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Feb 3, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

The "Trouble" essay (both the 1994 and "Somebody" versions) has been a kind of gold standard for me in terms of communicating the nuances of one's experience without dictating how anyone else should feel about theirs. I’ve even thought, if I can communicate myself as clearly as this essay does, there can be no possible misunderstandings! So it’s surprising to learn of these reactions. (Especially since the essay is ABOUT this!)

I too have found myself threatened and panicked by discrepancies between my and other people’s language around comparable experiences, and it’s hard to know what provokes anxiety because something true is being revealed (a chasm between a friend and me, or the fact that language evolves, even when a word is unimpeachably accurate to me)…or if it provokes anxiety because I feel the familiar presence of rape apologism, or that someone is telling me how to feel one way or another, etc. Sometimes it seems impossible to me that I could ever talk about this stuff with people without everyone talking in code about their own history and whichever way they’ve found to live with it.

The play Downstate is partly about that and how language acts on experience (rape in particular) and the "correct" responses to it (among many other things), and it moves so quickly that I found myself needing to suspend my judgment of any character till it was over. I found it imperfect and smug at times (maybe also bc the audience I saw it with was eager to laugh at one character especially) but it does a lot of difficult things very well and spoke to a lot of things I care about. Seeing really talented human beings act it helped! It’s also been published.

Also reminds me of a friend who's reading Bret Easton Ellis's new novel. I haven't read it so here's my friend's description: "the teenaged character is invited to a producer's hotel room who then says 'now you have to do something for me' and essentially rapes him.” In the novel the narrator says something like, “But I wasn’t a victim.” And my friend said that reading the novel, he (my friend) felt like the narrator was clearly pained and trying to reframe it. But in a podcast interview, Ellis talked about how that really did happen to him, and also said something like, “I decided I’m not a victim.” My friend said that in the novel the line felt nuanced, whereas in the interview—especially given that Ellis is typically pretty reactionary--it sounded more like a comment on the culture wars, somehow no longer about one person’s experience and psychology.

I guess this is not a revelation (that fiction can be capacious in a way non-fiction isn’t), but maybe if I have any point it’s that it still feels really important to me that writers grapple with this stuff in nonfiction contexts where the reader knows more about what is at stake for the writer. (Just knowing I May Destroy You was based on Coel's experience made me more attentive to and trusting of the show's ideological arguments, even though it shouldn't be read as purely autobiographical.) I’m grateful for essays like “Trouble” and this one and look forward to your thoughts on Women Talking.

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Feb 6, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

I'm very grateful for this.

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Feb 3, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

I read this when you first wrote it. And cried. And again just now. I had kept the copy of Harpers for years afterwards - I think because it spoke to me and I wasn’t sure why. I had a something happen when I was 17. Only I was raped but couldn’t admit that it was rape. I lied. I blamed myself. Your writing really helped me to understand that there wasn’t a correct reaction to a sexual assault. That what I did after didn’t change what happened. So thank you for putting your complicated stuff out there. I read it now and it hits me in a new way. I admire your confidence and love your writing.

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Feb 10, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Yes! This concept of a correct reaction is very reductive to the complexity that is being a human being. I always found it interesting that with death-grief, it becomes cumulative and our reactions may become stronger as more people die, even though the person may mean less to us, so that grief is retroactive.

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Feb 4, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

I think the pain point is this. You talked about being “really raped”

When a person can choose. I’ll go along with it or I’ll say no and get forced. It’s like I picked being raped over just letting it happen without any fight. If it was a “real rape” my life would have been threatened. I’d have no option to just go along with it and not get hurt. It took a long time for me to be able to read your essay without feeling judged.

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author

I think I know what you mean. I wrote about it in another essay, having sex I didn't really want for years after these incidents because I was afraid if I said no it might go horribly south and I couldn't face it. It took me a long time to get over that, I even remember when it happened finally at age 21, when I was able to say no with conviction, and it was fine, the guy accepted it. I had to say it a few times, but he respected it. Game-changer, but it was hard to get there.

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Sometimes I feel like women have come so far from “the old days” when we couldn’t talk about things at all and now we've overshot somehow and we’re at a place where we can’t talk about things in case we do it “wrong”. Thank you for sharing.

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Feb 4, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Mary, if I made a list of rotten experiences, it would include my childhood with a mentally ill mother, and some messy hours with men that didn't lead to rape, but easily could have had I not gotten away. Beyond a doubt, the damage caused by my mother was far more injurious than the fumbling, powerful hands of a few men I would never see again. The men were guilty of abuse, and so was my mother, but it was her hands that left the marks on my psyche. So I completely understand your response to the rape you experienced. Thank you for writing about it with such clarity. My guess is the students who say you can't be trusted now have no such lived experience to draw on.

