Some writers presume to outwit their readers; others assume that their readers will try to outwit them, so they engage in preemptive maneuvers. But Mary Gaitskill does neither. She avoids bringing any such antagonism into her writing and asks her readers to be as compassionate and empathetic as possible. She doesn’t assume that her readers will show compassion; that would be far too sentimental. Instead, she gives them little choice. In her writing, Gaitskill uses compassion as a conduit for interpretation. “If you allow it,” she writes, in the conclusion of an essay about erotic photography, “seeing [the artist’s] deep presence can make you feel that way-down part of yourself, the part that hungers for such vulnerability and intensity.” Such language—if you allow it—is an invitation to open our hearts to what we might consider beautiful, and it permeates her new collection of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer. The rest, of course, is up to us.
Indeed, Gaitskill isn’t particularly concerned with being right or with offering any kind of tidy resolution to the ethical and intellectual quandaries that she recounts. When she is righteous, it’s usually for a moral reason, like a call for practical thinking (as in her response to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch and its self-loathing brand of feminism) or for respecting the dignity of others (as in her response to how we treat the wives of unfaithful politicians). Mostly, she returns again and again to the idea of reading—and writing—with curiosity and compassion.
“Lost Cat,” a 48-page essay that originally appeared in Granta in 2009, has been described as the emotional centerpiece of Somebody With a Little Hammer. The essay weaves together the story of Gattino, Gaitskill’s lost cat; the death of her father; and the stilted time that she spent with three children from the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that gives low-income New York City youth a summer camp–like experience with host families upstate. It’s a memoir about loss, but the nature of that loss is complex. Instead of a march toward an easily distilled, tweetable life lesson, the essay captures how it feels when various experiences of loss and grief mix and compound into something heavier than their sum. Gaitskill’s search for Gattino turns into an obsession that begins to outweigh the loss of a cat alone; mourning her father’s death means considering the troubled relationship they had during his life; and her relationship with the three children is marked by an inability to communicate across the structures of race and class that isolate them from each other. In the end, Gaitskill doesn’t arrive at a profound clarity. Yet she writes her experiences down anyway.
The essay is an illumination, not an explanation—like grief, these dynamics of love distorted by power aren’t easily resolved. Considering the loved ones she has lost and her own self-declared propensity to love too much, Gaitskill writes: “I once read a Chekhov story that described a minor character as ‘trying to snatch from life more than it can give’: maybe I have turned into such a person, unable to accept what is given, always trying to tear things up in order to find what is ‘real,’ even when I don’t know what ‘real’ is, unable to maintain the respect, the dignity of not asking too much or even looking too closely at the workings of the heart, which, no matter how you look, can never be fully seen or understood…. Then I think, But life can give a lot. If you can’t see inside the heart no matter how you look, then why not look? Why not see as much as you can?” At the end of “Lost Cat,” we are left only with the weight of her specific grief—and, like Gaitskill herself, we’re not offered much of a way to understand it.
The second essay of the collection, “The Trouble With Following the Rules,” is an exploration of the campus-rape crisis, and it begins by recounting an act of unwanted sex that occurred when Gaitskill was 16 years old. Of the event, she writes, “I let myself be drawn into sex because I could not face the idea that if I said no, things might get ugly…. My bad time was made worse,” she adds, “by his extreme gentleness; he was obviously trying very hard to turn me on, which, for reasons I didn’t understand, broke my heart.”
After recounting the incident, Gaitskill proceeds to examine why she called it “rape.” Sometimes, she tells us, she used violent language that didn’t capture the subdued nature of what happened—“Not out of shame or guilt, but because the pumped-up version was more congruent with my feelings of violation than the confusing facts.” She grapples with having lied about the extremity of the incident; at the time, she writes, she did so “in service of what I felt to be the metaphorical truth—although what that truth was is not at all clear to me, then or even now.”
From this point, Gaitskill delves not into questions of harm and victimization but into an investigation of the distance between those two truths, and of the “rules” that govern such encounters. This essay is also thereby an investigation of the absolutism—or, more precisely, the acute desire for resolution, and for being on the right side of things—that shapes our interpersonal actions and the tales we tell about them. What enlivens Gaitskill’s writing is her ability to represent a variety of reactions to a single event—even one so extreme as rape—and her willingness to consider all of them. Wisely, she understands that anything close to a reliable truth often exists as a mixture of rhetorical positions and perspectives.
