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Melissa Febos | Longreads | excerpted from Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger | October 2019 | 13 minutes (3,398 words)
My father and I sat in near silence for the four-hour drive to western Massachusetts. The worst possible thing had happened: my father had read my diary. Now, my parents were sending me to summer camp for three weeks. Over the previous eighteen months, I had undergone a personality transformation. They had seen the outward signs — how my grades slipped and my once gregarious and sweet disposition now alternated between despondency, sulking, and fury. The diary revealed that this new me also lied and drank and spent as much time as possible in the company of bad influences and older boys who either believed that I really was sixteen or didn’t care that I was actually thirteen. I, too, was confounded by my transformation and so my diary offered a meticulous accounting of events with little reflection. When I imagined my father reading it, my mind blanched white hot, like an exposed negative. My body was brand new but felt singed around the edges, already ruined in some principal way.
As we neared the camp’s address, our station wagon trundled down a winding dirt road for what felt like an interminable length of time. I desperately wanted to escape my father’s company and also loathed the idea of spending the next three weeks at what I imagined would be a grisly tour of compulsory activities as boring as they were wholesome: hiking and campfires and trust falls into the arms of teens who swore they’d never let a cigarette soil their lips.
A bloodcurdling shriek interrupted the silence and startled me out of my sulk. A small band of teens hurtled out of the woods, barefoot in cut-off jeans and little else — their faces and bared skin emblazoned with streaks of paint. They screamed like feral creatures and descended upon the car. One jumped onto the hood, slapping the metal like an ape. Did I scream? It would have been a sensible reaction. A ghoulish face pressed against the passenger side window and growled, “Welcome to CAMP, CAMPER!!!” I recoiled, as fear and excitement spurted in my chest. The window might have been a mirror and I faced some wild and estranged part of my own psyche in its glass.
Ours was a regular town — on the big side, liberal in a suburban New England sort of way. That is, my neighbors mostly voted blue, but in the tourist economy of Cape Cod, both the rich minority and working-class majority skewed white and culturally conservative. With my Puerto Rican sea captain father and psychotherapist mother, we didn’t fit in. If our optics hadn’t set us apart, our politics still would have. As a kid in a stroller, I had marched for abortion rights and environmental protections. When I learned to read, I discovered that my mother had corrected all my fairy tale books with a Sharpie so that the female characters were responsible for more of the heroism. My bedtime lullabies were Holly Near songs and my first concert Sweet Honey in the Rock. By thirteen, I’d already won my first literary accolade: a poetry prize for girls from NOW, the National Organization for Women, whose local chapter meetings I had, until recently, attended with my mother and her friends.
The only thing I’d called myself longer than a writer was a feminist. But my feminism was my mother’s feminism, second-wave consciousness-raising feminism, Ms. magazine–reading feminism. I had no feminist friends my own age and already knew better than to use the word among my peers. Similarly, I knew that I was queer and that it wasn’t safe to admit that at school. I knew about the evils of capitalism and patriarchy and I still had a secret eating disorder. There seemed no way to reconcile these things. When puberty hit, how was I supposed to rebel?
I packed up my nascent political beliefs and shoplifted some skintight bodysuits. I soaked my bangs in Aqua Net and fried them in a curling iron. I lied about my age and let those older boys grope my precociously large breasts. A new heat urged me toward them, a small oven of desire I hadn’t known was in me. Their hands never failed to smother it. Still, the rumors spread at my middle school and soon the girls I’d known since kindergarten called me a slut. Boys who’d played baseball with me on teams coached by my father made crude gestures when I passed them in the hall. Of this torment, I told no one. Least of all my concerned parents. Outwardly, I barely reacted to any of the humiliations that had suddenly become so common, though I burned with self-hatred, as if I’d ingested a poison that was slowly blackening my insides.