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author

Thank you for this, Kathy.

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

I agree with the emphasis on emotional abuse in childhood (from dad or mom) as potentially just as damaging as rape.

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There was a shitshow of a "debate" about this in a recent forum that I was in. It seems like it makes people uncomfortable to have to reckon with someone who doesn't view their "trauma" in the way that society has prescribed—particularly for women and sex. It seems like everyone's as certain as a zealot about this especially grey area of the human experience. It's understandable to think in victim terms when every major institution of culture tells you that you are perfect prey walking around ready to be victimized. I don't know what this is doing to young women's psychological well-being, but I can guess that its not really "empowering".

Thanks as always for your thoughtful writing.

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I had read your original essay when it came out and it is so good, so true in all its nuances. It makes me angry that the #metoo movement has erased all these complex nuances and multiple personal interpretations to the point that a young student wouldn't feel safe with you in class!

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Well, there may be a little more going on.

From what I understand, in newer social-justice spaces 'safe' can include feeling threatened, hurt, or dehumanized in addition to physical unsafety--it's probably unlikely the student thought Ms. Gaitskill was going to hit her over the head with a copy of *The Mare*. So she might have been saying she didn't feel *emotionally* safe taking the class.

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Yes, its about emotional safety. But really I don't think I'm a very dangerous person in that way. Its true I'm opinionated and can be forceful expressing that sometimes. But I'm also amenable to push back and students used to be able to do that more than they can now. And why do you have to hear only what you think is right in a writing class? Still, I have some sympathy for her and kids like her. The world is terrifying now. I can't totally blame anyone for wanting some sense of safety somewhere.

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Feb 4, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

I read your essay a long time ago in the nineties and had a judgy reaction to it back then. Not because of its attitude towards rape but I think just because I was judgy in general, which was because I was scared and embarrassed about my own feelings. Anyway I love the essay now and have re read it a few times. And while I have not been raped, I have been bullied on school playgrounds, in ways that another person might not even interpret as bullying. But I was sensitive which was why I was bullied in the first place, and at the same time very stoic and proud - I think I came across as both very easy to hurt and very oblivious, in a way that invited people’s aggression. And I still get that a lot as an adult for that matter, only now I have a better idea of where it comes from and who I am. What I am saying is that I understand your line in the essay about being more scarred by playground experiences than you were by your rape. I hope that’s not offensive for me to say because once again I wasn’t raped. But when I read that line I had a sense of recognition and it was a relief to read. I have been groped on the subway, chased down the street - I guess what people would call “assaulted” these days. I almost never think about those experiences, although I think you are right that those sorts of violations live in your body more than in your head. I do think a lot about mean things that people have said to me, often in perfectly pleasant voices and in civilized social settings.

I am sorry about that student who worried about feeling “unsafe” in your class. She is missing out.

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author

THank you Coles, there is nothing in your comment that's at all offensive, I fully appreciate what you're saying especially this:

"I was sensitive which was why I was bullied in the first place, and at the same time very stoic and proud - I think I came across as both very easy to hurt and very oblivious, in a way that invited people’s aggression"

This is exactly what I meant by "a risky combination." I'm so GLAD to hear you could connect with the line, and also to think that your life has gotten better with more wisdom about people's casual cruelty.

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

I really like how you expressed this: "But I was sensitive which was why I was bullied in the first place, and at the same time very stoic and proud - I think I came across as both very easy to hurt and very oblivious, in a way that invited people’s aggression." The bullies are drawn to the most vulnerable among us, which definitely includes the most sensitive, introverted, artistic, as well as kids/people who are often oblivious to the power structure (and games, groupthink) within their group, school, etc.

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Your essay speaks to me so much, Mary. I've never been "really" raped, but like so many women, I've had my share of questionable interactions with men. I feel a similar ambivalence about my objectively "worst" experience, which I once shared in a semi-public forum. While a lot of people appreciated my honesty and nuance, I was taken aback by the vitriol behind other reactions. (That I was somehow harming other survivors or discrediting their accounts by sharing my own, that I would wake up one day, realize the weight of what happened to me and be irreparably shattered, that if I'm not still sobbing about it 20 years later I need intensive therapy, that I deserve to be "choked.")

