Gaitskill, Mary 1954–

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Gaitskill, Mary 1954–

(Mary Lawrence Gaitskill)

PERSONAL: Born November 11, 1954, in Lexington, KY; daughter of Lawrence Russell (a teacher) and Dorothy Jane (a homemaker; maiden name, Mayer) Gaitskill; married, September, 2001. Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1981. Hobbies and other interests: Community theater.

ADDRESSES: Home—NY. Agent—Jin Auh, The Wylie Agency, 250 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10107.

CAREER: Writer, novelist, short-story writer, and educator. San Francisco State University, associate professor, 1993; University of California, Berkeley, instructor in creative writing, 1995; University of Houston, associate professor, 1996–97; New York University, instructor in creative writing, 1999; The New School, instructor in creative writing, 2000; Brown University, instructor in creative writing, 2001; Syracuse University, associate professor of English, 2002–. Hollins College, Roanoke, VA, writer-in-residence, 1994.


AWARDS, HONORS: Jule and Avery Hopwood Award from University of Michigan, 1981, for "The Women Who Knew Judo and Other Stories"; PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, 1998, for Because They Wanted To; National Book Award nominee, 2005; Guggenheim fellowship, 2002; National Book Critics Circle Award nominee.


Bad Behavior (short stories), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Two Girls, Fat and Thin (novel), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Because They Wanted To (short stories), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

Veronica (novel), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor to periodicals, including the New Yorker, Harper's, Threepenny Review, Tin House, Elle, Book Forum, Village Voice, Zoetrope, Washington Post Magazine, and Esquire.

Contributor to books, including The Best American Short Stories, 1993, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, 1998.

ADAPTATIONS: Short story Secretary, from Bad Behavior, was adapted for a film of the same title by Erin Cressida Wilson. The film is directed by Steven Shainberg and stars James Spader.

SIDELIGHTS: Novelist and short-story writer Mary Gaitskill has "a reputation as a rowdy and a reprobate whose ideas about sex are—to say the least—startlingly innovative," commented reviewer Carolyn See in her Washington Post review of Gaitskill's book, Because They Wanted To. Certainly, Gaitskill's books concern a certain "sexual pathology." Her characters' actions generally center on abuse they have given or abuse they have suffered. These warped sexualities go on to infect the core of their lives. Gaitskill told CA, about her first book, Bad Behavior: "My characters' apparent interest in sadomasochistic sex is more a confusion of violation with closeness than a desire to be hurt. I will continue to work with both of these themes in my novel."

In Gaitskill's first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, she portrays the seamy side of New York City and the troubled characters who inhabit it. Martin Waxman in Toronto's Globe and Mail wrote that "her characters are outsiders whose behavior is 'bad' in that it is different,… unexpected." Often their behavior is self-destructive. Quoting from the story "Daisy's Valentine," Wax-man wrote: "Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life … it had been a long time since he felt his life was in danger of further ruin and it was fun to think it was still possible." In Gaitskill's stories a would-be writer becomes a prostitute to support herself, a secretary submits to being molested by her boss, and, in the ironic "Romantic Weekend," a nervous young woman spends a weekend with a married man who tries to humiliate her.

These characters abuse drugs, themselves, or other people, often in a misguided effort to realize their dreams, wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. For example, Kakutani noted, in "Something Nice," a veterinarian offers a young prostitute five hundred dollars to "take the night off so they can 'have time to really act like people in a relationship.'" According to Kakutani, these incidents are believable and not "merely perverse" because "Gaitskill writes with such authority, such radar-perfect detail, that she is able to make even the most extreme situations seem real." Kakutani added that Gaitskill's detailed treatment of the characters results in "fierce portraits of individuals rather than a gallery of eccentric types." Similarly, Waxman praised Gaitskill's fiction as honest, original, and memorable, and called her "a gifted writer whose prose sparkles with wit and surprises."

Gaitskill's novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, centers on the relationship between Justine Sade and Dorothy Never. Thin Justine is a freelance journalist who meets fat Dorothy while working on a story about an Ayn Rand-like philosophical/literary figure. The two women seem to be complete opposites—Justine is a sexually promiscuous sadomasochist, while Dorothy treasures complete solitude and has no friends or lovers. But the two women are drawn together over a shared history of sexual abuse: 13-year-old Dorothy at the hands of her father; 5-year-old Justine first by a colleague of her father, and in ensuing years, by other men. Lesley A. Rimmel wrote in the Women's Review of Books: "Rarely has a work so sensitively portrayed the pain, anguish, and isolation caused by the trauma of this abuse, and of the resulting desperate quest for solace and dignity." Jane Smiley commented in Tribune Books on another important aspect of the book, that it offers a "potent picture of an America promoted by advertising—a place where physical looks, good or bad, are paramount, where adolescent hell is life's central episode and one that lasts much longer than high school, but where, if luck holds, strength can be drawn from facing up to, and seeking to understand, early experiences of cruelty and fear."

