'As We Get Older, We Become More Ourselves,' Says Author Mary Gaitskill
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mary Gaitskill, first became known for her 1988 collection of short stories "Bad Behavior" about people whose relationships and sexual relationships were outside of what was defined as normal. One of those stories was adapted into the movie "Secretary" with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.
In Gaitskill's new collection of essays dating from 1994 to 2016, Gaitskill writes, in case you don't know, I'm supposedly sick and dark. But as Sariah Dorbin recently wrote in the LA Review of Books, it should be obvious that she is neither one, nor the other, that she is, in fact, a voice of reason and sanity, of piercing intelligence and generous humanity. Gaitskill's 2005 novel "Veronica" was on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's list of her favorite books of that year and was nominated for a National Book Award. Maureen described Gaitskill's 2015 novel "The Mare" as a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion. I spoke with Gaitskill about her new collection "Somebody With A Little Hammer." In one of her essays, she writes about working as a stripper when she was just starting out on her own.
Mary Gaitskill, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that you were a PC feminist before PC (laughter) was even named. So what was it like for you as a feminist to be stripping and to have so many men lustfully gazing at you? Did you find it to be, like, affirming, an ego booster? Was it threatening? Was it demeaning? Did it make you feel more valuable or less valuable - you know, like, what - how - I know you were doing it because you needed to make a living. But when you were on stage or whatever, like, what was it like for you?
MARY GAITSKILL: Well, I - that was kind of...
GROSS: Is stage the wrong word? (Laughter).
GAITSKILL: No, it was actually a stage.
GROSS: OK, good.
GAITSKILL: The places that I was working were actually old-school strip clubs. They were not - I did work sometimes in bars, but the main places I worked were actually a kind of a cross between - like they did - there was one place that actually had a band still.
GROSS: It's like a burlesque era (laughter). Yeah.
GAITSKILL: Well, it was transitioning from the burlesque era to the topless go-go bar era. Like, there were women who still, like, had boas and did a very old-school strip act. It was not - you - like, customers weren't allowed to touch you. There wasn't - there's very little tipping. They couldn't touch you. They couldn't, like, stick money in your underpants or anything like that. But I was very young. I was like 21. And I wouldn't say at that point I was a PC feminist, but I was kind of getting there. I was thinking about things in a different way. But at that time, I mean, it perhaps sounds strange to you, but I know it wouldn't sound strange to other - to some people now.
I didn't see a contradiction. To me, I felt like this was something that I could do for my own benefit. And I didn't feel like it was degrading, although I could see how it could become that way. I saw the women who'd been doing it for a really long time, and it did define them. I could see if you did this for a very long time, it could define you regardless of what you thought your politics were or what you thought you were in control of. And I was cautious about that. But for me to do it for - I did it for two years - didn't feel like there was any conflict.
By the way, I didn't call myself a feminist with a capital F. I didn't like walk around saying feminists - giving feminist speeches or anything like that. I was just very empathic with, say, people like Germaine Greer particularly who were speaking out about women, like, being treated better and being paid equally and not - like at that time in the '70s, you could actually - it was almost impossible to successfully prosecute a rape charge. In some states, you actually had to have a witness.
A woman could be beaten black and blue and still the rapist could get off. It's - that's pretty extraordinary. And I was aware of that. And I - that's what feminism meant to me, like, dealing with that kind of gross inequity. And so to me, the idea of getting paid money to take off my clothes, it just wasn't horrific to me. But, you know, that's a whole - there's several branches of feminism, some who really would violently disagree with that and some who wouldn't. But I didn't even know about that then.
GROSS: Once you developed a persona or whatever, what was your act?
GAITSKILL: Well, I didn't really have a fully developed that, but I looked very, very young at 21. I had a more developed body, but if I had not had that, I could have been 12 years old. So I would dance to very young music like The Supremes or The Jackson 5, early Beatles, stuff like that.
GROSS: Was there an aspect of it that was a little creepy, thinking that a lot of the older men were getting off on the idea of seeing a girl as opposed to a woman?
GAITSKILL: I think that I understood that a lot of men have that desire. I mean, I certainly learned that. And even now, I don't find the fantasy itself creepy. It's - I think it's pretty standard. I think it's creepy or beyond creepy when it's acted out on.
GROSS: So you ran away from home when you were 16. And in your 2005 novel "Veronica," she says, I ran away from home partly because I was unhappy there and partly because it was what people did then. It was part of the new style. Did you see it that way at the time for yourself?
GROSS: And did you know people who'd run away or read about them?
GAITSKILL: Well, everybody heard about it or read about it because so many people were doing it, but that isn't why I ran away. The girl in "Veronica" is very, very different from me. Her situation is not at all the same. She does run away partly out of a kind of boredom and a wish for something more vital in life, which I don't disparage, but that is not why I ran away.