At home, I locked the door of my room and let the floor become a cauldron of dirty clothes. When forbidden from sleeping over at my friends’ most unsupervised homes, I slammed the door and flung the small precious objects atop my dresser — a glass candle holder, a figurine of a deer — against the wall until they smashed. In discreet moments, I seethed with a particular kind of rage, as marked by shame as it was rebellion. To direct it at my parents was a small and unsatisfying release. I had never felt more alone.
This summer camp was not, as I’d feared, filled with campfires, canoes, and crudely woven friendship bracelets. This camp offered workshops like “existential crises on the back porch,” zine-making, and creative writing led by a Nick Cave lookalike named Dave, who gave us Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and said only one sentence all afternoon: “I hate white people.”
The camp director that year was a woman named Nadia. In her early twenties, Nadia was six feet tall in combat boots and overalls with a shaved head and arms emblazoned with tattoos. She stomped rather than walked and used the word fuck as though it were the interstitial glue that held all other words together. I hadn’t known that women like her existed, that her kind of beautiful was an option. When she looked down at me, though terrified, I felt more seen than I’d ever felt under another person’s gaze. I have since learned that recognizing the invisible parts of oneself in another person can feel like a radiant kind of love.
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I hadn’t known until then that there were other kids like me. That is, deeply thinking and feeling. Interested in art and politics. Misfits in the landscape of American normal. I’d never met young men who could talk about their feelings, let alone about the trouble with gender and sexism. Still, they didn’t hold a candle to the girls. The girls at camp wore holey jeans and cut the necks out of their T-shirts. They didn’t shave their armpits or flatter boys or cringe at the word feminism. Their anger didn’t manifest like an ingested poison, silently disabling them with symptoms like starvation or self-harm. It was more like a fire to which they were immune but could spread anywhere they touched, perhaps even me. I was a little in love with all of them, but especially Julia, with her pretty round face, that tiny mouth and nose, her cheeks smooth and delicately furred as an apricot. She was the only thirteen-year-old I’d ever met who was as committed to her future profession as I was to mine, though she planned on being an actor, not a writer. Once, after an uproarious laugh, her gravelly voice intoned, “I hear laughing burns five calories a minute. Am I skinny yet?”
I had met neither the irony nor the earnestness that I encountered at camp — it was the first time I’d ever seen anything that resembled my insides on anyone’s outsides. It was the first time I recognized what kind of teenager I wanted to be.
A lot of camp traditions embodied the combination of irony and earnestness. On Field Day, all the interested women played a game called Slaughter. We met in a field crowned by cherry trees and Nadia divided us into two teams: shirts and skins — which is to say shirts and bras, sports or otherwise. The object was to get a partially deflated soccer ball into the opposing team’s net. Everyone played on their hands and knees and there were no rules except to forbid serious injury, such as, no biting. Fundamentally, it was a freestyle wrestling activity complemented by some exuberant trash talking.
That year, it rained and as we knelt in the muddy field, hair plastered to our faces and necks, I quickly forgot to worry about how the wet T-shirt clung to my belly. I had always been athletic, but being a strong girl had stopped being a good thing and having big boobs had ruined the pleasure of running bases and swinging a bat. The self-forgetting that exertion required was not safe in the company of my peers back home. But at camp, we growled and yipped like hyenas, clamped each other’s torsos between our muddy thighs. I flung that ball into the net and raised my arms in victory. My new friends tackled me like jubilant puppies.
It was the strangest and most wholesome game I’d ever played and probably the most fun I’d ever had in my life. It wasn’t erotic, but it wasn’t not erotic either. It was through Slaughter that I first realized that the erotic need not be sexual. I was starved for touch and so bereft of any source that didn’t estrange me further from my own body that their rough and benevolent hands felt like medicine. Afterward, bruised and exhausted, I lay in my bunk, smiling to the dark. I glowed with a happiness that seemed to arise not from my mind but from my body. (Years later, in a different bunk, I would recognize it after I had my first orgasm with another person, a female fellow camper.) I hadn’t known that it was possible to feel strong and animal and close to other women, or that I could enjoy my body in ways that had nothing to do with men or what pleased them.