"It is a credit to Ms. Gaitskill's skillful prose," wrote Ginger Danto in the New York Times Book Review, "with its fine storyteller's pace and brilliant metaphors, that we are drawn along, loath to abandon this grim story." Indeed, the novel resolves on a more optimistic note, with Justine and Dorothy poised on forging what has been unknown to them before—a caring relationship. Roz Kaveney, in the Times Literary Supplement, called Two Girls, Fat and Thin an "assured first novel" and noted that it has the "same polish [as Bad Behavior] in a longer and more complex form." Some critics have complained that Gaitskill's style in the novels can be overwritten, but Sarah Schulman declared in Advocate that "readers must pick and choose what information they will retain, because the clues are buried in this text as they would be in real life. But even this use of banality cannot hide certain cruelties: 'You are an argument for abortion,' said [Dorothy's] father. 'If I had known you were going to happen, I never would have had a child.'" And Katie Roiphe pointed out in Harper's the impact of Gaitskill's writing: "You have to feel sympathy, horror, and the breathless panic of the thirteen-year-old being molested by her father."

Because They Wanted To offers a cast of depressed and sometime depraved characters, similar to those found in Bad Behavior. Again, Gaitskill tends to focus on sexual relations between women and men or women and women. A rape fantasy willingly played out between a couple gets taken too far, and a man confides to his airplane seatmate of his involvement in a gang rape of a drunk girl at a college party. "The Dentist" finds protagonist Jill developing an obsession with her dentist, who insists on sending out mixed signals. Richard Eder noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Jill is neither victim nor fool; she is also both. The signals of the modern sexual game and of modern life in general are so balefully inscrutable that each step is a trap."

David Gates of Newsweek found in Because They Wanted To Gaitskill's true subject: her characters' "essential disconnectedness and their sometimes pathetic, sometimes heroic solitude." Gates explained that "Gaitskill seems to have a vision rather than a career agenda." Carolyn See also found in the novella that ends the collection—about a bisexual woman "too old for the standard run of Gaitskill shenanigans"—the question of how to find love. "Gaitskill's answer," wrote See, "though tentative, is affectionate, charming, thoughtful, tender." Because They Wanted To is filled with such complex characters who both seek a connection and remain alone—characters are like those in Bad Behavior who, Gaitskill told CA, "don't know how to be intimate, whose efforts to be intimate are painfully thwarted by their ignorance." Gates commented: "Because They Wanted To is too rich to read at a sitting—too many good lines, too much precision about too many complex emotions—yet it's too compelling not to."

Gaitskill's works showcase her strengths, which are, according to Valerie Miner of Tribune Books, "her unflinching flirtation with taboo, her clear-eyed used of seamy detail, and her talent in portraying sometimes-creepy people as vulnerable and endearing." New York Times Book Review critic Craig Seligman remarked of Gaitskill and all of her writings: "'The dirt within' is what she's after, because she recognizes it as the secret of personality—the core of our humanity."

Gaitskill's 2005 novel, Veronica, her first in a decade, "offers an ode to the complex feelings that manifest in women's friendships," commented Eleanor J. Bader in Library Journal. The novel's narrator is Alison, a former Paris fashion model whose better days are behind her. Now forty-seven years old, stricken with hepatitis C, and reduced to disability payments and janitorial work to make a living, Alison still fondly remembers her youthful self and the heady days she spent on the high-fashion runways of the world throughout the excesses of the 1980s. When Alison meets title character Veronica, a meticulous professional proofreader, abrasive observer, and a flamboyant personality, she is immediately drawn to the older woman. Veronica offers Alison a different perspective on beauty and love, about how being pretty means always having to please people. Veronica, herself physically unattractive, speaks of the freedom found when one leaves beauty behind. The thorny, unlikely friendship between the two women provides the central power behind the book. "While Gaitskill draws minor characters with brutal precision, both Veronica and Alison resist categorization or facile description," observed Kristen Case in New Leader. Their relationship, Case continued, "like so many in Gaitskill's fiction, is full of misunderstandings and unvoiced sentiments, yet also punctuated with fleeting moments of genuine affinity." When Veronica contracts AIDS from her unfaithful and profligate lover, Duncan, her life slowly contracts as friends abandon her, leaving Alison as her last fragile connection to the world she's leaving behind. Though Alison and Veronica are never lovers, and their friendship is often tenuous, "somehow, as Gaitskill devastatingly illustrates, they made each other whole," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic.

