This week, we're sharing with our readers an essay by Melissa Febos, which is adapted from her newest collection, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, published by Catapult on March 15. You can pre-order a signed copy from Melissa's local bookstore, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, or pre-order a copy from Bookshop.org.
There is a genre of love ballad that I am a sucker for, and it includes a range of styles—from James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” to Usher’s “Confessions.” My own beloved does not share my predilection for these plaintive, often abject tunes. As she once said, with not a little disdain, “that’s a beggin’-ass song.”
Beggin’-ass songs have always been my favorites. Songs whose longing often has a ragged edge, a need to love and be loved, and, more often than not, to be forgiven—for misdeeds, misunderstanding, or fundamental flaws. The singer has strayed from the path that leads to the one they serenade and they now wish would return. The voices that sing these songs tie a ribbon around a similarly tender part of me and pull with recognition.
My favorite Christmas carol as a child was “O Holy Night,” and it still is, because hearing the command to fall on your knees provokes some deep and abiding longing in me: to prostrate myself before something and be found lovable, to hear the angel voices, to be struck with wonder, to be let in.
I was raised by a Buddhist and a staunch ex-Catholic. I’ve often thought that if I had been exposed to any kind of church music as a young person, but most of all gospel, I might have been called toward another path entirely. In many cases, beggin’-ass song can be another name for hymn.
“How infinitely passionate a thing religion at its highest flights can be,” writes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. “Like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, it adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.”
I did not have religion as a young person, but I did have a revelation in my early twenties, just as I was getting sober and opening to the idea of having a higher power in my life other than heroin. That whole time was rich with epiphanic moments, and this one arrived one evening as I sat alone in my one-room studio in Williamsburg, listening to a Stax Records compilation.
As I savored the predictable swoon of feeling that “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” and “The Life I Live” generated, I suddenly understood that the soul music of the sixties and R&B of the nineties were my favorites, not, as I’d thought until then, because I was always falling in love, though I was, but because I had what William James called an “instinctive eagerness.” My romantic interest at the time was a questionable character whose appeal was already waning and had anyway never been worth the pleas of Bettye LaVette, Bettye Swann, or Betty Wright. The people whom I conjured in my mind when I listened to such singers were simply convenient proxies for something I hadn’t yet decided to believe in. I was less a love addict than a person with the kind of beggin’-ass heart that longed to return, not to the arms of whatever person I was infatuated with but to something greater, something religious people might call god.
When I was a kid, my grandmother would sometimes take me with her to Catholic Mass, something my father would no doubt have objected to, if she’d asked, which I’m sure she didn’t. Sermons were deadly boring, but I was mesmerized by the aesthetics and the ritual of Catholicism. Even as a little girl I was the kind of femme who loved baseball and pink satin equally, and all that velvet and gold brocade, the candles and goblets and incense made me swoon. I wanted the outfits for my dress-up trunk, to take that wafer in my unbaptized mouth, to wear the miniature wedding dress for my confirmation. But most of all, I was drawn to confession.
I longed to enter that slim, beautiful cell—like a coffin for my secrets—and spill it to whomever was on the other side. I didn’t think of the priest; I didn’t even think of God, for I knew no god. But how I wanted to pray. I imagined entering that narrow door and leaving something in the darkness that would render me changed. I did not feel guilty of anything, per se, but if penance was the price of unburdening, I would pay. I did feel burdened. How I wanted to know myself infinitely lovable, to be bathed in the relief of a divine love. In the years that followed, I sought this in many ways, and some of them ultimately became the very things I wanted to confess.
The word confession has been traced back to a Latin root meaning “to acknowledge.” The aspects of guilt and repentance were added later. I had plenty to acknowledge. The unspoken parts of experience: the lonely, the existential, the erotic—how was I to know they weren’t mine alone? These don’t seem now like things to feel guilty of, or to disavow, but I didn’t know that as a child. How hard it can be to differentiate the unspoken from the unspeakable. I was a sensitive and secretive child, as many are, and that is a lonely condition.
It might be more useful to think of that other definition of redemption. Instead of a deliverance from sin, a buying back—a return of another kind. If I brought my burdens, my unspoken and perhaps unspeakable thoughts and deeds, maybe I could exchange them for the mercy of acceptance.
You wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that when my parents first offered me therapy at ten that I took to it eagerly, but I didn’t. That took a few more years. At ten, I didn’t want to talk to a stranger. I had already found my confessional.
I remember sitting at the wood desk in my bedroom, writing poems in a thin green ledger meant, I think, for accounting. I was already an obsessive list maker and loved the orderly geometry of lined paper. An empty notebook was a promise. A stack of empty notebooks? Insurance that whatever amount of language might fit inside of each lean binding—that same amount of what filled me—could be organized into straight lines, packed onto a train of sense or story that moved inexorably in a single direction. Whatever chaos existed in the abstract, it could not help but submit to the perfect blue lines of a page. Secretive people are often diarists, I’ve noticed. Even to write unspoken words multiplies them, and somehow makes us less alone.
I used notebooks as diaries from a young age, but also when I wrote stories and poems, clumsy emulations of the books I read. Even the most fabricated of these helped quell the tumult inside me. I read madly, obsessively, an eclectic assortment of literary and young adult fiction, horror and romance novels, psychology books, and poetry. These escapes made my childhood bearable. Not because I had a difficult childhood, but because childhood is difficult: powerlessness assured, trauma unavoidable, consciousness a weird and indefinable burden that we have no way of contextualizing.
The relief of narrative immersion, the power of externalizing and naming my own experience, the pleasures of language and creation—there was no hierarchy between these; I valued and often experienced them as one. It makes perfect sense to me that they became so central to my self-conception and to my life, even at that young age.
