Mary Gaitskill was born in 1954 and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. At fifteen she ran away from home, supporting herself in Toronto and the Bay Area as a street vendor, office clerk, and stripper. After returning to her family, she enrolled in a community college, then the University of Michigan. In 1981 she moved to New York. Before her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, was published in 1988, her jobs included bookstore clerk, receptionist, and proofreader. She made extra money as a freelance journalist and as a prostitute.
Variations of these early biographical facts appear throughout Gaitskill’s fiction. Her work is built on variation, recombination. Her books work out a personal mythology; as in any other mythology, the basic elements stay the same. So for instance the father who molests his daughter in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) broods in the same way, in what may as well be the same recliner, as the father who rejects his daughter for being a lesbian in the story “Tiny Smiling Daddy,” from Gaitskill’s second collection, Because They Wanted To (1997). Both men are in the habit of turning up their nostrils and stroking their inner nose-hairs.
These fathers are not the same character; they are different aspects of a single household god. And they inhabit the same myth, a myth at the root of Gaitskill’s work: cruel or kind, the father dominates his wife and daughters. He is lonely and afraid of the world outside his house, and he forces his loneliness on them. At home the women exist to prop him up. They rub his feet and neck. They listen to his stories of perfidy at the office; they accept his reactionary views as their own. They listen to him talk about his favorite old records when nobody else will:
He didn’t realize his signals could not be heard, that the men [from his office] were looking at him strangely. Or maybe he did realize but didn’t know what else to do but keep signaling. Eventually, he gave up, and there were few visitors. He was just by himself, trying to keep his secret and tender feelings alive through these same old songs.
(Veronica, p. 16)
The favorite daughter runs away from home. She runs away because she is the favorite daughter. She can’t bear the weight of the father’s loneliness, a loneliness that infects her whole family. Meanwhile her sister hunkers down. She retreats into her bedroom and eats herself into obesity.
The runaway becomes a stripper, she turns tricks, she models—the point is, she discovers her sexual power. In Gaitskill’s work, that’s what running away means. Even though the narrator of “Secretary” (in Bad Behavior) comes home to her family every day after work, once she starts having sex with her boss she’s living on another planet. And it doesn’t matter that sex, in “Secretary,” consists of getting insulted, spanked, and masturbated …