The Bad Things We Have to Do to Be Good Girls

Melissa Faliveno's essay collection "Tomboyland" captures the ambiguity of working-class Midwestern queer coming of age

Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland: Essays is a debut collection that covers the concept of “genderqueer” along with the taste for a family spaghetti and meatballs recipe.

Along the way, tornadoes, tectonic plates, kink clubs, softball leagues, cozy B&Bs, and so much more captivate readers who haven’t had the good fortune to encounter Faliveno’s writing in Prairie Schooner, Midwestern Gothic, LUMINA, or Poets & Writers, where she was until recently the senior editor and producer/co-host of their podcast “Ampersand.” 

Faliveno, who has a BA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin/Madison and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, teaches writing at the latter when she is not rehearsing with her indie rock band, Self Help. She and I spoke about the many elements explored in Tomboyland, from control to class to being closeted. 

Bethanne Patrick: I think a lot of people might not realize when they see the title Tomboyland, that it’s also a book about socioeconomics, not just gender constructs. I think it’s very important in terms of control and choice in terms of what you talk about and what you don’t talk about. 

Melissa Faliveno: I think a lot of people sort of hold on to the elements of gender and sexuality in this book. I love that because it’s about that. But to me, this book is more about class than anything else. And so I’m really glad you picked up on that. I grew up in a place where we never talked about money. I didn’t know where we fit, where my family fit in terms of class. It’s not something I ever thought about because everybody was the same, where in my town, everybody was of the same sort of socioeconomically, working class to lower middle class.

And those are words that were never used. It wasn’t until I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to go to college, when people started using the term working class and used it to describe my family. I went to college and I was going to be learned, sophisticated, fancy, learn this life. I resisted where I came from when I left home as so many people do, especially if I think from small towns. But my parents, despite their so-called lack of education, encouraged me. They said if you want to be a writer, you can be a writer.

BP: At one point in the essay “Meat and Potatoes” you’re talking to your mother about being a vegetarian, and she says that she can’t make a similar decision because “If I think about it, then I have to look at my whole life.”

MF: I love that that line stuck out. When we had that conversation, it was one of those moments that a graduate teacher of mine refers to as “thresholds,” moments when you’re thinking about something and a kind of portal opens up, you’re standing on the ledge, there’s possibility.  Every other question in this book, I wanted it to stand for the things we ask ourselves and the things we refuse to ask ourselves, the stories we tell and the stories we don’t tell. 

BP: Your first essay in Tomboyland is “The Finger of God” about the power of tornadoes. You mention “tornado closets,” these little rooms that exist all over the Midwest where families are supposed to go when disaster looms—but otherwise, they’re just gathering places for detritus, old Christmas decorations and cleaning supplies. But there’s a lot of relief when you come out of that closet. Right? 

MF: Absolutely, a weight has been lifted. I guess I didn’t even realize for a really long time how much weight was on my shoulders because I was still in the closet in some ways. A lot of that is the internalization that I talk about in the book too. I’m in a relationship with a man, I don’t have to burden my parents with this because it’s not necessarily going to make sense to them. It’s not going to change anything. I always kind of had this understanding with myself that if and when I am in a relationship with a woman, I will tell them about my bisexuality. I just never even imagined having that conversation with them because it’s so complicated. You don’t just go to your Midwestern parents and say I’m genderqueer and I don’t really know what that means, so I don’t expect you to know what that means. You can keep calling me she/her, it’s fine! None of it really made any sense to me and none of it seemed necessary. 

But after the 2016 election something shifted in me and it became necessary for me to make sense of it. I think I started giving out a little more clues. I started talking about queerness on social media a little bit, knowing that my mom is sort of lurker on social media and well, she’s probably going to see this. If she has questions, she can ask. For a long time, I thought I could ignore it, though it doesn’t change the fundamentals of who I am. But at a certain point, things did change. Part of it is coming to terms with mortality in parents’ lives, part of it has to do with wanting them to know me as me, and then, a large part of it has to do with what my therapist calls your little t and Big T truths. And it feels better. I was never afraid they were going to disown me or anything. They’re very supportive and loving, in the best way they know how. 

BP: One of your lines is “Not every tomboy grows up to be queer. But a lot of us do.” 

MF: I know that a lot of it had to do with what I saw around me and, and how I sort of internalized the ways that boys were treated and the ways that girls were treated and. The interests that I’ve always had an interest the girls were supposed to have. And, and I just always had the interests of the boys. I was never into dolls, never did the things that my girl counterparts did. I think that part of it was just liking what I did and was doing, partaking in the activities that I wanted to partake in. 

You can’t tell me that I have to play with a Barbie. I will take her head off!

But I think that part of it was definitely pushing against this boundary that I felt when I was told to put my shirt on, when I was told that girls were supposed to like pink, or whatever. I remember feeling that resistance and feeling angry and feeling, even when I was very young. You can’t tell me that I have to play with a Barbie. I will take her head off! Which is problematic in its own way. 

BP: You have a powerful moment in the essay “Switch Hitter” where you realize that part of what’s going on is because you want to be a “good girl.” You were “programmed” to obey.