The Kirkus Reviews critic named Gaitskill's work "a gorgeous, articulate novel that is at once an unflinching meditation on degradation and a paean to deliverance." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called the book "elegiac, funny, and life affirming." The novel is "beautiful and sensitively crafted," Bader concluded. Veronica "is an intensely lyrical and poetic work, full of rich turns of phrase and brilliant, vivid metaphor," commented John Davidson in a review on the Pop Matters Web site. "An author such as this," Davidson continued, "striving to communicate difficult emotions we often consider incommunicable, needs to be recognized and, more importantly, read."

Gaitskill once told CA: "Many articles have, in various tones of voice, chronicled my 'troubled' adolescence, the time spent in mental institutions, the fact that I ran away from home at age sixteen and became a stripper, and so on. This background is of limited relevance to my writing except for one thing: my experience of life as essentially unhappy and uncontrollable taught me to examine the way people, including myself, create survival systems and psychologically 'safe' places for themselves in unorthodox and sometimes apparently self-defeating ways. These inner worlds, although often unworkable and unattractive in social terms, can have a unique beauty and courage. One of my desires in writing Bad Behavior was to elucidate these worlds (or at least one or two of them) rather than to shock people or to portray 'losers,' as a few unintelligent critics have suggested."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 69, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.


Advocate, May 21, 1991, Sarah Schulman, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 90.

American Book Review, July-August, 1989, review of Bad Behavior, p. 12.

Booklist, January 1, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 818; September 1, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of Veronica, p. 63.

Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 56; October 14, 2005, Jennifer Reese, review of Veronica, p. 161.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 10, 1988, Martin Waxman, review of Bad Behavior.

Harper's, November, 1995, Katie Roiphe, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 65.

Interview, January, 1991, Mark Marvel, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 54.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2005, review of Veronica, p. 806.

Library Journal, February 1, 1991, Francis Poole, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 102; January, 1997, Adam Mazmanian, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 152; October 15, 2005, Eleanor J. Bader, review of Veronica, p. 45.

Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1997, Richard Eder, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 2.

Michigan Quarterly Review, summer, 1989, William Holinger, review of Bad Behavior, pp. 450-458.

Nation, December 30, 1991, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 858.

New Leader, May 6, 1991, Mark Kamine, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 18; September-October, 2005, Kristen Case, "Through the Gloss Darkly," review of Veronica, p. 32.

New Statesman & Society, July 5, 1991, Chris Savage King, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 38.

Newsweek, April 8, 1991, David Gates, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 63; January 29, 1997, David Gates, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 57.

New York Times, May 21, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of Bad Behavior, p. 17.

New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, George Garret, review of Bad Behavior, p. 3; February 17, 1991, Ginger Danto, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 1; February 9, 1997, Craig Seligman, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 8.

O, The Oprah Magazine, October, 2005, Pam Houston, "Memory and Desire: Mary Gaitskill's Fiercely Lyrical New Novel," review of Veronica, p. 240.

People, February 11, 1991, Leah Rozen, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 21; January 27, 1997, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 56; November 25, 1996, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 57; August 1, 2005, Heidi Julavits, review of Veronica, p. 40.

Times Literary Supplement, June 28, 1991, Roz Kaveny, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 19.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 21, 1992, Jane Smiley, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 8; March 9, 1997, Valerie Miner, review of Because They Wanted To, p. 9.

Village Voice, June 14, 1988, review of Bad Behavior, p. 64.

Voice Literary Supplement, January-February, 1989, review of Bad Behavior, p. 42; November, 1992, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 30.

Women's Review of Books, July, 1991, Lesley A. Rimmel, review of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, p. 19.

ONLINE, (March 4, 2006), Michael Martin, "The Nerve Interview: Mary Gaitskill."

Pop Matters, (December 2, 2005), John Davidson, "All This Useless Beauty," review of Veronica.