Mary Gaitskill on Revisiting Her Story “Secretary”

Your story “Minority Report” returns to an older story of yours, “Secretary,” which was first published in 1988. Rather than writing a straightforward sequel, you retell the earlier story, and then follow the main character, Debby, through the next three and a half decades of her life. What made you want to go back to “Secretary,” and how did you settle on this form of retelling and extending?

The story came out of a conversation I had with some people who wanted to make “Secretary” into a play; a number of different ideas for an ending were discussed, and, to me, the best one was a final encounter or confrontation between the man and the woman. The other people weren’t so into that idea—they wanted it to be all about Debby, and, anyway, what could happen in that confrontation? I couldn’t answer that question in the moment, but I decided to write a story and see how it evolved.

I felt that I had to start at the beginning—that is, with the events of “Secretary”—in order to fully situate the reader in Debby’s experience; it would not be the same if she were just summarizing it as a much older person. I wanted the reader to inhabit her naïve and innocent perception, her very modest hopefulness, and her acceptance of the limitations of her environment. I think those things are crucial to what happens and to how she develops. I also wanted the shock and arousal of what happens to be fully felt. I didn’t think I could get that effect if I told it in flashback.

In “Secretary,” a teen-age girl goes to work as a secretary for a lawyer, who punishes her for typing errors by spanking and sexually dominating her. In “Minority Report,” you look at the effects that that experience has on her adult life. Did you know when you started writing what the effects would be?

Not entirely, no. I saw them, the effects, as obvious but at the same time mysterious—even she doesn’t quite understand how much or, rather, exactly how the experience affected her. She’s fiftysomething now, and she’s had a lot of things happen in her life that weren’t just about him, even though the story focusses on him; the #MeToo movement, though it’s not explicitly named, has caused her to look back and think about her experience differently. It’s something she has kind of absorbed, and it has become . . . not normal exactly but fully integrated into herself. So she’s trying to figure out what this has meant in her life. It’s hard, because, in a perverse way, what the lawyer did awakened her and made her feel more alive than ever before or since. But that aliveness came at a heavy price. For example, she came to believe that her sexuality had closed off the possibility of motherhood for her. Was that actually the case? Would that have been the case even if she hadn’t met the lawyer? She doesn’t know, and these thoughts may be chimerical. But very painfully so.

Your retelling of “Secretary” differs from the original in a few small details, I think. Were you revising as you went, or were you adjusting for ways in which the details may have shifted in Debby’s memory?

I didn’t look at the old story initially. I went back to it after I’d written out the beginning of “Minority Report,” to be sure that I was describing certain things in the same way and having the characters say key things. But I did want to have Debby look at some things differently, forget some things, and include others that weren’t mentioned in the original. People usually tell stories differently over time, and I wanted the story to reflect that. I also wanted Debby’s life before she met the lawyer to be a bit more visible.

“Secretary” was written more than thirty-five years ago. Do you understand Debby differently now? Do you think you have changed a lot as a writer?

My understanding of the character is, in some basic way, the same. In an essay that I wrote about the movie version of “Secretary,” which came out in 2002 (“Victims and Losers: A Love Story”), I described her as “a knot of smothered passion expressed only obliquely and negatively in her outer self . . . someone of unformed strength and intelligence, which have never been reflected back to her by her world and so have become thwarted, angry and peculiar.” Her desire to humiliate herself, I wrote, “may be accurately described as self-hatred; however, looked at less judgmentally, it’s an ardent and truthful desire to represent, with her own being, the distorted world around her and inside her, where force and passion are humiliated and punished by being ignored or twisted.” Later, I said more simply, “Hunger for contact underlies her perversity and to some extent drives it.”

I still feel all of that about her. In the first story especially, you can see how stunted and flat her family and environment are, and how that has affected her. But, in the past, in some subtle way, my sense of her was a bit harder. I saw her as having a harder carapace. I feel more grief for her now.

As for the second question: I have developed as a writer, and that has to mean change—but it is hard for me to really describe or evaluate that. I’m experiencing the development from the inside and so can’t really see the shape or direction with any objectivity. Do you think I’ve changed as a writer?

I do think you’ve changed in some ways. Or not changed so much as deepened. Your impulse to push further really shows in “Minority Report”—where Debby has become such a complex character, with her own agency, in a way that she wasn’t quite yet in “Secretary” (though, of course, she was younger then, so, by definition, less developed). Do you find that your curiosity about your characters is greater now?

My curiosity is greater just generally. As a writer, I feel that I can see more now, that in some hard-to-articulate way certain obstacles to vision have been cleared or are, at least, less present. At a certain point, maybe ten years ago, I realized that I didn’t know anything! That was kind of great. But also awkward, because, of course, as you go through life you have to at least act like you know stuff. Especially when people ask you questions!

Debby’s erotic imagination was formed by Ned Johnson’s behavior. Her desire to recapture what he made her feel at seventeen has haunted her dreams and her sexual life ever since. Do you think her sexuality would have leaned in that direction regardless of Ned Johnson, or do you think that she was, for lack of a better word, damaged by him—or both?

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