MF: We learn as girls, are taught as girls, to be good—but we are also expected to do things that are bad in order to gain approval. For example, I became a leader in Young Life, the Christian organizations, and so I was teaching kids a few years younger than I was not to do this or that, all the while doing this, that, and the other things so that I’d be cool with my peers. All the while thinking “I am a good girl. I am good.” 

I spent many years in an unhealthy dynamic of sleeping with inappropriate people, predominantly older married men. When I got into BDSM, I wanted so badly to please men. And that is what I was doing. I was trying to be wanted, to be loved and accepted. Which is what I was taught, as a girl, to strive for on my way to womanhood. To perform for, and please, men. 

BP: So you look at your whole life, then find that you really don’t want this. But on the other hand, are you doing this because you really want it, are you doing this because you are not actually looking at something you need in your life? 

MF: I don’t care what anyone does if it gives them real pleasure, but when you’re doing something because you aren’t looking at it, maybe you need to reconsider. Tomboyland is really about home and what it can mean.

BP: And that means you’re working into accepting everything about your origins and your life? 

MF: For a long time I felt my life as an adult was at odds with the place where I grew up; I found myself clinging to that description Midwesterner. When I moved to New York City for graduate school I felt the distinctions of class more acutely than I ever had; certainly than I had in Madison. I felt like such a yokel. And I still totally do sometimes, but this interesting something happened where I was no longer pushing against where I came from, but claiming it very fiercely. I don’t have to pass as an intellectual because I’m not. I went to college and I went to graduate school to be a writer, but I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I come from a place of emotional sort of connection to these things. 

BP: I have to ask, then, about a very emotional section of “Switch Hitter,” in which you talk about an unhealthy relationship you had with your high-school softball coach. 

MF: That was the hardest essay to write, and I almost cut it. But I realized this relationship to sports and athleticism and softball in particular is so important to both my origin story and my coming of age, in learning to inhabit my body in a different way. For a long time, I was trying to write around that element of the story, this coach who I was in love with, or infatuated with. It was such an important part of the story. I realized I couldn’t write the piece without writing that element because so much of what I did was to get his attention. I thought I would be loved by him, you know?

We learn are taught as girls to be good—but we are also expected to do things that are bad in order to gain approval.

It was such an important part of the story, because I think this is so true for so many girls. You live under the veil of that male gaze your whole young life. Even in situations where there isn’t abuse going on, that gaze is so powerful, and can be so debilitating. It took me a long time to understand how it colored every decision I made, all of my behaviors, and that led to a lot of problematic shit during my twenties. It took me a long time to break away from that gaze, to look back at it, to see it for what is was. For a long time, I blamed myself. I was the instigator, I told myself. The bad girl.

BP: What made you think you were “bad”?

MF: I was trying to seduce this teacher, I told myself. And then, as I slowly started to tell people this story, they were like: “Oh no no no. Your teacher was the one in the wrong.” Recently I was talking with my therapist about the story and she very gently said, yes, there’s a difference between abuse and dynamics that people get engaged in when they’re very young. She challenged me to inhabit the space where I could take agency, and I realized that I could not have done so in this case. 

This was a person I latched on to who sort of latched on to me. It was totally inappropriate. It wasn’t abuse, but it wasn’t healthy, either. As I said, I almost cut the essay, partly because I don’t want to hurt anybody. But I had to examine a power dynamic in which as an adolescent girl of 16, 17, 18 I believed I had power because of the way a man looked at me, and then realized I never had any power. It’s a complicated space to navigate.

BP: What was it like to re-navigate that complicated space, in order to write about it?

MF: I have huge gaps in my memory, and a lot of that I think is trauma. And a lot of that is alcohol abuse and the passage of time. But I started to wonder, as I was finishing this book, am I remembering this right? Is this true? Did I actually feel this way? Is this how it went down? And then this really miraculous thing happened a few weeks ago. My mom found all my journals and mailed them to me. And I was reading all of my journal, which is a mind fuck, but I was like, it was true. You know, I remember it as it was. And I was like, just being in this head space of this girl who was obsessed with this man and, and would do anything, you know, to get his attention and to want so desperately for him to love her. And thinking that that was love.

And that’s what it was, it was, you know, a 16-year-old girl who wasn’t getting the kind of attention that she needed from this impossible source. And so there was something to work toward and there was something to obsess over and there was something to like, a wish to conquer. I felt as if, if I can just get this, it will all be OK.

BP: In “Switch Hitter,” you also talk about waking up to your body, and it’s not in a sexual way necessarily. It’s more about an intimate way of learning to live with who you are, how you want to move and look, and appear and all of that. 

MF: That essay was about the difference between molding bodies, and using bodies for someone else, Then, transition into inhabiting our bodies for ourselves. For me, now, that means, getting strong for myself and lifting weights and being an athlete, but not to impress men, or to be accepted socially. In small Wisconsin towns, athletes are the gods. I was nobody until I was an athlete. I was a little nerd. And then I became an athlete in high school. I was a jock and I was an athlete and I was obsessed with being not just good, but perfect. 

It was not, then, about feeling good about myself. In fact, it was pretty problematic, my eating was problematic. My working out was problematic, and it was more about feeling in control. It took me a long time to reclaim my identity as an athlete, as an adult. As a strong human being. 

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