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Resetting ‘Girlhood’: Melissa Febos to discuss her essay collection with Kate Lebo at Auntie’s on Thursday

Melissa Febos’ essay collection, “Girlhood,” takes a hard look at the ugly side of growing up female, the pains of life and the practice of self-compassion. Going through puberty earlier than most, Febos sensed a deep and unsettling change in the way she was treated.

She quickly taught herself to blend in, but her success was short-lived. As she continued to grow up, she judged herself based on the perceptions of others. But in her 30s, she began to question the stories she had been told and retold herself, slowly realizing that the values she and her peers in girlhood had been taught were not ordered to furthering their own happiness.

“Girlhood” explores Febos’ attempt to reset those values. Febos will discuss “Girlhood” with friend and fellow author Kate Lebo (“The Book of Difficult Fruit”) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Auntie’s Bookstore. “I don’t think it’s ever a bad time to be talking about this,” Febos said.

Nothing about the subject matter, she said, confines her story to being told at a particular time, as the experiences she writes about have been common for so long. But, for her, now was the right time to tell it.

“Primarily, I’ve gotten to a place in life where I feel ready to really go back and revise and restore and construct a more accurate and detailed narrative of that time, to make sense of it and to do the work of undoing my own psychic conditioning,” she said.

Febos returned many times to her childhood journals taking material for a series of essays she began writing as early as 2012. But it would be years before she realized the essays fit together.

“My greatest forms of intelligence in life are beneath my conscious mind,” she said. “My thoughts throughout the day are really sort of circular and daft and worried.”

But focusing on the project’s structure allowed her to think critically about her past. Myth is a particularly exciting vehicle for that kind of work, she said.

“I like to take a familiar structure and to dig into it and sort of hollow it out and fill it with my own material and push into the less familiar corners of it and maybe try to discover a facet of it that feels new to me,” she said.

“It’s comforting to know that we still have the same flaws and the same weaknesses and tenderness … finding articulations of recognizable emotional experiences in places that have nothing to do with me. Feels really profoundly affirming.”

Febos hopes that readers will gain a similar comfort from reading her work.

“One of the most important things for me in everything that I write is that I am putting words to something that feels unspeakable or that people are afraid to talk about,” she said. “So, my hope for this book is really that it starts a conversation if only inside of a single reader.”

Febos’ other works include “Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life,” “Abandon Me” and other essays published in the Paris Review, the Believer, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Granta, Sewanee Review, Tin House, the Sun and the New York Times. Catapult will publish a collection of her essays on writing craft, “Body Work,” in 2022.

“Girlhood” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore.

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