My vocabulary was bizarrely ornate for a child, largely as a result of my feverish and far-flung reading habits. I remember being complimented on a poem I’d written in fourth grade and likely began calling myself a writer around the same time. I occasionally wonder what the adults and other children thought of me, this child who called herself a writer, who, when asked what she was going to do when she grew up, often simply said “live in New York City.” Probably, my hubris and precocity were either charming or obnoxious, depending on the audience. In the far reaches of her basement and attic, my mother still finds creased folders of poems and stories written in my penciled cursive, little books with hand-glued or stitched bindings with my name on their covers.
The first story I learned about writing was that of the agonized writer. There is a robust narrative of this in American culture at large, though I came to it through the words of writers themselves. At a young age, I read the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, and at least knew of Virginia Woolf.
I remember having a copy of Anne Sexton’s collection, Live or Die when I was twelve or thirteen. When I look at the book now, I marvel at my child-self and her ability to connect with Sexton’s unsettling lyrics. I was not suicidal, but I already knew other kinds of “almost unnameable lust,” and felt immediate relief at her articulations of interiority, depression, and desire—the things no one seemed to talk about. “I was tired of being a woman,” Sexton admits in that book. My body had only just developed, but like her, already “I was tired of the gender of things.”
I loved stories of addiction, sexual mavericks, and madness, like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Bell Jar, Tristessa, The Basketball Diaries, and A Spy in the House of Love. In daydreams, I imagined myself sometimes as the architect of such stories, sometimes as a character in them. I am surprised that I took as long as I did to realize that I could be both.
In books, I found an archetype that could hold my own sadness, the loneliness of consciousness and the implicit knowledge of its furthest extremes, that could even make it romantic.
1 The role of writer was the first that suggested a way for me to fit into society, to be valued and legible to others if I were to be consumed by my least nameable hungers, as I feared. Poets were the first people I found who named those absurd, ugly, unbearable, and ecstatic parts of being human. They are often better named by lyric means.
It is from poets like Plath and Sexton that we have gotten our most contemporary understanding of the word confessional, its maudlin connotation. People have always liked to read so-called confessional work, and they have often liked to denigrate it as well. It was a popular style, then it wasn’t, then it was again.
The divulgences of the poets helped me decide that I wanted to be a writer very young because writer was the only role I could see myself occupying in society, the only one that might hold everything that I was: queer, overly emotional, burdensomely perceptive, reluctant to do any kind of work whose purpose was opaque to me, ravenous in ways that made me an outlier. It was an occupation that seemed to offer respite and relief, but also was connected to the sublime—it offered the gift of self-forgetting, a transcendence on the other side of which lay insight. I did not think to compare this with any description of religious experience because I had not read any. Now, it seems obvious.
I experienced the urge to write, in the words of William James, “not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather.” James was referring to the sincerely religious, not the child diarist, though it was with religious enthusiasm, a kind of fanaticism, that I took to writing.
When I got sober in my early twenties, I spent some time making a study of different religions with an eye to one that might suit me. I went to a Quaker meeting, a Unitarian Universalist service, attended a Zen center, and read a lot of books I found in the spirituality section of the bookstore. What I found was never persuasive or appealing enough to convert me—I remain someone who identifies as spiritual but not religious—but I did look into the practices of confession and found that, the costume and set design notwithstanding, it was not the Catholic tradition of repentance but the Jewish one that appealed to me most.
The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides writes in depth about the process of repentance in the Mishneh Torah. Teshuvah, the Hebrew word for this process, translates to “returning.” He outlines it in three phases: stopping the action and resolving to change; relating to the past; and the act of confessing. When delineating this first step, Maimonides cites Isaiah, which reads (from the King James Bible): “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” To stop a wayward behavior, Maimonides claims, one must begin from this internal resolution, a determined will. The philosopher emphasizes the change in the confessor’s heart over the mercy of God. The whole set of actions that follows depends upon the forgiveness and acceptance of God, but that acceptance is assumed, if the confessor begins from this change of heart.
My first attempt at nonfiction, after years of writing fiction, became a chapter near the end of my first book. When a professor of mine in graduate school told us to write a short memoir, I wrote about the first memory that came to mind. I did not think then about the irony of the fact that the first transparently autobiographical text I ever wrote was an account of an experience of which I had never spoken to anyone.
About two years into my tenure as a pro-domme, men paid to dominate me. My job had, until then, consisted entirely of me dominating them, which was easier to situate with my politics, however ultimately irrelevant they were. Not so, the times I fell on my knees, crawled, begged, and submitted to lashings both verbal and physical. I did not know why I had done this. My feelings about these experiences were a medley of disgust, satisfaction, pride, shame, and confusion. My motives had been erotic, yes, but not only.
I don’t believe in memory as a kind of jukebox that randomly selects cuts from the past to play. Nor do I believe that our memories are all manipulated into fantasies, though they are a pliable material. I suspect that everything we remember has symbolic meaning, is redelivered to us as a suggestion, a lesson, a reminder, or else perhaps a haunting, a ghost consigned to the human realm until it completes some bit of unfinished business. Such was the case with this memory.
We associate the word regret with a wish to undo or to not have done, but its origin is in the French word for “looking back with longing or distress, at something done or undone.” It is less focused, less oriented to guilt than to disorder.
My longing to return to the past was a question: why? And perhaps also: who? I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions. I knew that kink was nothing to be ashamed of, but my self-conception was not that of a submissive, and for me at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame. Unsurprisingly, I was obsessed with control in those days, though of course I didn’t know it.