On the first day of camp, I had stared at the massive hand-painted calendar in the dining hall, at a square in the last week of camp. Co-ed Nude Beach, it read. I had told myself that it must be a joke. What summer camp would take its teens on a field trip to a co-ed nude beach? To any sort of nude beach? This summer camp, as it turned out. All campers could choose to stay at the clothed beach or move on to the gendered nude beaches or to the co-ed nude beach. When Julia asked which beach I planned on attending, I simply laughed. There was nothing I was less interested in than being seen naked.
In the days leading up to our trip to the reservoir (whose nude beach closed in 2002 when the local governing council voted in a public indecency ordinance), the staff led community conversations about the difference between nudity and sexuality. Before bed, in our cabins, we had group check-ins about body image and shame. By the time that day rolled around on the calendar, a miracle had taken place. I hesitantly signed up for the female nude beach.
It was a perfect day, the sun dappling the water as my friend and I lay in the sand, sharing headphones through which piped De La Soul’s recently released Buhloone Mindstate. Not even my own mother had seen me naked since my body had changed, but here we were: tits out, tampon strings trimmed, sunscreen everywhere. My heart pounded as I peeled off my swimsuit, but after a few minutes of curious looking, it felt shockingly normal. Bodies! How weird, but also entirely ordinary. I immediately understood that no one cared about my boobs even a fraction as much I did. What a relief it was.
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Shortly after settling on our towels, we noticed the canoe. It drifted close enough to shore for us to see that it was a man aboard and close enough for him to see us, which was obviously the point. As we began to wrap our towels around our bodies, Nadia strode across the sand, her long body rippling with muscles, breasts bouncing as she marched into the water.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she shouted at the interloper. If he responded, I didn’t hear it. “You need to GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW,” she bellowed. His paddle dipped into the water and he glided away hastily. Nadia stood and watched until he was a speck in the middle of the lake. As she waded back to shore, her pubic hair a glistening black diamond below her taut belly, my heart pounded.
“Goddamn fucking pervert men,” she cursed as she passed us, and then playfully shook a cascade of droplets from her shorn head onto our sunbaked shoulders. We squealed and laughed, giddy with nerves.
Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking of the way that Nadia had screamed at that man. There was no self-hatred in it, only the righteous fury of a woman who knows she is being wronged. It was the first time I’d ever seen a woman express such anger publicly. Nothing collapsed. No one shut her up. The man just went away. That she had been naked while she’d done it was the most unfathomable part. I couldn’t imagine a less empowered state than that of being seen nude. At thirteen, I believed in the sovereignty of women’s bodies, but abstractly. I did not feel free in my own body and freedom was not the experience I had known of it, especially in relation to men. But Nadia’s body could not have been mistaken for a liability in that moment. It had actually seemed fundamental to her power, the instrument of her power. For the rest of the day I replayed the scene over and over, thrilling silently to it like a song that names a feeling one thought unnamable.
I was so obsessed with music that I’d developed an unpleasant ear condition by wearing my Walkman headphones even while sleeping, but it had always been a private obsession. In rural Cape Cod, I didn’t have access to many streams of popular culture outside the mainstream. Camp was where I came to understand music as a cultural shorthand, a way to instantly recognize one’s people. In the pre-internet days of music listening, cassette tapes were passed among teenagers like contraband. It was at camp that I first heard the Pixies, Nina Simone, The Ramones, The Cure, and Ani DiFranco — whose albums I would spend months scouring the record store catalogs for until I realized I was misspelling her name.
Like Slaughter, Rock ’n’ Roll Day was yet another tradition that upended a typical camp activity; in this case, the talent show. All day, teenagers plugged in on a tiny outdoor stage and played covers of their favorite songs. In the years that followed, I would come to recognize that someone always played, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and someone else, “No Woman No Cry.” On the eve of my first, Julia handed me a cassette tape.
“What’s this?” I asked her.
“Bikini Kill. The song our band is going to play tomorrow.”
“Our band? Like, us? On stage?”
“Yeah. You need to memorize the lyrics. You’re the singer.”
