Mary Gaitskill by Stephen Westfall

“I think what a masochist wants is deep intimacy and closeness, and they don’t know how to experience it except as an act of violation. They don’t have a concept of two people just, you know, touching together.”

BOMB 30 Winter 1990
030 Winter 1989 90
Gaitskill 01 Body

Mary Gaitskill. Photo by Chris Carroll © 1989.

Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories, Bad Behavior, has a curious history. None of the stories included in the book had been previously published in the usual “major” literary magazines, journals or quarterlies. They had, in fact, been rejected—all of them. One can almost understand why. Gaitskill writes about the appalling things contemporary men and women can do to each other without flinching or giving in to easy moralizing. She appears to be almost ruthlessly objective about matters that most people would find it impossible to be objective about. The shock of her situations may at first blind the reader to the craft and discipline in these harrowing and funny stories. In any event, justice has been served. Bad Behavior is a critical and commercial success. This interview was conducted shortly after the general release of her book in paperback. Gaitskill is currently working to finish a novel slated for publication next fall.

Stephen Westfall Your one pan, the one bad review of your book, Bad Behavior, was James Wolcott’s. It seems the most outstanding feature of that review is Wolcott’s complaint that your women characters are constantly seeking sexual submissiveness with uniformly egregious men. Yet I recall, at least a couple of stories, where that’s simply not so. I have “Something Nice” in mind particularly, where the prostitute is not happy about being a prostitute. You never find out whether she actually is a literature major or a sociologist doing this as a survey. But at the end of the story, she’s sighted in a restaurant utterly ignoring the client who has, in fact, become submissive to her. She definitely has power over him. And also, in “Heaven” Virginia seems like an extremely resilient, near-heroic character. She’s the mother of four rather wayward children who continually exhilarate and disappoint her, almost simultaneously. And it’s the husband who withdraws into himself.

Mary Gaitskill Well, there are a number of points of view. From a certain point of view, what you’re saying is true: some of the women are completely out of the realm of being submissive or not; that’s not the issue of all of the stories. However, from another point of view, what he’s saying is correct. Many of my female characters are seeking, on one level, to be victimized by men. I have two responses to that issue. For one thing, I think it’s absolutely irrelevant whether I’m writing about women being submissive to men or not. Submission or the lack of it—this is not a literary question, from my point of view. It’s something that exists in life; there are people of both sexes who are submissive. I think to bring that up in a review is tedious, because it’s irrelevant from a literary standpoint—I don’t understand why he even mentions it. It’s like he’s criticizing the book for something he personally finds objectionable in human beings. There are a lot of things that are objectionable in human beings. A huge number of things can be written about that are not attractive.

SW It sounds to me like he was not writing about the same book that I was reading.

MG No, he’s not.

SW So there was a fair amount of projection there.

MG That’s the second thing I wanted to talk about. In the first place, even if I’m writing about mealy-mouthed, throw-themselves-on-in-submission women, it would not be wrong, morally or artistically. In point of fact, I’m not doing that. Like, the woman in “Secretary,” who he brings up and belabors to death, is this woman who accepts being spanked by her boss for typing errors. Okay, this is obviously a situation where, on the surface, this woman is being very submissive. On the other hand, in my opinion, she is a far stronger character than the boss who, supposedly, is the dominant character. Because, for one thing, she takes complete responsibility for her actions, and she never backs off from anything that’s going on in the story. The boss character is almost just there to illuminate her. I’m not saying that she’s a triumphant character. In my stories the issue of win and lose is not relevant; that’s not what I’m talking about in that story or any of the other stories. It’s more a question of her being able to stand on her own, even when she’s doing something which is extremely painful and, actually, I think, quite horrible. Although there is an element of humor in it—it’s also tragic that the only way she can experience some kind of sensation of being alive in intimacy is in this brutal experience. To me this doesn’t make her a pathetic loser, though, because she has the experience, she doesn’t back off from it, she takes responsibility for it. And although there’s a tragedy to it, in that this is the only way that she can experience herself there’s also an incredible amount of courage and strength in a person who can acknowledge this in themselves. And, in my opinion, even though I don’t show her doing this in the story, this is someone who can go beyond this at some other time. This isn’t a cringing helpless person. This is a person who is seeing herself and who she is. And I don’t mean seeing herself as a masochist and a loser, but seeing herself as having this experience at this time.