When I sat down and described the surprising pleasure of physical humiliation for the first time, I had recently undergone what Maimonides might have called a change of heart. I was still taking a session here and there, reluctant to let go of my favorites, and my best-paying private clients, but I had pivoted in my life and stepped toward a new course. I was sober, and had finally faced the ways that my work as a domme chafed against my shifting values. I wanted to grow beyond the persona I’d inhabited as a domme and an addict—not because of what those identities meant to society at large but because of what they had meant to me, the ways they’d constrained my perceptions of everything. As soon as I clarified that intention, my story stepped forward, demanding to be told.
There is a conventional wisdom about memoir that claims a writer must have sufficient hindsight in order to write meaningfully about her past. This was neither my experience then nor has it been since. All that has been required of me to write about something is this change of heart. A shift toward, or away, or perhaps a desire to return to some truer version of myself. I don’t even have to know that I’ve made it, but when I look back at the beginnings of everything I’ve ever written, there it is.
I recently reread Natasha Trethewey’s exquisite memoir, Memorial Drive, in which she explores her mother’s murder by an abusive ex-husband in 1985. After the murder, the nineteen-year-old Trethewey willfully chose to walk away from the site of that trauma and did not fully face it, it seems, until writing this book. In it, she reflects on her choice to move back to Atlanta sixteen years after her mother’s death, when she and her husband bought a house just a few miles from the site of the murder. At the time, she had no conscious intention to confront the past. Of course, a confrontation with it was inevitable. “All those years I thought that I had been running away from my past I had, in fact, been working my way steadily back to it,” she writes. In this articulation, I recognized a familiar shift, a psychic (and physical) movement toward a subject before we know consciously what that deeper part of us has chosen.
These changes of heart have manifested for me in many different ways, rarely recognizable at the time that they happen. Often it is signified by an urge to write. This is one of the ways that craft and what I have often called instinct interacts with psychology. Here, I will call it inspiration, a sister to the word spirit, both of whose origins mean to breathe into or animate with an idea, and also the essential nature or character of something. Inspire—an apt word for the change of heart that precedes a return. Also, the beginning of art.
Another example: In the spring of 2013, I was in the grip of a torturous, addictive relationship. I had made a person my higher power, and all who have done so know this torment. It was a form of worship that held me in bondage, as all obsessions do. I thought of her all day and night and would have sacrificed almost anything to secure her love, or rather, to stabilize the quaking insecurity of our attachment. I ended up sacrificing quite a lot by the end of it. Though I had not been much of a crier since childhood, I cried so often that the skin around my eyes had begun to peel in dusty flakes.
One evening, near the end of a long and terrible cry—unsatisfying as all my cries were in those days, I had a flash of inspiration: I would write the story of this, and that story would be called “Abandon Me.” I found an index card, scrawled the title on it, and tacked the card to my kitchen wall. No title had ever come to me like this, and none have since. It felt so clear and so certain, I understand why the Greeks assigned such moments to the will of powers beyond the self.
But it was not a gift from any muse. It was an act of resilience, the result of all the ways that art had rescued me in the past. It was an intention, a decision that arose from deeper than my conscious mind, a wish, a prayer—sometimes these can all be synonyms. It was a shift of heart, as embedded in that urge was the desire to leave her, to free myself, because I could not tell that story correctly without doing so.
There the card stayed without addition for the better part of a year in which I continued crying and wrote a small handful of essays. These essays were unlike any I had written before. They depended less on narrative than a lyric sense. Sunk deep inside the experience I was attempting to describe, I had no perspective. I did not have access to a narrative except the one my lover and I colluded in, which seems increasingly far-fetched the further away from it I get.
There was relief in the meticulous process of massaging these sentences out of myself. I was writing about my affair and my feelings, but, at least while I was writing, I didn’t have to feel them the same way. It has been like this since childhood. An analytical part of me takes over when I write and creates a distance between me and the subject, and in that space, I have always been able to breathe. Like a cracked door through which the cold creeps, so did the truth begin to seep into me.
I would stare up at that index card multiple times per day. It comforted me, like a superstitious tapping of the newel post each time one descends a staircase. Though I never thought this in words, it reminded me that there was a way out, that there was a way to make my suffering useful. Beautiful, even. I had only a foggy idea of what the book it referred to might consist of. I had no idea that I was already writing it.
What I have described is a creative experience, a moment of inspiration, and isn’t it also a spiritual one? The decision to transform my suffering into art related to my spirit, certainly—for my essential nature and its expression had changed in that relationship such that the people who had known me longest said in nearly identical ways afterward, “you were gone.” That index card signified my spirit’s rebellion, the assertion of my nature as it had existed before her and would after. It was the spoon with which I would tunnel my way out.
The decision also related to my religious belief—I worshipped that woman more fervently than many have their deities, and embedded in my decision to write about our relationship was the intention to abandon that worship. My art will tolerate no false god. My older faith was in the power of telling my own story, which had demanded truth so many times before and thus transformed me. It was a gospel with the power to cure.
From Pierre Janet’s 1889 delineation of the stages of recovery from hysteria, to groundbreaking studies of veterans with combat trauma, to the consensus of many therapists who work with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the progression of trauma recovery often takes a recognizable shape. It is frequently described as a continuum of healing comprised by three approximate phases: the establishment of safety, constructing or completing the narrative of the trauma, and the return to social life.
The first phase is crucial. All forms of trauma—from intergenerational or historical traumas to those of illness, mental and physical abuse, and the many wrought by war—share the quality of disempowerment. No productive therapeutic work can be done until the traumatized patient understands that she has recouped some sense of her own agency. An integral part of achieving this is acknowledging in some form that the traumatic event(s) occurred. This happens cognitively, through the verbal articulation of the present, and perhaps even more importantly, in the body.
