Progress, Thoreau wrote, is when we “unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before,” which is likely the most insight Thoreau ever had into the hostile state of female adolescence. Unlearning is what Girlhood is all about. Febos is a memoirist whose previous books, Abandon Me and Whip Smart, laid bare her history as a professional dominatrix, a writer, and a heroin addict. Girlhood, though, struck me as more of a treatise. It’s disquisitive and catalytic—it doesn’t demand change so much as expose certain injustices so starkly that you might feel you cannot abide them another minute.
When Febos was 11, a girl growing up on Cape Cod, her body began to change. “Before puberty,” she writes, “I moved through the world and toward other people without hesitance or self-consciousness.” But the metamorphosis of her physical self changed the way the world related to her. Her mother bought her a book, The What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls, which explained the hormonal changes but not, Febos writes, “why grown men in passing cars, to whom I had always been happily invisible, now leered at me.” Or why an older boy at her bus stop now repeatedly chased and spat at her, or why a 25-year-old man followed her into a bathroom. That event became a story passed around by Febos’s friends, one eventually reclaimed by Febos. In hindsight, Febos is an obvious victim, a child devoid of power. In her friends’ reading at the time, her new physicality was responsible for what happened, and something for which she deserved to be shamed. The scene exposes how insidiously childhood logic twists events into a kind of poisonous pretzel, infinite and self-perpetuating.
Read: ‘Big Mouth’ and the poisoning of teenage boys’ minds
This upside-down logic pervades the accounts of things Dulwich College boys are alleged to have done. At 13, one girl recalls, she went to a party with boys who encouraged the girls to take shots, even though they’d rarely had alcohol before. “Soon I was being pressured and essentially forced into giving one of them a blow job with my friend,” she writes. “We both reflect on this in horror now but at the time were labelled slags and felt we deserved it.” There is, and always has been, a trap within the bafflingly short virgin-whore continuum: Girls are shamed into doing things they don’t want to do and then shamed for doing them. Another girl, too drunk to consent to sex with the boy she says raped her, recalls how she later overheard him excoriating her to his friends for being too lazy to get on top. When I read this, I thought about the first season of Game of Thrones, and how Daenerys Targaryen compels her rapist to be nicer to her by essentially putting on a more exciting performance when he rapes her.
Untangling the lessons of girlhood from the cultural works that teach them to us is impossible; they are often our most committed teachers. Febos lucidly scrutinizes the movies that taught women to accept stalking as a gesture of devotion. In 2004, when she was in her 20s and living in Brooklyn, she was reading one night when she heard a male voice outside her bedroom window. “Pretty girl,” the voice said. “You touching yourself?” She froze; she pulsed with terror; she realized he couldn’t actually see through the window shade, which was drawn. That meant he’d been watching her long enough to know who she was. She wondered what she might have done in the past to catch his attention. “How brazenly uncareful I had been to stand naked in my own bedroom,” she thinks. “We all know,” Febos writes, with irony, “the ways women invite their victimization by walking after dark, wearing short skirts, or having big breasts. The pathology of victimhood would also claim that self-blaming and shame were my very ordinary attempt to explain what had happened to me, to assert control over it by assuming responsibility.”