From her groundbreaking 1988 collection Bad Behavior, through several novels, and up to “Minority Report,” a story published this week in the New Yorker, Mary Gaitskill has plumbed the mysteries of human relationships with a fearsome candor. “Minority Report” follows up on “Secretary,” a story in Bad Behavior about a teenage girl who takes a job working for a lawyer who “punishes” her typing mistakes by spanking her. More than 30 years later, the “thing” (as she calls this ritual) haunts the narrator of “Minority Report” until she decides to track down her former boss.
The result might startle readers who know the original story best through its titillating and austere 2002 film adaptation, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Debby, the narrator of both stories, struggles to exorcise her feelings for the man who galvanized her sexuality and left her feeling exiled from ordinary tenderness and dignity. This isn’t the first such story Gaitskill has written in the aftermath of #MeToo. “This Is Pleasure,” a novella published in 2019, describes an older woman’s friendship with a charming male publisher who stands accused of coming on to his female subordinates. Like all her fiction, it is thorny with complications.
For a long time, anyone interested in more forthright declarations of Gaitskill’s opinions needed to hunt them down. In contrast to most writers, she has never used social media. Last summer, however, Gaitskill began writing a newsletter for Substack, sending out thoughtful considerations of such topics as Depp v. Heard, incels, Nabokov, Marilyn Monroe, political fiction, and most recently, how we talk about rape.
Gaitskill calls her Substack Out of It, readily embracing the notion that—at nearly 70 and not very online—she isn’t conversant with the very latest ordained thinking on pretty much any subject she writes about. But this is precisely the appeal of Out of It—the fact that Gaitskill is neither demonstrating her fealty to a particular set of positions nor reflexively rebelling against them. Instead, her newsletter feels personal and exploratory, like the correspondence of a smart, sensitive, and scrupulously honest friend. Gaitskill spoke with me via Zoom from her home in upstate New York.
Laura Miller: You’ve written a few newsletters about the effects of the internet. One downside you describe very eloquently is simply a lessening of the time people spend looking at the physical world around us.
Mary Gaitskill: That’s the main downside, as I see it. I used to take the train up to Syracuse, where I taught. I only had a flip phone then, and I would sometimes read manuscripts, but I would also just look out the window, and it was so calming and connecting. And it wouldn’t have to be beautiful. A lot of what I was looking at was old wrecked buildings and tumbledown backs of people’s houses and railroad tracks. But the raw material of that, the heaviness of it, was curiously inspirational and grounding to me. Like, “Yes, this is life on earth and I’m part of it, and it’s fucking great.”
My husband looked at Twitter to see the response to that newsletter, and there was some pushback from people saying, “I can look at nature and look at my phone at the same time.” But they don’t have that other experience, where your brain isn’t split at all. And maybe some of them can do it the way that I used to, while also looking at their phones. They don’t seem like it. They seem fucking nervous as hell.
It’s weird to have lived through that transition to a split mind. There was plenty of communication and media before the internet, but the avenue to completely mentally escape from the physical world around you was somewhat limited. You could go and read a book or see a movie, but ultimately you had to deal with immediate reality, more often than not. And if you aren’t dealing with that, you don’t get the benefit of the changes in yourself, the growth that comes with dealing with stuff that you just have to deal with.
It’s also very much a nervous system thing. It’s not so much the thematic content, but the speed with which it’s being delivered. I almost quit Substack at one point because it was making me nervous. It’s very different from publishing something out there in the world, in print or even an online publication. Then, it’s out of your hands. It’s detached from you. I feel incredibly anxious every time I put something up. I look immediately the next day to see how many people have looked at it, how many people have liked it, what have people said.
What you’re describing is exactly the publishing experience for most journalists! And not just journalists. We put a representation of ourselves out there on the internet and then become obsessed with what the internet reflects back at us. You’re on a slippery slope, Mary!
I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night thinking about someone’s comment. It’s fun in a way, but in another it’s jangling.
I’ve always valued your writing on the topic of rape and your ability to deal with all the permutations of it that people don’t seem to want to talk about, even people who want to talk about rape a lot. I also think social media incentivizes people just shutting down when they don’t hear exactly what they want and expect to hear, so that many facets of that experience go unspoken. I tweeted about your newsletter on Women Talking, which I guess was sort of perverse, given my own expectations of the platform, and somebody responded that they’d stopped reading when they encountered your “seeming annoyance that the ‘good men’ in the women’s lives aren’t given airtime in a film literally called Women Talking.”
That’s not what I said.
Of course it isn’t, and that response is extremely dumb. I do remember that before social media, when someone wrote something making a tricky or complex argument, some people would have dumb, uninformed responses to it. But you wouldn’t have to know about all of them.
One of the things I loved about your piece, which compares Miriam Toews’ novel to the movie, is that the movie treats the Mennonite women like they’re in some kind of vacuum, like they don’t come from a very particular community which has been their entire world. So it doesn’t address that what they’re doing is dismantling the only world they know. And that is one of the biggest obstacles with people acknowledging rape. You’ve written about how complex and confusing the intimate side of it can be, but there’s also a communal aspect that creates a huge resistance. As you point out, in the real-life situation, unlike the book and film based on it, the women did not leave their community. Their reasons for making that decision are erased in favor of what you describe as an “urban feminist” narrative of individualism.