Peter Levine, who first developed somatic experiencing, a body-oriented approach to trauma therapy, describes it as one in which “you initiate your own healing by re-integrating lost or fragmented portions of your essential self. In order to accomplish this task, you need a strong desire to become whole again.” That desire to become whole is a necessary starting point from which to establish stable ground for healing work.
An understanding of the safety necessary to confront trauma partially undergirds the advice to write memoir with a substantial temporal distance from the experience. So much of what we memoirists write about qualifies as trauma; it is sound advice. Sometimes the art is first an art of patience. If we try to write the story of our trauma before we have established a certain degree of psychological and physical safety, we risk doing ourselves more harm. Think of the rape victim, retraumatized by having to repeat her story in its immediate aftermath to an audience of strangers.
And what of the experience that lies in the realm of the traumatic but is of the more ordinary variety, or is complicated by the fact that its victim is also its perpetrator? Addictions, for instance. We often describe the compulsions that disempower us as though they were autonomous characters—the eating disorder or heroin dependency that whispers persuasively in our ear as our bodies disintegrate. These forces are as much a part of us as the selves we wish to return to, or to become in our recovery.
I wrote about my addiction to drugs before I stopped doing them, yet I did not have access to a perspective that could yield insight about the experience until I stopped. Something also needed to shift in order for me to write about the relationship at the center of Abandon Me, though I didn’t need to establish abstinence or safety in the same way. There was an external force in the situation, i.e., my lover. But my greatest obstacle was still internal. Therefore, the experience didn’t need to end for me to recoup some sense of my own agency. Empowerment often begins more subtly, with only a narrow ledge inside ourselves wide enough to hold a crumb of resistance. The “strong desire to become whole again” can occur from the inside of experience and is itself a realm of safety, however small and strobing. I now understand that moment when I pushed the tack into the wall, pinning my future book’s title like a neon sign flashing here, as a change of course and a change of heart, a beacon announcing a safe location to confront the truth.
One last example. Until the age of thirty-five, I had given a glancing treatment to the hardships of my girlhood in almost everything I’d written. They crept into my writing over and over, though I never devoted anything expressly to them: the harassment in middle school when I developed early; my consenting to countless sexual interactions about which I felt ambivalent at best, including an early one with a neighborhood bully who had spat on me repeatedly; and my adolescent rebellion. My familiar understanding of these events was that they were no big deal. Shitty, indeed, but a far cry from traumatizing. I thought that my rebellion at twelve had been unwarranted; I had a loving family, after all. It was not lost on me that my behavior tracked over a lifetime mapped disturbingly close to that of someone who had been traumatized, but I told myself (and anyone else who ever pointed it out) that those were merely the symptoms of genetic addiction from which I was thankfully in recovery. 2
It is true that I have the mental, spiritual, and physical disease of addiction, and also that this story I told myself was a rationalization, an exploitation of one pathology to obscure the existence of another. Which is to say, a form of denial. I could not look at those experiences or that time in my life with any true depth until I faced the truth of them, or at least became interested in that project. Until I had that particular “strong desire to become whole again.”
My first step toward a retelling of that time was an essay about spitting, how it was my favorite thing to do to my clients as a domme. Can you see where that led? Reflecting on this timeline of relation to my past, I think of D. W. Winnicott’s words: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” I wrote my way into a memory of that neighborhood bully, how I’d worshipped him and how he’d abused me. Abuse, a word I’ve spent tremendous effort to avoid. Suddenly, there was no getting around it. Something had shifted, and I was ready to look at all that had happened and what it had actually meant. That essay became the first in my third book, Girlhood.
It is important for me to be clear: not every memoir tells the story of a trauma. Just as no serious trauma will be completely healed by writing a memoir on the subject. My juxtaposition of these two processes is an analogical exercise, not one of equation. There is plenty of crossover—trauma in memoir, healing through writing. But they are vastly different undertakings. It might be easy to confuse or conflate these processes, so profound are their symmetries.
Which brings me to the second phase of trauma recovery, and the primary work of it: to tell the story. Judith Herman writes: “This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story.” As anyone who has recovered from trauma knows, this is slow and ambitious work. Hurrying it will only incur symptoms that, in addition to the risk of retraumatizing the survivor, inhibit the work of reconstructing the trauma narrative. “Moving slowly and allowing the experience to unfold at each step allows us to digest the unassimilated aspects of the traumatic experience at a rate we are able to tolerate,” explains Peter Levine.
Like the trauma survivor, the memoirist cannot hurry her process without impeding it. She must be awake in the telling. A detached reiteration of a detached experience can provide neither insight nor healing. Over a century ago, Breuer and Freud wrote in Studies on Hysteria that “recollection without affect almost invariably produces no result.” This is true of both literary and therapeutic storytelling. I have read memoirs that unfold with the texture of unprocessed traumatic memory. The prose in such a book may be technically astute, but it is also repetitive and opaque. As Herman observes, often “it does not develop or progress in time, and it does not reveal the storyteller’s feelings or interpretation of events.” There is literary work that intends to represent this state of mind, which is distinct from work that involuntarily reflects the mind of its author, and can access only this fragmented impression of the traumatic experience.
I have often described writing as a diorama that I populate not only with my accessible memories but also the memories that I must recover in order to tell the complete story, memories of details, emotions, and sensations that I did not have access to during the events, because my priority was to survive them with a minimum of suffering. Sometimes I was on drugs, or escaped into a preferable fantasy, but more often than not it was a mechanism that engaged without my awareness.