I'm also of the mind that psychic pain is its own form of hell. It's why I've never quite bought into the idea of "cancel culture"/public shaming as an acceptable or preferable alternative to incarceration. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." Au contraire ! Reading the reactions to my firsthand account felt far more psychically damaging than the event itself.

To me, it feels like we have such a narrow understanding in our culture of the sheer range and nuance of normal human emotion The stereotypical image of a "good" victim is shaped in our collective consciousness, IMHO, by prosecutors and pop culture. A victim should always be crying, not be able to go on, be fragile. Most of all, she should want vengeance if she is to be taken seriously and validated by our justice system, and hence the culture writ large. Some do want vengeance at all costs, and that's understandable. Some don't, and I think that needs to be less taboo.

It strikes me that either way, we can't win -- either we're "good" victims and we're fragile and forever broken. Or we're "bad" victims who clearly need intensive therapy because we haven't yet realized just how broken we are. Either way, we insist rape will inevitably consume and break and define a woman. In that sense, too, we really are on the same team.

There was a "This American Life" episode once (can't remember which, though I could find it) about the definition of "rape." They talked about how a significant percentage of women who have been objectively raped don't define what happened to them as rape. I still wonder if that's not because some women simply don't see themselves reflected in the archetype of a "good victim." Perhaps they feel obliged to stage an Oscar worthy performance in order to feel worthy of the label. Or else the emotions just don't line up, feel false, and so they think, must have been something different.

And who can blame a woman for wanting to redirect her emotional labor into thinking and talking about about almost anything else. We're able to give so much to this world when others accept us as whole.

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Feb 5, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Thank you for writing this, Mary. I had a confusing experience a few years ago and your essay validated my complicated feelings about what had happened. Like you, I felt a sense of violation that led me to call it rape, but now that time has passed I see it as something more ambiguous, which is hard because our culture doesn't have great language for gray areas.

Consent is a hard thing. We pretend it's easy but it's not, it's messy because humans are messy. If you aren't even sure in your own mind if you're consenting, how can you hope to express that to someone else? I know that's why people talk about enthusiastic consent, which is a great goal, but there are a lot of reasons we may go along with sex we aren't sure we want, we may even "enthusiastically" push for it, only to feel flattened and violated after, with a confused sense of our own agency.

This either/or discourse makes it harder for people who have had an ambiguous experience to make sense of their encounter, and to heal. I still feel that some kind of violence was done to me. My challenge now is to honor that feeling without resorting to a falsely totalizing narrative.

Thank you also for talking about bullying. I was bullied as a kid and that shaped me and my worldview as much as anything, but people rarely seem to acknowledge how devastating it can be.

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Feb 3, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Reading this compelled me to subscribe.

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author

Thank you. A lot of what I write won't be like this, but I hope you enjoy...

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Feb 6, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Thank you so much for approaching this subject with such courage and openness and complexity. The word "rape" carries 10,000 volts and is so hard to address with any nuance (I read an essay from Hunter S. Thompson about this many years back; I wonder how it would read now). All of which is a reason to try and address it in all its layers and confusion and subjectivity now. Of course rape affects men as well, even when they are not direct victims of it. Even if, relatively speaking, it is at a much lower level of significance than it is with women, and I would say it is, it still is an electric shock that freezes the brain. And we can't really speak about it - and mostly for good reasons - but we still carry the scars and shame of the fact of it. Because men rape, and no matter how "good" we might otherwise be as individuals, we are still men. We live in that body.

BTW that was an amazing essay.

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Feb 4, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Really stellar piece.

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Irvine

I texted my daughter Morgan about this on January 23 as follows: You majored in English and stuck with it 4 years. Help me out (I stopped after 2): What makes "Two Girls, Fat and Thin" so good? Morgan answered: "I'm going to go with honesty & honest skill on Gaitskill's part...truth delivered, execution of which is the knock-out punch forever & always. She executes her truth telling abilities nicely, and she pulls no punches in terms of deliverables. She had something to say, a picture to paint, probably stuff that happened to her in one shape or another."

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Thank your daughter for me!

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There's so much to say about this subject, and all of it requires charity and nuance. The same people who chirp "Everybody's different!" (usually in service to a victim narrative) insist on the black and white versions...er....just the black version. While Paglia's assertion may seem harsh, it is true that groups of inebriated people can get violent, and lose their individual faculties of right and wrong, and commit atrocities they wouldn't have if alone. And in a sense, that's what the 70s were like -- a narrative that perpetrated confusing and violent sexual experiences on women that had very little basis in reality.

