“You understand it to the point that it almost tears you to pieces”: Growing Up with Mary Gaitskill

As a teenager, Victoria Beale was drawn to Mary Gaitskill’s offbeat characters and virtuostic style; now rereading Gaitskill at twenty-five, Beale finds emotional complexity, exquisite precision, and compassion.

By Victoria BealeFebruary 3, 2015

“You understand it to the point that it almost tears you to pieces”: Growing Up with Mary Gaitskill

THE YEAR I turned 18 I read more books than I have at any time since. It was the year before I started university, so the list is populated with the kinds of authors I would talk about in my application essays — Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster. I had a file in which I dutifully kept pages of quotations, passages from To the Lighthouse and Howards End. I was still frantically memorizing from these notes the night before my university interview, alone and sleepless in a hotel room, as if I thought I could recite my way into an academic’s good graces.

Then there were the authors I read that year who weren’t on any syllabus I knew of. Noncanonical writers, and books, which I could more imagine belonged to me, as there hadn’t been decades of criticism produced about them already. Like Angela Carter and The Bloody Chamber, a collection of fairy tales reimagined as feminist erotica. Or Elizabeth Wurtzel and Prozac Nation, a bratty confessional of mental illness masquerading as a meditation about a country hooked on antidepressants. Or the collected columns, Sex and Sensibility, of a contrarian British journalist, Julie Burchill, who wrote acidly incisive articles about Graham Greene, or starting out as a music journalist when she was 15, or the decline of the English working class, and who had stopped being fashionable to read in the mid-’90s.

But the writer I was most infatuated with that year was Mary Gaitskill. I was taken with her characters — misfit women with troubling childhoods and often far stranger adult lives. Though what I was electrified by far more, as was the case with almost everything I read then, was the style and language. I was so struck by Gaitskill’s sentences that I wrote them out just to look at them, then reordered the lines into shoddy prose poems. There are recurring passages in her novel Veronica about a woman walking in a forest, and even the way Gaitskill wrote about trees fascinated me. She describes a character stepping over some dead oaks that are “blanched as old bones, dry even in the rain […]. The gray bark of the freshly dead is loose and cracked open; pale lacy whorls of fern cling to it in clumps, like tangled baby’s hair. Sensitive and perseverant, they cling to and comfort death.” Apparently these were the kinds of paragraphs that appealed to me in my last year of high school.

At that age I did appreciate novels for reasons other than style, at least part of me did. I could understand strength of emotion in novels, because I was full of adolescent squalls of feeling, even if I didn’t fully recognize their particular kind of adult hope and disappointment. But the sections I felt compelled to record were those passages that had a kind of disconnected elegance, that were just moments of beauty, often without a human element.

There’s a Michael Cunningham novel that I read around the same time as I was reading Gaitskill, A Home at the End of the World. The characters in the book negotiate the expectations and failings of parents, the building of unconventional relationships and substitute families, as well as surviving wrenching grief. Yet the passage I chose to document in my notebook at 18 was a scene near the beginning, a fireworks show: “A rocket shot straight up, pulling a thread of silver light in its wake, and at the top of its arc it bloomed purple, a blazing five pronged lily, each petal of which burst out with a blossom of its own.” I copied out the description of this display, skipping the surrounding sentences about the way the world appears to a child, and how the character, Jonathan, perceives his father. It was easier to separate out the paragraphs in novels that were the most showily beautiful, in the same way I hoarded museum postcards, or DVDs of foreign films, as badges of my invented sophistication.

In both my reading and viewing habits I privileged style over realism. I was besotted with a film adaptation I had seen of one of Gaitskill’s short stories, “Secretary.” The movie depicts a sadomasochistic relationship between a lawyer, played by James Spader, and his typist, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It is essentially a BDSM rom-com, with a soundtrack of Lizzie West and Leonard Cohen. After all the mysterious bruises have faded, Spader carries Gyllenhaal home in a wedding dress, and the implication is that they will live happily, kinkily, ever after.

While I found the movie dreamy and suggestive, Gaitskill, like Nabokov, her favorite author, was unnerved by this screen reworking of her writing. Both “Secretary” and Lolita are wry, beautifully wrought works of fiction with highly unsettling depictions of sexuality, and in film versions much of the darkness is expunged. Gaitskill’s initial analysis of the movie in interviews was cutting — it was “the Pretty Woman version, heavy on the charm (and a little too nice).” Her original story, which I read later, follows Debby, aimless and still living with her parents. After a depressing job search she eventually finds clerical work with a lawyer, and there are some strange, sadomasochistic scenes between them, but no relationship develops, and they barely have a conversation outside of work.