The clinical term for going numb to certain parts of experience as a tactic of psychic self-preservation is dissociation. Not all forms of detachment from experience are dissociative, but they serve the same function: to avoid the discomfort of an experience we feel powerless to interrupt. The detachment that I have experienced from intimate physical acts that I have consented to but did not enjoy is not the same as that experienced by someone in a violent highway collision, or a rape victim, or even the deadening experienced by the worker who is submitted to decades of grueling and repetitive labor. But these are analogous. The writers of all these stories must perform a careful and often painful recovery of the memories of those exiled sensations. Just as the trauma survivor must do to the tell the story on which her recovery depends.
For the trauma survivor, this storytelling must also happen corporeally. Trauma is described in many ways as an interrupted experience not only in the mind but also, and perhaps even more profoundly, in the body and its systems. Healing depends upon what therapists who practice somatic experiencing call biological completion. Resmaa Menakem, in his groundbreaking book on healing racialized trauma, My Grandmother’s Hands, refers to it as “completing the action.” The survivor tells the story of their trauma in the body, often without speaking at all, slowly reconstructing the neural progression of the traumatic experience so that it can reach a conclusion. Shamanic practitioners sometimes call this process soul retrieval, and the term feels more accurate to me than any clinical language, which by definition excludes the spiritual nature of healing. The essential nature of self that we recover and transform by healing, by revising and completing the story of the past, is often more completely described by spiritual terminology.
The second phase of repentance according to Maimonides is “a relation to the past . . . reform itself is not returning.” That is, in order to return, the confessor must tell the story of their wrongs. As for the memoirist and the survivor, for the repentant, “the past recollected is painful, indeed, may make one sorrowful.” A return to God requires a return to the past, a reckoning with what is most unresolved in her, and with her own responsibility.
Seven hundred years after Maimonides, another philosopher, Hermann Cohen, writes of confession as the process of “re-cognizing” that the confessor is the maker of his own guilt. Cohen argues for the inadvertent nature of all wrongs, and so it is only upon reflection that agency is taken and complicity understood. As Robert Gibbs explains in his book Why Ethics?: “Returning is learning to know yourself again, to find your own agency in the actions that you have committed.”
Replace the word returning with writing, and you have a sentence that could confidently be uttered by anyone who has authored a memoir: “Writing is learning to know yourself again, to find your own agency in the actions that you have committed.” It could likewise be revised by any survivor who has reconstructed her story: “Recovering is learning to know yourself again, to find your own agency in the actions that have been committed.”
Reading Gibbs’s words for the first time, I thought of AA’s Fourth Step, when the sober person writes an exhaustive inventory of themselves, which can include everything from sins to resentments and is, inevitably, also a kind of autobiography. Many newly sober people expect to reflect on their own self-righteousness during this exercise, and many are surprised to find instead a humbling catalog of their own misdeeds.
“Only by re-cognizing my deed as my own can I hope to know myself as the author of my misdeeds” is an explication of Cohen’s philosophy, but it might just as easily have been lifted from AA’s Big Book, which was, like the whole program, powerfully informed by much older spiritual texts and practices.
In memoir, an honest and awake recollection and retrieval of the past can be similarly enlightening. It is, of course, not always about recognizing, like Cohen’s confessor, that we are the maker of our own suffering, though it always includes revelations about the nature of our role in the past. Often, it also yields insights into the roles others played in our story. Sometimes, it even reveals insight about the future.
In the summer of 2014, I spent a month at a residency writing the first draft of the title essay of Abandon Me. I was still in the relationship that I was writing about. I wanted the essay to fill in the gaps left between the previous essays I’d written. After my long days of writing, I would wander around the wooded property, trying to find a cell phone signal strong enough to allow me to continue arguing with my lover.
Two years in and I was still trying to make it work. I was still committed to the story we were telling: that our love was true, and that the agony of our dynamic was not evidence contesting that fact, but proving it. I intended the essay to articulate this story as a kind of hero’s journey, wherein my narrator surmounted the many obstacles on her course to happiness and claimed her trophy of true love.
By the final week of my stay, I had produced nearly one hundred pages of an essay that I had intended to be around forty. I could feel that I was closing in on the story’s final act, which I knew I could not complete until I had lived it. Part of my task in the remaining days of my residency was to make notes toward my expected ending. My lover was due to move across the country and into my apartment shortly thereafter—an event which would mark the culmination my desires over the previous two years. It would be a perfect happy ending for my essay.
The state of mind that I reach when I am deep in my work is a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting. It is a kind of animal state, singularly focused and unselfconscious. I am inside of an intelligence that is driven by instinct and imagination, that is utterly separate from the mind that thinks of emails and to-do lists and how others might see me. It has no allegiance to the story I’m committed to living. It is loyal only to the work to which it is applied. It is in this state that I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: its narrator would leave her lover.
What can I say about the strange manner in which I noted this fact, delivered by my creative intelligence, yet continued my course without interruption? Well, without perceptible interruption. That realization was a tear in the fabric of my own delusion that expedited its end. I believe now that I would have left her anyway, that such an ending was inevitable. But if I had not glimpsed my own certainty in the crystal ball of my work and suffered the cognitive dissonance that followed, it would have taken longer. I have learned from this and a lifetime of other examples that I am more loyal to the truth in my writing than I am to the truth in my life. As Adrienne Rich writes: “The unconscious wants truth, as the body does.”
This experience was a harbinger not only of the true ending to my book and the end of my relationship but of the work that would follow. Writing this, I think again of Trethewey’s return to the site of her mother’s murder. I, too, had thought that I was running away from a confrontation with the truth, but in writing that book, I had, in fact, been working my way steadily toward it.
