Two Girls, Fat and Thin, 1991
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.
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 These are unpublished.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.