In the 2002 film, Debby’s name is changed to Lee, and it is made explicit that the reason she is still at her parents’ home is that she was recently hospitalized following a suicide attempt. Lee slashes her wrists with a kitchen knife, burns her thighs with a boiling kettle, and the film heavily pushes the narrative that the sadomasochism with her boss becomes a healthier version of her previous habits of cutting or burning herself, directly replacing it. Spader’s character, Edward Grey, in a scene prior to any sexual encounters, calls Lee into his office for a somewhat stilted advice session, and instructs her severely, “You will never cut yourself again.” Lee is instantly cured of her self-injuring urges, because, as the voice-over makes clear, Spader’s advice is issued as a command, so she obeys it completely. In the story, there is no self-harm plotline, and Debby is far more ambivalent about the lawyer’s advances, and his efforts to counsel her — she tolerates them, with puzzled passivity, but there is no euphoria or self-discovery, as in the film.

I understand now, far more than I did at 18, why Gaitskill had reason to be perturbed by what was done with her story. I am less convinced now by the film’s depiction of a sexuality that is so straightforwardly awakened, and that “cures” a serious mental illness — the healthiness, jubilance, and heteronormative conclusiveness of it all. The urge, even in movies with a supposed edge, to resolve any uncertainty. I also, on rereading her work, am puzzled by my preferences, by what when I was younger I seemed to find most inspiring — just as I question now what I wanted to write out then from the novels of Cunningham or Carter. What I was intent on recording in Gaitskill then were the very rare nature scenes, passages about rain or forests or abandoned playgrounds. I was looking for pastoral prettiness from an author who spends far more of her energy on urban anomie. While Gaitskill’s linguistic brilliance remains central to why I read her, I am interested now in her unsettling recurring tropes and complex, prickly characters.

As I reread Gaitskill now, seven years later, I am struck by her perceptiveness about success and failure. A frequent structure in her short stories is two friends reunited after a long separation, appraising each other for who has found greater professional and personal happiness. A man in “An Affair, Edited” meets an old girlfriend from college and smugly considers whether “it had embarrassed her to encounter him in a suit, obviously the holder of the better job. In college they had often discussed how one should deal with the world in order to become successful.” The story weaves back and forth between the present day and their shared time at college in Michigan, capturing the boundless optimism of college life, and then what comes afterward. “Everything was so important in Ann Arbor, so fraught with the tension held tight in the bud of fantasy before it bursts into gaily striped attempt.” What interests Gaitskill is the frenzy of the “attempt,” and the fallout when success is never realized.

In Gaitskill’s most recent 2009 story collection, Don’t Cry, there is an author character, Ella, in the story “Today I’m Yours” who recalls her first book — “I had spent five dreary years writing it in a tiny apartment […]. I forgot how to talk to people. […] [I] fantasized about the social identity that might be mine if the book were to succeed.” When the book is critically acclaimed, Ella finds herself overwhelmed: “Painful and complicated situations arose, and I lacked the skill to handle them with finesse.” Gaitskill’s own life gave her plenty of material on how success changes the way we are treated, as well as what is expected of us. Bad Behavior, her first book, was not published until she was 33.

It is perhaps clumsy to connect Gaitskill’s fiction and her biography, but she spoke in an interview with The Believer of a situation akin to Ella’s after Bad Behavior got a positive response:

One of the unnerving things that happened … was that I was actually a very shy person and very socially awkward, and suddenly I found myself in these very sophisticated social circles, which I was not used to, and people seemed to expect me to have this X-ray vision and to be coming up with these witty, snappy comments, and that’s not what I was like at all!

Many of Gaitskill’s characters are tough yet vulnerable women, intelligent and introverted, who feel out of step with life. It seems even after being accepted by the literary establishment, Gaitskill continued to identify herself more with those who feel out of place, uncertain and skeptical, who have yet to prove themselves.