After I lived and then wrote that ending, I had to go back and revise my hero’s journey. It was not true love that my hero had been fighting for, but a false story of it. She had been in a kind of bondage, and I first understood this bondage as the work of my lover. But when I revisited the past in my revision, I could see how I had collaborated with her in this project. I had worshipped her like a god both cruel and adoring. I had asked of her what only a god could provide. I had used her the way I had once used heroin and I had become just as powerless over my compulsion. It was only in locating this complicity that I could write a story worth reading. It was only by doing so that I could free myself from the past.
“Confessing makes me know myself,” writes Gibbs. “Knowing myself is an act of transforming myself.”
I often tell my students about the importance of authorial distance. The I of their narrator is not the I that writes the book. It is not the complex and fluctuating matrix that makes up their self or their personality or their identity. It is a personification of a single strand of these, the one that occupies their story of the past, which is also a single strand plucked from a larger matrix.
Successful narration of a memoir depends upon the careful interplay of the past I and the one in/of the present—whether it be explicit or implicit in the text. Self-knowledge, the insights unavailable in the past and acquired in the time since, are what give memoir its depth. It is not experience that qualifies a person to write a memoir but insight into experience, and the ability to tell a story of the past that contains both dimensions. That is, the past experience has been integrated into the larger narrative of the author’s life. For me, and I believe for most memoirists, the process of writing is also a process of comprehension, an examination of the past that yields new understanding.
There are many other elements of craft that make a work of art, of course, and these, too, have often been mediators in my process of comprehending experience. In those early essays of Abandon Me, I did not have access to the cognitive functions that could explicitly make sense of my situation. But through the lyric mode of my work, I could draw upon less conscious forms of sense-making. In the end, these portraits helped compose the larger picture of my narrative, thrown into relief by the more lucid accounts I wrote after I ended the relationship and began the more conscious process of retrieving myself.
As Gibbs explains, Cohen, too, is interested in the individual I:
It speaks, making its past known. Not the simple re-cognition of itself, but rather a re-citation of a past that is not itself, but is what it was, when it was ignorant, indeed when it was not. The confessing I is not a recursion of the self with itself (a simple recognition), but a radical return of the self to what it did not know as itself, through the speaking of ‘I,’ through the making known of its own relation to the past.
Beginning writers often fear the vulnerability of exposing their most intimate experiences and their past ignorance in published work. It is important to remember that most of us write our books alone. Memoirs begin as conversations with the self. Our first confessions must be to this internal witness. I test words for the unspoken in the privacy of the page for as long as I need to before another set of eyes ever sees it. By the time most books find their unknown readers, the transformation has already occurred. The writer’s relationship to the past is irrevocably changed. The writer is changed.
“To become anew, the old must not be . . . only re-cognized, but made known as now decisively past. The returner confesses that he is no longer what he was. He makes the past known in order to know himself as changed.”
You make the past known in order to know yourself as changed.
However, as the confessor cannot re-cognize her past without the knowledge of a loving god, nor the survivor construct and mourn the story of her trauma without a trusted witness, the writer also cannot complete her story without a conception of a loving audience. Despite all our worries about reception, perhaps no book is completed without a belief in a perfect reader, the person who most needs our story.
For this reason, I have related as much to Montaigne as Augustine. “As for me,” Montaigne writes, “I may desire in a general way to be different; I may . . . implore God to reform me completely and to pardon my natural weakness. But this I ought not to call repentance.” It is acceptance, rather, that is most transformative to the essayist. As John Sykes writes in God and Self in the Confessional Novel: “However strange Montaigne may appear to himself, he hopes by his honesty . . . to identify himself in the eyes of the reader with a general humanity, so that he and the reader are united in a bond of solidarity. . . . And in this way, he solves the puzzle of himself and comes to self-acceptance.”
The third phase of repentance is the act of confession. While the first two phases happen solely in the self, confession calls for a witness. God has known the sinner’s truth all along, has loved and accepted her without flaw, “but cannot witness the return until the returner calls for God to witness.”
Here is how I understand it: the confessor has always been loved but cannot be reassured of this until she confesses. I know so intimately how it feels to be loved and have not confessed. As Winnicott writes: “It is joy to be hidden and disaster not to be found.” This part is of the disaster. A secret is anathema to believing love is true, a kernel of promise that if the past is exposed, love will abandon her.
What a terrible predicament: to not know if love is conditional and yet to understand that the only way to find out is to risk losing it. I don’t know where everyone who takes that risk finds their faith, but I know where I have found it: first on the page, where I test those early words, groping for a way to say what I have tried to hide and hide from. Then, in the freedom I have found by being seen. Not by the reader, but by my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of my past and loving her clean. I need the idea of audience for this, but the first witness is never a stranger.
In an interview just after my first book was published, I quipped that I spent a portion of my adolescence “getting fingerbanged behind the mall.” I cringe now to even type these words, not because they are crude but rather because they are cruel. Because they evidence such ignorance. I had thought them witty at the time, albeit in a hard sort of way. The hardness was partly the point. Embedded in that choice was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness—the idea that lack of feeling signified mastery of it. It is true that there is a kind of social power in the pageantry of uncaring. It renders one less vulnerable to others. That protection can exact a steep price. I have since come to understand much greater powers.