I ran away because my parents wanted to institutionalize me, and I understandably didn't want that. I would never have done it otherwise because I really cared about my parents, and I didn't want to hurt them or scare them. But no, I did it because I felt that I was in danger.
GROSS: Why did your parents want to institutionalize you?
GAITSKILL: That's kind of a complicated situation, basically because they were pretty conservative. And I was - I seemed to change dramatically in their mind. I went from being an extremely quiet kid who did well in school and pretty much abided by rules to suddenly smoking pot and - just a little bit really, but that seemed very scary to them - and getting kicked out of school and not even really having sex but appearing like I might. And that was scary to them.
And also, in a psychiatric setting, I failed something they used to - I don't think this is used anymore, but it was something called a Rorschach test, an inkblot test. And I also would add that the psychiatrist who ran this place was a guy who was on record saying that any teenager who smoked marijuana was mentally ill.
GAITSKILL: So that kind of...
GROSS: That kind of sealed the deal (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. You know, when I look back to some of the things I did when I was a teenager that really upset my parents and I thought like you just don't understand me, you don't want me to have any freedom at all, do you? And I look back on it now, and I think like, oh, of course they were scared (laughter). They had every reason to be scared (laughter).
GROSS: Do you ever look back on your past that way and think the same thing?
GAITSKILL: Well, I certainly wouldn't want - that happened when I was 15, by the way, that I ran away from home the first time at 15. And if I was a parent, I would definitely not want my 15-year-old daughter running away out in the world especially, I mean, nobody would. Nobody would.
GROSS: Where did reading a lot and writing come in?
GAITSKILL: Well, I read a lot from the beginning. As a child, I loved reading. My mother read to us even before we learned how to read. And I - it was just something I took to very, very naturally and would read adult books sometimes too when I was a kid. And I just - I loved it. And it was also very natural for me to write very early. Like one of the first things I did when I was 6, when I learned how to write, was write a story.
GROSS: When you were 6? You still have it?
GAITSKILL: You know, I don't know if I do. But my mother might have it. But, I mean, it was extremely simple. It was called "Billy And Betty Blue Jay," and they meet. And they fall in love and fly off together.
GROSS: OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Gaitskill. She has a new collection of essays called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Gaitskill. She has a new collection of essays called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." In a couple of essays collected in this book, you write about being raped, and the first time is - you considered it kind of a date rape, even though it wasn't exactly a date. And he had offered you LSD, which you took, and then you really kind of lost your bearings and ended up having sex with him. You - think he probably wouldn't have, and it was not a good experience for you. And you felt it was somewhat coercive.
And then about a year later, you were violently raped by somebody who threatened to kill you, and you say something really surprising in writing about that. You write (reading) after it is over, it actually affected me less than many other mundane instances of emotional brutality I've suffered or seen other people suffer. Frankly, I've been scarred more by experiences I had on the playground in elementary school.
But then later on - and you write about this in a later essay - you realized that it had a much deeper impact on you than you thought. And - go ahead.
GAITSKILL: I still would stand by that, actually. Even though - yes...
GROSS: Stand by that it didn't scar you in the way...
GAITSKILL: No, it - no, no, no...
GROSS: ...That people say it scarred them.
GAITSKILL: ...Not in the same way. It's not - I'm not saying it had no effect on me.
GROSS: It just seemed to me reading it took a while for you to realize what the impact really was.
GAITSKILL: Yeah. But even when I wrote that first statement that you referred to about the playground, it had been years later. And I didn't mean to say that it had no impact. It certainly did. I mean, I remember very vividly when I was at an eye doctor's office shortly after it happened, he made a move that surprised me, and I practically leapt out of the room. So I was very aware of that it had an impact on me.
And I think, perhaps, more of one that I knew. But nonetheless, I have - I would say I have been scarred more emotionally by things. When you're a child, things that don't seem that bad to an adult can seem really terrible because you're formative, you're forming. And I think what my point was that emotional cruelty can be far more devastating and more difficult because the man who raped me was a stranger. He was not someone I trusted. He was not someone I had any expectation of in terms of kindness or decency. But when people who you know or who you are at least are meeting in a context of friendship who might be your peers do something that deeply wound you emotionally - for one thing, it's very hard to understand what happened.
It's - I think the phrase I used in the article was it sticks to you because you don't know how responsible you were. You don't know how big a part you played. If somebody simply attacks you whether it's to rape you or beat you or whatever, there's no question that they did something wrong. Whereas, if something happens on a more complex, emotional way or somebody just pouncing on you in the playground that that's far more inexplicable, and in a strange way to me worse because it's hard - for me, it's harder to understand and to separate out what did I have to do with this? Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: Yeah that it wasn't about you personally. It wasn't about somebody's feelings about you. They weren't judging you. They were just violently attacking you, but it wasn't personal.
