reverence for the relationship that we had, both before and after she got sick,
NBW: Oh, wow. That’s a lovely way to put that. Yeah, hmm.
MF: Yeah, like we said, we loved and appreciated each other so completely. And then we went through something incredibly hard together and we were very alone in that, and there was something so hard about in the time we were estranged after we broke up about not about having come through that harrowing experience and not having access to the one other person that knew what it was like.
NBW: I have one other question. Like, did you ever think what the experience was like for her, if she was sort of the one to take care of you and to make your home nice and whatnot?
MF: Oh, so painful. You know, I can sometimes when I do that, when I put myself in her perspective and I try to look at myself—there’s a part of me that’s so resistant to it, but there is a way… oh, I’m going to cry. Just like, I trust her to at least in some part, maybe not in the freshest part of that pain, but at some point I know that she saw me for who I was, right? Which is a person who loved her, who is doing the absolute best, who is actually doing better than her best, and just was not capable of anything else at that moment in her life, you know? And even when I imagine her sort of anger and fear and whatever she was feeling, her grief, watching me sort of blow it all up. It’s not, I don’t think she hated me or even was confused, but just felt sad.
You know that we had to lose whatever sweetness and love and respect we had, and that’s even more painful than her hating me or being angry at me, right? Is that she just saw me as that flawed person that she loved, that she didn’t want to lose.
NBW: God, this shit is so complicated. I mean, I know the older I get the less I know what to think about anything. I mean, just in terms of like, it’s complex, ight? Like you guys had this beautiful love for each other, the role you had to play shifted, not of your choosing. And you did the absolute best you could and showed up in every way you could, and yet, you had these needs that just weren’t getting met and they were not going to remain silent anymore. And like, of course, you did. You know? Of course, you had these things that needed to be tended to, and, I don’t know, it’s just…
MF: Yeah, it’s I think the older I get, the more I understand that there’s just, there’s no way to avoid sorrow. Right? Like two good people doing the absolute best that they can sometimes ends in terrible sorrow.
NBW: I’m so glad to know you and to hear this story, and thank you for being brave enough to tell it, honestly. I mean, these sort of inelegant moments in our lives are the ones that are so easy to just try and keep hidden. And yet, I don’t know, maybe they aren’t so scary if we let them out in the daylight, every once in a while.
MF: It’s true, there really is something about having someone at the other end of it, because I think about that time not infrequently, right? But I don’t get into the feelings of it, but like having a friend, having someone on the other side, but especially having a friend whom I love and trust on the other end of it just creates a space where whatever is still down there can be heard.
MF: So thank you.
NBW: It’s never as scary as we think it’s going to be, I think.
MF: I mean that’s the thing about sorrow, right, is that that’s where the beauty is too—like it’s not separate.
NBW: Well, thanks, Melissa, I’m so grateful.
MF: Thank you so much, Nadia.
NBW: A Blessing for Melissa:
Melissa, I can’t stop thinking about your attic, how you said that once you shove something in the attic of your subconscious, you don’t know what it’s going to take with it.
So, as a blessing, I’d like to take your hand and go check out the attic together.
I’ll pull that cord that hangs from the ceiling and let the stairs open like an unfolded fist.
We’ll look around once our eyes adjust, we’ll see what’s there.
The clutter of embarrassments and girlhood secrets, and the time you lied about that one thing.
We will spot that pile of shrapnel left from blowing up your life that sits in the middle of the room on top of that crate of the worst fears about yourself.
And we will see what else got stored away with them, quarantined for no fault of their own. Like maybe how that sweet part of your vocal range that shakes when you say something you’re afraid of sits, covered in dust, next to your own tender neediness.
And I won’t say, “let’s take it all down from the attic.”
I’ll say, “let’s grab some floor lamps, a bucket of fresh paint and a really nice rug.”
Attics need not be so dreary, maybe if they look warm and inviting and we just keep the stairs pulled down, the best parts of you and the worst parts of you can have a little freedom of movement and not feel ignored and then do things just to get some attention.
So, may you, Melissa, redecorate your subconscious, like a Queer Eye for the soul. Because when you put all the good, bad and ugly parts together, the result is still so, so beautiful—like you.
NBW: Listener, I have news. This episode marks the end of season one of The Confessional, I’m so grateful that you listened. I’m also happy to announce that we’re returning for a second season very soon.
In the meantime, here’s a confession from a fellow listener, it’s a segment I call Shit I’m Not Proud Of.
Laura: Hi I’m Laura from North Carolina, and in college I used money from a Baptist scholarship to visit my boyfriend in another town and get a hotel room for… activities.
If you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of, call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message. I might play it on the show for season two.
The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.