The twelve-year-old who had been fingerbanged behind the mall was the same girl who had been spat upon by the neighbor she adored. Her body had developed early and she was in the midst of a year characterized by relentless sexual harassment at school, and the shocking change of her body’s meaning in the world—a confounding degradation publicized as a promotion. Her own desire, combined with social conditioning, made it impossible to deflect or refuse every sexual petition. She did not enjoy being fingerbanged behind the mall. She had only wanted to be kissed. She had followed the call of her own desire and unknowingly entered into a contract that promised more than she wanted to give.
In light of these facts, my quip to the interviewer seems spectacularly mean. But time and experience have softened me even to the instinct that prompted it. It was only my early attempt to manage the pain of that time, the bouquet of traumas that were not mitigated by their ordinariness and from which I had moved on but not truly recovered. By refusing to acknowledge their traumatic nature, I had been unable to integrate them fully.
It was only in writing the essays of Girlhood that I faced that story directly—the harassment, the many sexual experiences during which I felt like a ghost of myself, the estrangement from my loving parents, my inability to reconcile the sudden degradation of being a female-bodied person in the world—and the many ways its symptoms had played out in the years since, perpetuating their harm as imperceptibly as a crude, throwaway remark in an interview.
I could not have written that book without the many good therapists I’ve seen. I also could not have written it without believing in the reader who needed it. At the outset of the process, before I could muster much tenderness for my young self, I could love that invisible reader. I could feel her love in return. And as I wrote, her figure expanded and contracted until it matched the shape of my young heroine.
“In confession, one promises, before God, never to turn away again . . . Speaking itself seals the future, testifies against myself—binding me to not return to sin.”
This articulation of Robert Gibbs reminds me of the often-misquoted words of another philosopher, George Santayana, who wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps it can also be said that those who cannot speak (or write) of the past are condemned to regret it.
Confession is not only a cognitive act, though it is that. Franz Rosenzweig, another Jewish philosopher, writes: “The soul speaks, I have sinned, and does away with shame. In so speaking purely back into the past, it cleanses the present from the weakness of the past.”
I have rarely written of anything that did not carry some shame. As a writer, I trade almost exclusively in topics that I once believed unspeakable, that were unspoken. The urge to write them was as fervent as my urge to confess as a child, as the exquisite yearning I feel in response to certain kinds of music. I believe their impetus is the same: to speak and be seen, to confirm that I am lovable.
When I say that I have no regrets, it might sound arrogant. What I mean is that I have returned to the parts of my past that pained me and uncovered the aspects that I most wanted to avoid. I have grieved and I have taken responsibility. I have revised the story of my victimhood and my culpability. I have completed what was interrupted, what stuttered like a skipping record for decades. I have brought to it my questions, like some oracle, made myself a supplicant to the past, asked her what I could not when I was her, and told her what she could not tell herself. Through this process, I have become able to love her. I have done it all in writing, and that “performance of confessing,” as Gibbs explains, “has led to confessing being beloved.”
The final phase of trauma recovery is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life. The survivor has completed the narrative of her trauma, in body and mind, has regained some ability to trust, has undone the binds of shame. She is ready to step back into public view.
Often, this stage of recovery includes the realization that the survivor, as Judith Herman writes, “can transform the meaning of their personal tragedy by making it the basis for social action.” The survivor shares her experience publicly by becoming a lecturer or spokesperson, an activist, a person who tells the story of her assault on social media followed by the hashtag #MeToo.
“Survivors undertake to speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others,” Herman elaborates. “In doing so, they feel connected to a power larger than themselves.” Like the confessor, they perform another kind of return.
As memoirists, we, too, speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others. While I know that the person helped most of all is myself, part of my own healing has come from the hundreds of strangers who have written to me, claiming that I told their story too, and that reading it showed them that it was possible to tell.
The literature on trauma widely addresses the importance of commonality to the survivor’s recovery. So agreed upon is the healing power of shared experience that almost every trauma survivor can easily find a group of similar survivors with whom to bond and find mutual support.
Similarly, twelve-step programs insist that one of the essential ingredients in their effectiveness is the trust engendered by the shared nature of the recovering addicts’ experiences. That is, I could never speak of my most humiliating experiences—the things that brought me to my knees and for which I crawled—without believing there was someone who truly understood on the other end of my words.
After I had completed the personal portions of Girlhood, revisited the past, and redefined my relationship to that twelve-year-old girl, I began speaking to other women about their experiences of adolescent sexual harassment, empty consent, and the repercussions of those experiences in the years that followed. 3 I was not shocked by the similarities in our stories, but they made a very deep impression. There was a degree of catharsis, of relief, after those conversations that was different than any the writing alone had induced.
Those women were the first people to whom I’d literally spoken of these experiences, and they’d broken their own silences in return. I don’t know that I could call up all their names from memory right now, but in those intimate conversations, we came to love each other in a specific way that depends upon the trust of shared experience. The experience sealed the future, served as a testimony against my past relationship to those events. They cured me, in both senses of the word, and they prepared me for that more visible outward turning, toward an audience who had only existed thus far in theory.
Part of what ultimately and most conclusively resolves trauma is the recognizable public acknowledgment of it. Think of war monuments, or military awards for those injured in combat. Our society has been much quicker to acknowledge the traumas typically suffered by men. Rape victims do not get monuments in public spaces. They rarely even get legal justice.
In addition to the satisfaction of transforming her pain into something useful to others and connecting her to a power greater than herself, the social change a trauma survivor manifests can serve as a kind of monument.
A memoir is also a kind of monument, as the title of Trethewey’s memoir—Memorial Drive—suggests. A public manifestation of the writer’s story, like any monument, can carry tremendous political power. It can carry spiritual power. It is the proof not only that we have survived, that it is possible to survive such experiences, but that we can integrate them into our lives in ways that empower us, that make us more resilient and wise and connected—to ourselves, to others like us, and to all kinds of higher powers.