GAITSKILL: Yeah, and...
GROSS: It's still terrifying, you know - yeah.
GAITSKILL: Well, yes it was, and I think it affected me on a nervous system level in a way that I didn't get. I think that the worst thing about that kind of attack is that even if you don't - it may not impact you that much emotionally for the reasons I said. It just, to me, so clear that they did something wrong, as opposed to something - another situation where you're not sure if it was your fault or not.
But what's really bad about a physical assault like that - and this is something I didn't understand - I think it can leave a kind of physical effect on you in a nervous system way where you can suddenly become really scared in a situation that isn't actually harmful. And it isn't rational. You don't know why you're feeling scared, but it's because of that - it's triggering a subliminal memory of some kind.
GROSS: Yeah. It sounds like with one man who you were playing around with, you know, and you say you were both fully clothed and everything, but you had this, like, PTSD experience, you know, a flashback experience...
GROSS: ...And it just kind of set you off. And, you know, I guess I wasn't surprised to read that.
GAITSKILL: Yeah. It was that, and I didn't even know what it was. It didn't even - I had no idea what - to make the connection.
GROSS: One of your essays in your new collection "Somebody With A Little Hammer" is about losing a cat and desperately trying to find it in every way imaginable. And also in a way losing two children, and these are two children who you spent - what? - a couple of weeks a year with you through the Fresh Air Fund program, which is a program to send inner city kids to the country for the summer for a couple of weeks in the summer or to send them to a home that isn't, I guess, a more, you know, rural kind of setting so that they can be exposed to that and get away.
And, you know, you write about how you'd considered having a baby and considered adopting and kind of went in this direction instead. Can you talk about the decision not to have a child and how you weighed both sides of that in your mind?
GAITSKILL: Well, it was a decision - if it was a decision at all - I made very early. And I didn't really weigh it much. The only time - it was just very instinctive that I didn't want to. The only time that I considered it was when I got married. And I was still young enough that I probably could have. And I did think about it. There was a couple things going on that - we didn't have enough money. Both of us were - at least I was in quite a bit of debt. And I had to work teaching. And I was trying to write a book.
And I thought if we had a child, he would have to take care of the child all the time, and I would have to teach all the time, and I wouldn't write at all. And I also began to think, well, I'm also kind of old to have a child. A baby is very energetic. And maybe it would be better to adopt an older child like a 7-year-old or something. So that's what led us to the Fresh Air Fund. And we actually got way more involved with those children than just having them up for a couple weeks.
We were - would have them up several times a year and - including Christmas and also go visit them in the city. And I sent the boy to Catholic school and the girl too, but she got kicked out pretty fast. I mean, and we're still - we still know them. In "Lost Cat," I was afraid of losing them. And I felt like I was - they were becoming teenagers.
I met him when he was 6 and her when she was 10. And they were becoming teenagers. And I was feeling, like, frustrated by the - my lack of ability to really understand what they were going through anymore. And so I was - I had fear - a great fear of losing them. And it's certainly not as close a relationship as it was, but I - we do still know them.
GROSS: In your most recent book, "The Mare," one of the main characters is, you know, a woman who like you did has this relationship she builds with a couple of children through, you know, a program like the Fresh Air Fund. And this book is written from the perspective of several of the characters, so the perspective keeps shifting.
And one of the children at one point thinks like, you know, I'm stuck with nice people who don't have anything to do with me. Were you trying to imagine what it was like for the two children who came and stayed with you, what it was like for them to be with you and how they saw you?
GAITSKILL: Actually, "The Mare" wasn't about two children. In "The Mare" it's just - there's a - they're just involved with a girl. She does have a brother, but he doesn't ever come up there and spend any time there. It was highly fictionalized. But yeah, I mean, I actually don't think that they had that particular thought, but I was I wasn't trying to base the character exactly on them.
I was just trying to think of how a child might feel in that situation. And I would imagine it's pretty strange for - certainly for a 6-year-old. I mean, in the real life story, the boy who we met first was only 6 years old. I mean, that's really - I can only imagine frightening for a 6-year-old to be put on a bus and go stay with a bunch of people that he doesn't know.
And whether they're nice or not, it's like why do I want to be here? Not to mention that they're white as sheets and they've got more than anything you've ever had. But in the case of Velvet, she's older. I mean, the character Velvet, she's older, but I could imagine somebody thinking that. Like, yeah, they're nice, but what do they have to do with me, and why am I here?