Gaitskill narratives often begin in the moments just after a dream has been relinquished. A woman in the story “Connection” who wanted to be a writer in New York realizes she can’t maintain herself, and so shifts into editorial work, and to a magazine she feels is beneath her, in Chicago: “When she thought about the magazine, she despised it and considered herself a failure; when she didn’t think about it, she would catch herself enjoying the work and decide that it was where she belonged.” In her novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Justine Shade is a freelance journalist, but writes so few articles that she has to support herself with a dreary administrative job in a cardiologist’s office. Gaitskill unflinchingly dissects the ways in which we deceive ourselves as we hope or aspire. How self-deception, once abandoned, leaves a harsh, accurate understanding of reality that can corrode both an individual and their relationships, even more so than before. Reading these books in high school — before university graduation, before I had friends in a variety of jobs — some who are harried corporate lawyers, some idealistic high school teachers, others optimistically studying for MFAs — I didn’t quite appreciate the skill and dark mockery of Gaitskill’s social analysis. In her story “Other Factors,” one character assures another, both in their early twenties, “‘Don’t worry Connie. In fifteen years, I’ll be doing my retrospective at the Whitney and you’ll be publishing regularly in The New Yorker.’ He paused. ‘But by then we’ll be ugly.’”

Gaitskill is stark and realistic about relationships — how they begin, how they fail, and how true intimacy is at times an unbearable sensation. Her story “The Blanket” from the collection Because They Wanted To details the beginnings of an affair between a 24-year-old man and a 36-year-old woman. While one of the happier depictions of love in Gaitskill, there’s still an edge of hysteria even in the most apparently blissful moments.

When he held her that way, she felt so happy that it disturbed her. After he left, it would take her hours to fall asleep, and then when she woke up she would feel another onrush of agitated happiness, which was a lot like panic. She wished she could grab the happiness and mash it into a ball and hoard it and gloat over it, but she couldn’t. It just ran around all over the place, disrupting everything.

These vacillations between happiness and fear over starting a new relationship are far more real to me now. Even at 18 when my relationships were strange or unhealthy or unsettling, they were experiments, and the time I had to figure out what any of this meant seemed endless. I certainly had no sense of time passing like the character in “Kiss and Tell” has after a drunken hookup: “This would be cute, he thought, if they were anywhere between eighteen and twenty-five. But they were both over thirty; they had lines under their eyes, stains on their teeth, faces that more and more showed their essential confused mildness.” Such existentially tinged ambivalence is a feeling I can begin to comprehend now that I’m edging away from my mid-twenties, but was alien to me in my late teens.

Gaitskill scrutinizes long-term relationships for the fault lines and conflicts that develop. In her short story “Comfort,” a man, Daniel, finds out that his mother has been in a serious but nonfatal car crash. As he travels to Iowa, visits the hospital, stays with his brother, he has a series of fraught phone conversations with his girlfriend, Jacquie, back in San Francisco. He becomes more and more convinced of her essential selfishness, while she is puzzled at his aggression. Eventually he returns, and they reconcile, but Gaitskill leaves the encounter on an uncertain note: “her face, half turned away from him, was strained, diminished, and searching for something that he didn’t know, something that had nothing to do with him, nothing at all.” Gaitskill perfectly captures the way that an argument between a couple can have no clear resolution, even when both have outwardly agreed that the issue is resolved: even after years together your partner remains strange, fundamentally unknowable.

Many books I read as a teenager — Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson — would present the quiet, tortured girl as the undisputed moral center of the book, a kind of martyr who saw the world clear-eyed. However, misfits, introverts, “the quiet ones” are not lionized in Gaitskill as inherently superior to the popular set, those with social ease. In Gaitskill, those who are the victims can easily turn — when they gain power, they have no more mercy than those who might have previously ignored or tormented them.

Justine Shade is abused as a five-year-old by a friend of her father’s. Later, as an 11-year-old, she plays a sadistic kind of game with a school friend. But the scene is not written in a way that engenders pity for Justine as a victim, playing out what she has been shown too young. Justine is cruel, and her cruelty is her own invention. When she looks at her friend Rose, she is “irritated” by her, she wants to “shove or slap” her. She coaxes her into a sexual game in the basement bathroom, and her reaction is complicated and harsh.

She was incredulous at Rose’s docility; every cajolement or command elicited another trembling surrender, and every surrender filled Justine with a boiling greed that pushed her further into the violation […]. [S]he felt her personality filling the room like a gorging swine.

Justine is a victim, there is no question, but she doesn’t merely inhabit that role, she can also be the aggressor. This complexity was refreshing in its honesty and perceptiveness about the shifting of human nature, the potential for callousness on a whim. I think even at 18 I did recognize with a shiver the accuracy of this grim moment, being closer at the time to the sadistic games children play. Justine is also a sly reference to the novella by the Marquis de Sade, whose writing influenced Gaitskill’s sensibility.