Later in the essay, listening to a segment on the radio about catcalling, Gaitskill is frustrated by a timid feminist panelist: “If her self-respect was so easily shaken by an obscene comment made by some random guy on the street, I wondered, how did she expect to get through life?” And yet she admits to feeling “conflicted”: “If there had been a time in my own life when I couldn’t stand up for myself, how could I expect other people to do it?”
Gaitskill finds that the issue isn’t about young people not following the “rules,” the mostly unspoken social conventions that are ill-defined and poorly communicated to begin with. It’s that young people—who, sooner or later, become teachers of the rules—aren’t being taught to think for themselves and to identify their own boundaries. When that doesn’t happen, Gaitskill suggests, “you’ll have a hard time figuring out your own rules, and you’ll feel scared—especially when there is real danger of sexual assault.” Gaitskill did not want to have sex that night in Detroit; but fear, and possibly a sense of social propriety, prevented her from saying no. She identifies what happened to her as rape, but she knows that the reality of that moment was more complicated than what the word often conveys. What—or whose—“rules,” except for the awareness of her own boundaries, could Gaitskill have obeyed in that moment that would have led to a different conclusion? Consent negotiations are a common suggestion, but running through a script about consent isn’t the same thing as a full awareness of personal boundaries, needs, and desires, just as following Google maps isn’t the same as knowing where you’re going. And yet, many times, these nebulous rules are all that’s available. Despite her own experiences, and despite the sensitivity of the subject, Gaitskill remains open to opposition. The closest thing we get to a precept is that we should all try to learn to think for ourselves—and even then, things can go wrong.
Near the end of the essay, Gaitskill offers an anecdote about an acquaintance who came on to her later in life, and whom she turned down by saying, “It would be very ugly for both of us. Is that really what you want?” But shortly after recounting the anecdote, she admits to making an editorial decision: “In the original version of this essay I didn’t mention that when I woke up the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.” In fact, she and her acquaintance became lovers for the next two years. “In omitting the aftermath of that ‘responsible’ decision,” Gaitskill writes, “I was making the messy situation far too clear-cut, actually undermining my own argument by making it about propriety rather than the kind of fluid emotional negotiation that I see as necessary for personal responsibility.”
It’s easy to see why a writer might do that: to prove a point, to avoid being seen as a hypocrite, or, more likely, to evoke a particular reaction. The truth that ends up on a page can never be the same as the truth as it occurred in the moment, and when nonfiction writers are the protagonists of their own work, this “versioning” becomes more salient. Revision takes place as soon as words are used to describe something that happened. Writing is a form of crystallization; it makes effervescent moments last as long as language will, but the specificity of language itself can be a kind of cage. For Gaitskill, then, writing about revision is a canny formal decision, calling the reader’s attention to the potential doorways and paths not taken in the process of the essay’s construction.
There is no way any of us could have seen the original version of the essay. That Gaitskill admits that one existed is to suggest that the events of our lives can be presented in multiple ways. Acknowledging that she felt the desire to craft a simpler, neater story is a way of showing her hand—her own desire to follow the rules, even as she shirks them. And revealing the “actual” outcome, in which she and the acquaintance become lovers, is portrayed as an act of honesty, tempering our instinct toward narrative simplification. After all, life is never so clear-cut, and representing it as such leaves us thinking that there really are some kind of rules to be followed. Gaitskill can’t shrink the distance between metaphorical truth and actual truth any more than the rest of us can, but she knows that this space exists, and she values the two points that make it so.
While reading Somebody With a Little Hammer, I found myself being challenged in an unusual way. I wanted to know what to think, but Gaitskill wouldn’t tell me; I had to put serious energy into figuring that out for myself. Much of the book consists of music, film, and book reviews, and I kept thinking to myself, “Well, but is it any good?” There are no grades in Gaitskill’s critical world, no two-, three-, and four-star ratings. Indeed, a person might ask the same question of this collection itself. But in the end, the most illuminating lesson isn’t found in any of the essays; it lies within the energy and attitude of Gaitskill’s writing—and what it asks of us as readers.