SW As things get turned around, through some chemistry that goes on in the stories—I think it’s obviously through some sympathetic rendering of the characters in the stories—the women do seem, in the end, to be stronger, or, at the very least, more enduring. And it’s often the men—the fellow in “Daisy’s Valentine,” the man in “Something Nice”—and especially the sort of dim sadist in…

MG “Romantic Weekend.”

SW “Romantic Weekend,” who, in their swagger and male posturing are actually rendered absurd. If something happens to alter their fantasy in any way, their expectations of what will ensue in any kind of a relationship, or even simply walking down the street, they are absolutely discombobulated—their world gets thrown out of whack. On that level they’re more vulnerable. Not vulnerable in a way that one would find morally sympathetic, but vulnerable in a sense that…

MG They’re cowards; they’re cowards. I actually don’t feel that way about all the male characters, but it’s true—if I was being criticized on the grounds of writing about weak characters—which, again, I’d have to say, I think it’s an irrelevant criticism—the Village Voice, actually, made this comment, that my male characters are uniformly weak and ridiculous. And if you’re gonna accept criticism on the moral grounds of moral characterization, I think it’s far more valid to criticize me for my portrayal of males.

SW Except that’s not quite true, either.

MG Some of them are okay.

SW Although Jarold doesn’t exactly speak for himself in “Heaven,” but neither does he seem to be a weak or a spineless character. And neither do his sons.

MG Well, he’s not. But he has the same quality that all the men do, of being disconnected from his feelings. He can experience tenderness and love, but in a totally destructive, selfish way.

SW He doesn’t seem to be the monster that some of the other male characters are.

MG No. No, I don’t think all of them are monsters at all. There are only one or two monsters in the collection.

SW The funny thing—maybe this is the essence of comedy—is that you manage to render the monsters somewhat sympathetically, too. You go right into the mind of the male. For many of the most exaggeratedly horrible male characters, the writing sits inside the mind of that very character. It seems like a Dostoyevskian technique, to get into the mind of a criminal, you make them seem not criminals. You fill in their background, you adumbrate their psychological makeup, thus making them seem more human. In the character in “Romantic Weekend”—there are vague allusions to his own annihilated childhood. And the inference is that he’s living out a life according to a law of diminished returns. He can’t conceive of asking her anything more than what he asked for. And that’s a devastating pronouncement, but it also excites a surge of sympathy on the part of the reader at that moment of recognition.

MG Oh, he’s a heart-rending character. When I wrote that story, the first draft was much less successful. He’s a character I don’t like much. And the first draft was not as good, because my dislike for him was apparent. I didn’t get inside his head much at all. And when I did he was only thinking in those loathsome turdlike thoughts. I saw him as this flat, uninteresting character who you could not enter into at all, I realized it was making the story very uninteresting and unbalanced. And when I began to look at him and to see it from his point of view, I didn’t find it that hard. I mean, this woman is very—if you look at her from his point of view—she’s impossible. She’s horrible. (laughter)

SW She tends to speak of herself metaphorically, but he takes her literally. When he refers back to a conversation they had in a bar, he says, “You said you were a masochist.” And she says, “Well, I meant—I thought I was a masochist.” He took her absolutely at her word. While she, maybe without thinking about the consequences of what she said, might have been speaking about herself metaphorically.

MG Well, not entirely. I mean, she is a masochist, but this is another of those dualities. On one hand she is, but on another level, she wants very much to control. The masochistic feelings that she has don’t quite run into the type of self-hatred that he’s looking for. They’re there, but she wants to control them. They’re more a controlling device for her.

SW Do you think all masochism springs out of a certain amount of self-hatred?

MG I don’t know.

SW I could see how it could be self-transfiguring.

MG Well, I don’t know. I think it’s a very complicated question psychologically, which I’m not prepared to deal with.

SW I’m thinking, of course, as connected with martyrdom.