I didn’t want to be a rock star, like some of the other campers did. I didn’t want to be a movie star, like Julia. I wanted to be a writer, not a performer. Still, I didn’t argue. For the next eight hours, I locked myself in the Rec Hall restroom and listened to Kathleen Hanna sing “Feels Blind.” I didn’t know who the woman bellowing the song was, but listening to her I felt like I had watching Nadia scream at that man. Like I had playing Slaughter. It sounded as though the singer had gathered up all the energy it required to hate oneself and disowned it, flung it outside of her in the form of this beautiful noise. I already knew that art was a way to articulate one’s loneliness, but I hadn’t known it was also a way to articulate anger. Or that the roiling energy inside a woman’s body could be used to express her rage instead of poisoning her.
Until I heard my own voice ricocheting off the tiled walls of that bathroom — what have you taught me, you’ve taught me fucking nothing — I hadn’t exactly known that I was angry. But those lyrics spewed from me like steam that had finally found an opening. I was furious. At my parents for getting divorced, at my father for reading my diary, at the boys who used my body and the girls who punished me for it, at myself for my own miserable innocence.
On that stage in my torn jeans and borrowed Death to the Pixies T-shirt, I was so nervous that my voice cracked as I murmured, All the doves that fly past my eyes / have a stickiness to their wings. I glanced across the stage at Julia in her torn slip and black lipstick. She nodded at me and I kept going — In the doorway of my demise I stand / encased in the whisper you taught me. I made it through the first chorus. Then, in the second verse, something happened. I heard my own voice yell into the microphone If you could see but were always taught / What you saw wasn’t fuckin real yeah and it was so loud and strong that I swelled inside, as if a space had been cleared and some bright light shone through me. After that I didn’t stutter and I didn’t have to look at Julia or the handful of dirty teenagers who watched us from the grass . I closed my eyes, brought my lips to the cool microphone, and it was better than any boy who’d ever touch me, better than the crack of a ball on the sweet spot, better than slamming a door or smashing something I loved against a wall. It was like carrying a hammer for my whole life and finally realizing what it was good for.
Almost twenty years later, I heard Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, explain how when she was a college student performing feminist spoken word, the writer Kathy Acker had told her that if she wanted her voice to be heard, she should start a band instead.
I didn’t want to start a band. But after camp, I started making my own feminist zine and distributed it around my school even after my nicest teacher suggested it might be a sign of mental unrest. I had decided to be a writer because it felt like the only thing I’d ever want to keep doing for the rest of my life. I had recognized it as a place where I could put my sadness, my thoughts, and create an archive of events that I didn’t yet comprehend. That was what I understood art to be. Bikini Kill taught me that it was also a place for my anger. That shame was sometimes just energy one had turned against oneself.
Camp didn’t fix me. It didn’t cure my eating disorder or prevent me from becoming a drug addict or stop me from handing my body over to people who believed its purpose was to please them. But I did ask my mother to help me find a lesbian therapist when I got home. I started telling people that I was queer and found the courage to kiss my best friend the next year. I memorized the Bikini Kill catalog and awoke to a feminist movement that was more mine than my mother’s.
I agreed with my teacher that I suffered from mental unrest, but not because anything was wrong with me. My anger was not a rash or an aberration or a failure of any kind. Like that of Bikini Kill or Nadia or Julia, my anger was a reasonable reaction to the experience of growing up in a country that hated women and encouraged women to hate each other. And my art was not only an appropriate public expression of it but a necessary one.
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Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart, and the essay collection, Abandon Me. She is the winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary, The Sarah Verdone Writing Award from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, The BAU Institute, The Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and others. Her work has recently appeared in Tin House, Granta, The Believer, The Sewanee Review, and The New York Times. Her third book, Girlhood, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021. She’s an associate professor and MFA director at Monmouth University and lives in Brooklyn.
Longreads Editors: Sari Botton and Katie Kosma
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Excerpted from Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger edited by Lilly Dancyger. Copyright © 2019. Available from Seal, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.