“This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose,” writes Trethewey. “Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than senseless.”
A few years ago, there was a pop song by Hozier that frequently played on the radio called “Take Me to Church.” After teaching a night class, I would be too exhausted to listen to podcasts or the dreadful news, and I’d scan the radio. It got so that I’d always stop for this song. It was a love song, and a kind of hymn. It was, of course, a beggin’-ass song. The only Heaven I'll be sent to / is when I'm alone with you, the singer claims. I was born sick, but I love it / Command me to be well / A-, Amen, Amen, Amen.
The song wrenched something in me so pure and hungry, it was a pleasure close to agony that approached the erotic. I felt it in my body. I was not in love at the time, but when I listened to that song, I felt like I was. The words evoke this as much as the music—the language of supplication, the plaintive call of the worshipful. It was the same feeling I’d known as a girl, the same I’d known in love, the same I’d felt in response to so many other songs. As I drove down the night highway, my heart surged and surged. I was, of course, on the brink of writing something that scared me.
I have worshipped people the way that others worship gods, have looked to humans and chemicals for the kind of love we can only expect from a divine source. Our culture encourages this. We think love will redeem us, and it will, but not that of any human lover and not that of any material substance. I have found a church in art, a form of work that is also a form of worship—it is a means of understanding myself, all my past selves, and all of you as beloved.
This is why I will never stop doing it, even if no publisher ever again wants to share the results. Ironically, this kind of investment in the process is a boon to those who seek publication. Tenacity is often cited as the most common characteristic of successful authors. Of the many talented people I’ve met—classmates, students, friends—many of them no longer write. 4 The ones who have kept doing so have made it central to their lives both external and internal. Writing is hard. It is not the most apparently useful kind of work to do in the world. Most of us are not out here saving any lives but our own, though its power to do that (at least in my case) is uncontestable. The older I get, the less convinced I am about most things, but this is one of the great facts of my life.
I cannot imagine nurturing a devotion to any practice more consistently than one which yields the reward of transformation, the assurance of lovability, and the eradication of regret. No professional ambition could possibly matter more than the freedom to return, again and again.
These are not perfect analogies. I don’t mean to claim that they are. My primary argument is that whatever the contemporary associations with memoir or personal narrative or confession or the therapeutic elements of making art, when we write this way, we are performing a process that predates those biases by centuries. I have felt its pull as far back as memory goes, and I believe that it goes back much, much further than that.
There are geometric shapes that recur in nature, the shapes on which it is most possible to build, known by carpenters and tides and insects alike. We, too—in our rituals of healing, creation, and repentance—are performing a pattern that has recurred at the center of human life as far back as it is recorded. Why should our idea of intrinsic nature be confined to the biological, and who says that the spiritual, the creative, and the psychological do not manifest biologically? We know that they do.
The psychological and the spiritual are two ways of describing what is often the same process of human transformation. These are just models for understanding, invented by humans. They aren’t the only ones I could use. 5 The spiral does not belong to the nautilus shell, unless it also belongs to the whirlpool, the hurricane, the galaxy, the double helix of DNA, the tendrils of a common vine. If there are golden ratios that govern the structures of our bodies and our world, then of course there must be such shapes among the less measurable aspects of existence.
As a child, I did not understand spiritual, cathartic, and aesthetic processes as discrete. I still don’t. It is through writing that I have come to know that for me they are inextricable. I am much more interested in what art is and can be than in what it is not. It is a form of worship, a medicine, a solitary and a social act. It is an ancient process through which I draw closer to my ancestors. On the page, I undergo a change of heart, I return to the past and make something new from it, I forgive myself and am freed from old harms, I return to love and am blessed with more than enough to give away. Every single thing I have created worth a damn has been a practice of love, healing, and redemption. I know this process to be divine.
Alcoholics Anonymous. 4th Edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Castro, Joy. Island of Bones. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer. Studies in Hysteria. Translated by Nicola Luckhurst. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.
Gibbs, Robert. Why Ethics? Signs of Responsibilities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Hozier. “Take Me to Church.” Hozier. Island Records, 2014.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.
Jefferson, Margo. Negroland. New York: Vintage, 2016.
King, Juliet L. Art Therapy, Trauma and Neuroscience: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. 1st Edition. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997.
Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. Roma, 1470.
Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.
Pennebaker, James W., Dario Paez, and Bernard Rimé, eds. Collective Memory of Political Events. New York: Psychology Press, 1997.
Rich, Adrienne. “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.” In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978, 185–194. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Sykes, John D., Jr. God and Self in the Confessional Novel. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Trethewey, Natasha. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. New York: Ecco, 2020.
1 It is important to clarify that the genre of the romantic mad lady writer is largely a white genre, and (however mixed my ethnic background) it was my whiteness that granted me access to this romantic packaging of my sadness. Margo Jefferson writes in Negroland that as a Black woman she was “denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance.”
2 Peter Levine describes in Waking the Tiger how oftentimes the only way to diagnose whether a trauma has taken place is by accounting for the reliable symptoms. For most of my life, I resisted the evidence that I had undergone trauma because my own conception of it was so narrow. When I finally wrote about my girlhood, it quickly became clear that it was, like most, a comprehensive series of traumas that had been disguised by their commonness. Being female in patriarchy, like being Black, Indigenous, AAPI, or any POC identity in a white supremacist, colonized nation like ours, is to intimately know myriad forms of trauma related to that systemic oppression throughout the course of our whole lives.
4 Mary Oliver wrote that “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” I seriously doubt that this is true, though the regret of such people does seem persistent and long-standing.