MG I don’t buy that. I think that’s weird intellectual crap which people do to make something that’s very frightening acceptable. I don’t believe in that at all. The thing that I have noticed most about sadism and masochism, which I’ve said over and over again—I don’t think most people understand this, maybe because I don’t express it very clearly—I think what a masochist wants is deep intimacy and closeness, and they don’t know how to experience it except as an act of violation. They don’t have a concept of two people just, you know, touching together. Just like a sadist—what sadism is to me, is a breaking into another person, just breaking inside another person. And I can’t quite, I don’t know what the impulse is behind it. But to me, it’s an inability to have intimacy and a desperate, angry desire to have intimacy. And it’s people who have no concept of closeness, other than as a form of violation and submission.

SW And it’s also highly ritualized.

MG Yes, and safe, therefore. Inside the ritual, it’s a very control-oriented thing. I’m sure that’s not all there is to it. Like I said, I don’t think I’m a spokesperson, but that’s how I see it. And that’s what I’m writing about in the story. I mean, the woman does want this, not because she hates herself or hates women or women are supposed to be like this, but because she, personally, is not able to be intimate, and yet she really craves it. She’s also afraid of it, so this is her controlling device. It’s no political statement about women at all.

SW So where’s the erotic charge in it then?

MG In this story?

SW No, no, not necessarily in this story, which is astoundingly unerotic for all the sexual gameplaying that goes on, but—where might you figure the erotic charge in a sadomasochistic relationship lies?

MG Oh, because it’s the desire for such total union, total impact. She talks about it in the most corny, ridiculous terms, and yet what she’s desiring isn’t that corny and ridiculous. It’s a total experience, a union, which she has no idea how to have, and which she’s, in fact, afraid of I mean, she’s put herself in a situation where it’s impossible to have that. So, on one hand she wants it desperately; on the other, she has no idea how and is, in fact, afraid of it. And he doesn’t even have a concept of it, which is what makes him a far more pathetic figure than she is. At least she has a hope and a wish to have this type of intimacy; he doesn’t, he’s totally lost. I don’t really know how to put this, it’s gonna sound like a contradiction, but I want to make something clear. When I said earlier that I don’t think it’s morally wrong to create images of women in victimized or submissive roles, that doesn’t mean that I’m insensitive to the type of pain that women suffer in this society. I think this is a very sexist society, a society in which women have suffered a great deal. Not just women personally, but a society in which a female spirit is not respected. And that’s actually quite painful to me; it’s not something that I’m indifferent to at all. Does that sound contradictory?

SW Not to me.

MG It’s not. I don’t think it addresses that problem, though, to write stories in which there’s an artificial treatment of women’s pain, in which it’s sort of triumphed over to big theme music, and women are shown as being, you know, Nautilus-machine strong, which is a type of strong that doesn’t interest me because it’s a strength disconnected from vulnerability and weakness, which to me isn’t real strength at all, but is actually a dislocated posturing which makes it possible to despise the vulnerability of others. I just don’t think that this type of judgment and instructional didactic writing is gonna help anything. Before you can heal pain you have to acknowledge it and feel it.

SW I guess one of the things that’s so breathtaking about the comedy is that nearly every—I mean, basically every story deals with pain.

MG Yeah.  

Stephen Westfall is an artist and writer living and working in New York.

Janet Hobhouse by Bruce Wolmer
Hobhouse 01 Body
Marcy by Domenick Ammirati

Around this time I became a frequent visitor to a sex-ad bulletin board. Real-life meetups were the focal point. 

Mary Gaitskill by Matthew Sharpe

The first thing of Mary Gaitskill’s I ever read was a short statement she made at the back of The Best American Short Stories, 1993 about her story “The Girl on the Plane,” in which a man tells a woman in the airplane seat next to his that he once participated in a gang rape.

William Tester’s ‘Head’ by David Ryan

William Tester’s new story collection Head reads like a loose thread you keep pulling from your shirt with the sinking sense you’ll never be able to fix what you’re undoing—all the while keenly aware that you cannot, for your life, stop unraveling.

Originally published in

BOMB 30, Winter 1990

Featuring interviews with Mary Gaitskill, Carroll Dunham, Richard Price, Eduardo Machado, Sarah Charlesworth, Jane Campion, Fay Weldon, Anish Kapoor, Atom Egoyan with Arsinée Khanjian, Katell le Bourhis, and Jonathan Lasker.

Read the issue
030 Winter 1989 90