In Gaitskill’s essay on Linda Lovelace in the 2014 anthology Icon, she considers Lovelace’s journey: from the girl in Deep Throat with a“sweet smile and […] strange expression in her eyes” to someone “being raped” in her most notable movie. As in her fiction, Gaitskill rejects the simple categorizing of victim or willing participant. She is scornful of the “candy-colored, feel-good” adaptation of Lovelace’s story starring Amanda Seyfried, its “sanitizing.” Gaitskill captures the contradiction of Lovelace: “the perverse charm of innocence soiled but blithely so, a fragile, playful persona that was uniquely, darkly radiant, dirty and ethereal both.” Gaitskill scrupulously examines the extent of Lovelace’s coercion, but she also explores how easily consent can turn to regret, a blankness cultivated to survive, then back again. “Maybe she started out liking it and came to hate it, or liked it sometimes and hated it other times.”

To talk about “tropes” in Gaitskill seems inelegant, as what she appears most concerned with are not grand themes, but seemingly insignificant moments. She finds her material in the awkward in-between times in life, rather than the dramatic resolutions. She documents quotidian annoyances, such as when a stressed protagonist in Two Girls is attempting to reach a friend’s apartment, and she suddenly notices,

I was three stations past my stop and rose, cursing. My purse fell off my arm and onto the floor, my keys, lipstick, and change poured out of it. All at once I was engulfed by life’s physically mechanical nature, all the tiny movements and functions you have to perform correctly just to get through the day, all the accoutrements you must carry […].

Gaitskill notices how a vanishingly insignificant setback can prompt a disproportionate self-hatred, and she does it with an acuity and wisdom I didn’t absorb as a teenager.

Gaitskill revels in momentary embarrassments, the seemingly forgettable minutes in a person’s day. Another character, in the story “Stuff,” goes further in expressing this fascination with unremarkable awkwardness and shame:

I thought about how everybody tried so hard and how it never worked. I thought of the woman at the next table brushing at imaginary crumbs. I remembered my mother standing in front of a mirror, trying to pull her short jacket down over her protruding abdomen, her face anxious and sad.

Gaitskill needles you, she discomfits you, she displays for the reader the most futile, neediest moments of her characters’ lives.

When I was younger, this unease with life, this true, down-to-the-bone melancholy, was so irrelevant to how I saw the world that I wonder if I even registered it at all. What I was most intrigued by then, apart from style, was probably the sexual histories of her characters — Gaitskill is very good on the development of female sexuality, especially when it’s warped. But I don’t think seven years ago I would have had a second look at this kind of passage: “The conversation was over and we both knew it, yet neither of us wanted to admit it. With a great effort we changed the subject and lurched into a discussion about books, horror movies, and the construction of Frederick’s web sites.” I’m now far more able to appreciate the artfulness of what Gaitskill does with the moments in-between — the minutes after sex, after an argument, after a strange phone call from a parent or a romantic disappointment.

In her Believer interview, Gaitskill addresses how our emotional responses to the same author shift through the years:

[…] reading people like Dickens again and noticing the power of him […] you get it on a mental level, then you get it on an emotional level, then you get it on a deeper emotional level, then it comes and knocks you out of the picture. I just find that that’s very true to life — that as you get older, you have an experience, you think you know it, then it comes again and you understand it more deeply, then it comes again and you understand it, and then you understand it to the point that it almost tears you to pieces.

Her description of rereading Dickens is eerily akin to how I feel rereading Gaitskill. In returning to her books, I was floored by how acutely I recognized the truth of what she was describing. About aging, conversations with hidden motives, one-night stands, hypocrisy, numbing daily routines. How she captures the jumble of emotions in even simple interactions: “… under the fun was an impatient yank of boredom and under that was indignation and pain.” Though I feel more aware of these insights now, so many of these passages I can remember from my first reading, and I know that in some way they stayed with me, until I was ready to revisit them.

Gaitskill takes inconclusive moments, but then moves back in time to childhood, or adolescence, brings in memories that heighten or distort adult feelings. In her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” about why she is a writer, Gaitskill says, “Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened. […] they are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.” What I see now in Gaitskill that I didn’t before is that her stories are no one thing — they are not bleak, they are not celebratory, or at least not merely. They are funny, painful, compassionate, all at once.


Victoria Beale is a journalist who has written for the Guardian, New Republic, Economist, New York Times, Intelligent Life, Buzzfeed Longform and others.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Beale is a journalist who has written for the Guardian, New Republic, Economist, New York Times, Intelligent Life, Buzzfeed Longform and others. She grew up in England, and lives in New York.


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