If you hadn’t read the backstory and didn’t know this was about an actual thing that had happened in an Old Colony Mennonite community, you would have no idea who these people were. They would seem to exist in a fantasy. And that was on purpose. They were meant to be a metaphor for women in society.
But they are not. This occurred in a very specific cultural context: a fanatical religious community. People use the word patriarchy way too lightly. I don’t personally think we’re living in a patriarchy. These women really were. It is a hardcore patriarchal community where the women do not have rights. What happened there came out of a specific cultural pathology of that place and that society. To leave that out of the picture, to make it a metaphor, is just, to me, really wrong.
As a story, it’s puzzling. They say they love these men, and how are they going to leave these men that they love? But we don’t know anything about that. What does love look like in a community like that? How did they relate to these men normally, on a daily basis? That’s not just a logical question. To feel the horror of something like that violation of trust, I have to know who these people are outside of the horror. You never see them outside of that.
Did you ever see the movie The Magdalene Sisters?
It was about an Irish Catholic home for “wayward girls” in the 1960s, right?
The movie begins with a scene—I think it’s a wedding. Families are together; there’s dancing, beautiful music, celebration. One of the girls is beckoned upstairs by a handsome boy, and when she goes up, he rapes her. It isn’t about good men or bad men. It’s not trying to say anything gray area–ish about what happened. It’s that in that moment, you get a sense of the culture she’s part of. You see the pleasure of it, the beauty of the dancing, the verve, the connection between people. It seemed like Women Talking stripped that out completely, and to me, that is much less powerful because it’s too abstract.
Sarah Polley said something in an interview that was maybe taken out of context: “It happens everywhere.” But that is a rare, baroque, grotesque incident of sexual violence. Yes, I know women are raped, a lot. I know rape is a common crime. But I’ve never heard of men, as a group, getting together again and again to attack women they’re related to.
Over and over again. That is really particular. To act like it’s a routine occurrence is off to me.
One of the words you use a lot in your newsletters is granular or granularity. You’ve always been most interested in the fine, idiosyncratic details of people’s lives and feelings. What I think I’m hearing you say about this is that art that is specific to a particular individual’s experience honors their humanity in a way that making them an abstract symbol does not.
Yes, the novel includes memories of the women or August and a couple of interactions with the old, kind-of-out-of-it guy whose barn they’re using. You see how they’ve lived and how the community works, how there is affection between them and the men, even if it is twisted and limited by the schematic nature of the community. There’s still some playfulness. This is not about making the men seem nice. To me, it makes what happened worse, really. It puts you in the place of asking: How can this happen? Sometimes you read of moments of kindness Germans showed to Jews in the camps. To me, this doesn’t mean that they were “nice” but that people are so strange and complex, and we have to maintain our humility before that.
I love the writing you’ve done in the newsletter form, but it does feel at odds with what people like to call “the discourse.” There’s a constant push to reduce things to the most elementary dichotomies so everyone can take an instant and easy moral stand. And you can’t take a moral stand without being … what’s the word?
I think you can be certain that what happened to those Mennonite women was an atrocity and, at the same time, realize that you can’t do justice to their experience if you don’t show the full spectrum of their emotional lives in that world. That’s the role of the artist, or at least one of the roles.
Another topic you’ve gotten into is #MeToo, and the short story you’ve just published in the New Yorker is a revisiting of “Secretary.” The narrator is now in her fifties, still thinking about this guy whom she feels has both damaged her and been a key part of her erotic life. A few years ago, you also wrote a story, “This Is Pleasure,” about a publisher accused of sexual harassment. So you’ve stepped into these big hot-button debates and insistently addressed that granularity, the specificity of each person, their particular experience, the social context, and their feelings about it. Which I feel many people object to. They want to apply a cookie-cutter stance to every situation, no more discussion, and seem to fear that morality becomes impossible if they can’t. What’s it like to be writing the way you do in this environment?
I think it’s less hard on me because of my age. It would be worse if I were 40 years old and this was happening. At my age, I expect to be a little bit out of the mainstream. If I don’t ever teach again, that’s fine. But if I were 40 and felt like I might never teach again, that would be really frightening.
It’s strange, but at the same time, I do understand their point of view. People are just scared shitless. People want certainty because the world is terrifying them. The ’90s were weird, but right or wrong, there was a sense of basic safety. I was upset when George W. Bush got reelected, but even without knowing it, I had some basic faith in the world around me. And I think that’s been really shattered. The people in charge seem crazy. It seems like real evil is rampant and there’s climate change and people still don’t believe it and aren’t paying attention.
I feel very, very bad for young people now, and I can understand how they just don’t want to tolerate anyone who seems like they’re opening the door to shittiness. People who say, “Let’s look at the other side!” or “I thought he was a nice person!” One of the commenters on my Substack wrote that she had been raped by her father and she didn’t want to understand why people do things like that. I had written that I have an interest in understanding terrible crimes because I feel that it expands one’s humanity in a way. But I get that point of view. I sometimes think I’m a little too interested in understanding certain terrible things. But as a writer, it’s hard to fault myself for that too much.