Authors: Mary Gaitskill

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Two Girls, Fat and Thin, 1991

Short Fiction:

Bad Behavior, 1988

Because They Wanted To, 1997


“On Not Being a Victim: Sex, Rape, and the Trouble with Following Rules,” 1994

“My Inspiration: Vladimir Nabokov, Sorcerer of Cruelty,” 1995

“Men at Extremes,” 1999


Mary Lawrence Gaitskill grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. Her father, who had served the military in the Normandy invasion in World War II, earned his living as a teacher of political science in a community college; her mother was a homemaker. Gaitskill married a fellow writer in 2001, shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11.{$I[A]Gaitskill, Mary}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Gaitskill, Mary}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gaitskill, Mary}{$I[tim]1954;Gaitskill, Mary}

Gaitskill ran away from home at the age of sixteen. Runaway sixteen-year-olds appear in several of her short stories. She supported herself by working as a stripper and had a number of liaisons that provided her with shelter and companionship during her adolescence. In retrospect, she philosophizes that her acquiescence to others subjected her to sexual encounters she had neither anticipated nor desired and that these affairs should, regardless of her complicity, be regarded as rapes. Especially when she was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, her sexual life meant her subjection to friendly predators. These predations, according to her sensibility, are not totally distinguishable from the forcible rape she suffered when her assailant threatened her with death if she did not submit. Gaitskill’s strength lies in her assault upon any situation in which women find their independence compromised. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1981, having won the Hopwood Award for undergraduate fiction for a collection of stories titled “The Women Who Knew Judo, and Other Stories.” These are unpublished.

Gaitskill taught in several collegiate creative writing programs, including those at San Francisco State University and the University of Houston. She claims that she was terrified when she first started teaching because she did not have the slightest idea how to teach others the art of writing. Her success was attributed partly to her ability to draw from her students their most intimate feelings and her generosity as a listener; she engages students as a partner in writing, rather than as a mentor. She was awarded a yearlong Guggenheim grant, beginning in June, 2002, which allowed her time to complete her next work of fiction.

Gaitskill’s writing is characterized by its penetrating characterization of her characters’ most intimate thoughts. Each of her characters becomes a unique personality whose sense of aloneness seeks repair in any state of sexual relationship that brings individuals together. Their isolation is a consequence of the conflict between their obedience to societal rules and their emotional impulses. An indeterminate population, Gaitskill articulates, is engaged in a variety of sexual behaviors without having to judge their peers and without the need to apologize for their actions.

Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin is the first-person narrative of the fat Dorothy Footie, a proofreader on the nighttime shift of a Wall Street law firm, and a third-person exposition of the career journalist Justine Shade. Chapters alternate between Dorothy’s life and Justine’s. At the age of thirteen, Dorothy moves from Michigan to Pennsylvania, where her father molests her. At age seventeen, she seeks to adopt the independence celebrated in a novel by fictional author Anna Granite. The reader learns of Justine’s experiences in a longitudinal study of sexual development from the age of five through high school, when she is deflowered by the opportunistic teenager Rick Houlihan. The two title characters meet when Justine, at the age of twenty-eight, is preparing a magazine article and interviews Dorothy, who has become a member of the ultra-democratic independent cult of Anna Granite’s Definitists, a parody of Ayn Rand’s objectivist movement. Justine discusses a lifetime of frustrating sexual experiences to win the empathy of Dorothy, whose size had become a humiliation and a defense. They join in a lesbian embrace at the end of the novel.

Bad Behavior comprises nine short stories which treat abusive and lascivious behavior. It is the absorbing insight into the psychology of sexual opportunism that grants this collection its uniqueness. In “A Romantic Weekend,” for example, a man who has formed a liaison with a woman partner becomes dissatisfied with their encounters, though they repeat sexual acts; yet, he seeks to sustain the relationship, which will enable him to maintain his fantasies with his lover while living a conventional married life with his wife. “Secretary” describes a woman molested and humiliated by her boss. By detailing the secretary’s unwillingness to tell her family why she has quit her job, Gaitskill admits the reader to the ignominy of abuse and explains why victims choose to suppress their embarrassment rather than seek redress.

Because They Wanted To is concerned with self-indulgence and the desire for respect in relationships that are lasting only in memory. Gaitskill draws searing portraits, among them the title story in which a teenage street beggar, hired without credentials as a baby-sitter, abandons three children before their mother returns for them, one a baby in soiled diapers. The final section of the book, titled “The Wrong Things,” treats heterosexual and lesbian relations as the narrator processes her actions–masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, and sadomasochism–from one person to another.

BibliographyAdams, Michael. “Specular Rape: Reflections on Early Modern Reflections of the Present Day.” The Centennial Review 41, no. 2 (Spring, 1997). The concept of rape in classical literature, including Tereus’s rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.) and Lovelace’s rape of Clarissa in Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747-1748), is studied in the light of Gaitskill’s interpretation of the “complex subjectivity” that compels people to the act of rape.Contemporary Literary Criticism 69: 198-209. Contains a comprehensive collection of reviews of the stories in Bad Behavior from Michiko Kakutani, Barry Walters, George Garrett, Carol Anshaw, and many more. Especially interesting is Regina Weinreich’s explanation of how Gaitskill, inspired in her youth by Playboy cartoons, aspired to become a prostitute and how that experience later leaked into her fiction.Gaitskill, Mary. “On Not Being a Victim: Sex, Rape, and the Trouble with Following Rules.” Harper’s Magazine (March, 1994): 35-44. Gaitskill gives straightforward accounts of times when she has been raped and explanations of other experiences in her life that have led to examinations and explorations of definitions of “rape,” “date rape,” “consensual sex,” and similar terms that play major parts in several of her stories, including “The Blanket,” “The Girl on the Plane,” and “The Nice Restaurant.” She provides in-depth analysis of how she evolved from a very “politically correct” feminist to an individual thinker and writer more concerned with personal responsibility and trying to understand what things really motivate her characters and the characters of other writers.Graff, E. J. “Mixed Emotions.” Women’s Review of Books 14 (May, 1997): 8-9. Review of several stories from Because They Wanted To, critical comments on Bad Behavior, and comparisons of the works of Gaitskill with work by Amy Bloom. Both authors use sex as a dramatic tool in their writing. Both write fiction that has been categorized as “postqueer.”Huddle, David. “Report from the Darkest Interior (of Us): The Fiction of Mary Gaitskill.” The Hollins Critic 37, no. 3 (June, 2000): 1-16. Gaitskill’s power in her description of kinky sexual encounters manifests itself in her ability to reveal the psychological origin of a character’s promiscuity. Huddle discusses salient details of Gaitskill’s style in bringing her characters to a point of pain and discovery.Walker, Jeff. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago: Open Court, 1999. Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin satirizes Ayn Rand’s objectivist movement and parodies the titles of her works. Gaitskill reconstructs the names of those followers (for example, Beau Bradley represents Nathaniel Branden) who sought to follow Rand’s philosophy of unimpaired and uncontrolled individual freedom.
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