GROSS: My guest is Mary Gaitskill. Her new collection of essays is called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." We'll talk more after a short break. And we'll hear from Julia Turshen, whose new cookbook is for people who find cooking stressful. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Gaitskill. Her new collection of essays is called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." When we left off, we were talking about her 2015, "The Mare," which is about a couple and the Dominican child who lives with them for a few weeks each year through the Fresh Air Fund, a fund that provides children from low-income communities the opportunity to spend time in the country with host families. Gaitskill and her husband have had a long-term relationship with two children who they hosted through the Fresh Air Fund. Those children are now young adults.
Did they read the book, your novel, "The Mare"?
GAITSKILL: Well, I don't know. I gave it to them. I saw them. I met them for Thanksgiving after it came out, and I handed it to them. And I said, I think you might find this really weird, and you might find it boring actually because it's pretty slow paced. And she looked at it. She opened it, read the first page and a half, looked at me very seriously and said, this isn't boring, Mary, and then closed it and said, I think I'm going to read it later. And I didn't hear from her for quite a while.
So I texted her and said - asked her how she was, and she said OK. And I said, did you read the book? 'Cause I thought she might have and been angry or something. I wouldn't - I don't know why she would be, but people can react, you know, all kinds of ways. And she said she started to, and she had too many feelings. And so she stopped. And I understood that. 'Cause I actually - I said that to her when I first gave it to her, I think you might have a lot of feelings. I hope she reads it eventually. And I'd like to talk about it with her.
It's not really about her, like I said, but, I mean, the girl in the story is pretty different from her. And the things that happen in the story are quite different. I wrote it partly for her though because she was somebody who really loved uplifting movies and stories. And I - it's interesting because as a writer, I've never been somebody who believed that you should - had any obligation to write uplifting movies and stories - storylines for people to make people feel good.
It just - I was just never about that. Not that I wanted people to feel bad either, but I just thought writing with that kind of agenda was a mistake. But it's really different when you're writing for young people. And I could really feel her. Like, if we watched a movie together, which was a lot, I could feel her really respond if there was a Latina character on the screen. And that didn't happen often enough. And it's not something normally I was very tuned into, but I became very tuned into it.
And I remember during 2007, when I was still pretty involved with them, I saw a little film clip of "National Velvet." And I thought, I wish there could be a movie like this about a Latina girl, but I can't write a movie. And I tried to sell it to my agent as a treatment thinking somebody else could write it as a movie. And he said, if you want to do this, you've got to write a young adult novel. And I thought, well, that's impossible.
GAITSKILL: Really, I just thought that's impossible. And especially, how can I write from the point of view of a Latina girl? It's ridiculous. I can't do that, plus I know nothing about horses. But I couldn't let go of the idea. It kept coming back to me in a way that I've just never experienced before.
Like lines of dialogue would pop into my head, scenes would just - I'd be sitting in an airport being angry because I'd missed my flight or the flight was delayed or something, and a whole scene would unscroll from this story that I hadn't even committed to writing. I was still thinking I can't write this. So that's really never happened to me before, and I finally decided to do it.
GROSS: You've said that after your first collection of short stories "Bad Behavior" was published that people expected you to embody hipness, but that you didn't. And people expected that, in part, because, you know, these were like transgressive stories. And there were stories about people who had, you know, what would be considered kind of kinky relationships, BDS and M. So what's the image of you now do you think? What do people expect to meet when they meet you?
GAITSKILL: I really don't know. But it's interesting because - and you're talking about that. I do know like the review I got of the book of essays in the Times which was a very, very nice review, but it was written by the same guy, Dwight Garner, who reviewed "The Mare" and was plainly disappointed that it was - he thought it was too mainstream and nice and it wasn't transgressive enough. Whereas he was happy to report that with "Somebody With A Little Hammer" was every bit as transgressive as I ever was. And I just don't use that word in connection with myself. And I'm not trying to transgress anything.
And I also don't see a contradiction between "The Mare" which to me it's as realistic as a story and one of the later stories that I've written. It's very much all along about the same theme. It's about un-socially sanctioned love, love that's not socially sanctioned. In say, "Bad Behavior," which, by the way, strikes me as a very naive book from my point of view now but anyway, like, say if you're writing from the point of view of a BDSM relationship or a John who's fallen in love with a prostitute, those are - you might say are socially unsanctioned loves.
And the love that Ginger feels for Velvet is also socially unsanctioned. So I think that there - the themes there of human feeling, trying to fit into a social form, transgression just doesn't mean very much to me because I don't think that there is this category of thing that is forbidden and if you do it, you've transgressed. It's - maybe in some circumstances or context I could think that way but I don't generally.
GROSS: Mary Gaitskill, thank you so much for talking with us.
GAITSKILL: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Mary Gaitskill's new collection of essays is called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." After we take a short break, we'll hear from Julia Turshen, whose new cookbook is for people who want some help with home cooking. This is FRESH AIR.
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