And the worst aspect of that narrative is still perpetrated by unthinking "intellectuals" -- that men and women are "the same." That we are "equal" and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to project female feelings and motives onto men, thus completely and deliberately oblivious to a much more urgent sex drive that is exponentially more urgent on copious amounts of alcohol -- and sanctioned by the aforementioned oblivious narrative that having sex with reckless abandon is synonymous with FEMINISM.

And now, weirdly, the current coming-up generation sees the world through the lens of "Women Talking," (the worst movie I have seen in years) -- men "bad" --- men "rape" -- men same as us! (And for more cognitive dissonance, let's share public restrooms with them!) These distortions undergird the even more cognitively dissonant transgender phenomenon, where "traumatized" girls escape their female bodies and males escape their "rapey" selves by taking on female bodies for a future where none will be satisfied with who they actually are. This narrative, and its big sister beget in the early 70s need to be shut off, period. It's all wrong. It's hurting people, because -- or so I experienced it -- I thought I was supposed to enjoy this, but I wasn't enjoying it at all, therefore the problem was ME. And if I just screwed more guys, or let myself get screwed more like it, somewhere along the line I would start to enjoy myself.

The old way -- courtship -- marriage -- presented a clear end goal. Not knowing where the hookup is going isn't satisfying anyone. And now we have "trauma" and "anxiety" wherever we turn. People who "don't feel safe." Well no wonder. How can you feel "safe" without an agreed-upon moral code? In a sense, I get it because I never felt "safe" going out with anyone -- to do it? or not to do it? Will I be used again? Will he want to see me again if I do it? All that -- being left -- evolved into a self-fulfilling prophecy of -- being left.

On another note, what you say about being far more hurt on the playground resonates. In a nearly completed novel I've been working on (which pre-dates "me too") the protagonist realizes that bullying behaviors levied by a female roommate hurt her far more deeply than the date rape she's en route to rectify some 20 years later. Ironically, I was to have completed it in 2020, but a female "partner's" betrayal on another project (which originated with me, so I invited her into my house, so to speak, like inviting a guy in for another drink) so upended me psychologically, I am still recovering. Working with her (she just so happens to be in a cult, long story) was a psychological death by a thousand cuts. Much more damaging than the one-off messy drunken rape on which my novel is predicated. I can fully understand how the sexual communication goes awry. I can fully comprehend a man being incapable of controlling himself (I grew up with that one, and a story my mother told about getting gang-banged...)

But I can't wrap my brain around threatening to sabotage a coveted meeting with a major Hollywood producer and refusing to discuss said threat to sabotage it. And on that note, the protagonist in my novel recalls the bullying female roommate accusing her of putting glass in her cold cream. She is summoned to the bathroom to fess up to this crime. The protagonist looked into the cold cream and didn't even see any glass. She tells the awful roommate that she didn't put glass in her cold cream, but can't get herself to say that she doesn't even see any glass in the jar. The awful roommate then destroys her reputation in the small college town -- telling everyone that she's crazy and vindictive and abusive for putting glass in her cold cream. As well, the awful roommate would shut off the lights while the protagonist was in a dingy room in the cellar writing (to get as far from the awful roommate crowing on the phone as loudly as she could), then have to crawl through the dark to get up the stairs. Whenever the protagonist politely asked the awful roommate to please stop turning off that light (she never turned off any other lights!) she would shout: F*&& YOU! F YOU!" as if the problem were the protagonist.

I still can't wrap my brain around that either. It invaded my brain when it should have been on more edifying subjects -- how to ask the awful roommate in just the right tone to please stop harassing me. It went on and on and on....while what happened with him -- awful as it was -- bang and it was over.

I know I'm not the only woman to have suffered such deep psychological wounding in the face of female bullying, which as far as I'm concerned, is far more damaging than some buffoon stealing a piece of ass. It's ironic, too, that "me too" exacted similar forms of reputation destruction. Women do have power, and they abuse it in ways that defy explanation. Men's abuse of power, i.e. rape -- in all its forms...it's a biological imperative, for better or worse. Perhaps reputation destruction is too? Of course, both women in these instances are card-carrying narcissists, and men can be narcissists too...but rape isn't necessarily a flat-out desire to hurt someone, is what I'm saying. And I have never bought the 'power' argument on that -- sure some are about power, but most are about a primal urge and a sexual need that women can't seem to comprehend because our sexual needs and urges are different. Men and women are not the same.

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author

Great comment. Glad to see you again.

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In my experience, females’ (sometimes subtle) bullying of other females only seems to be getting worse (in the professional/corporate world I frequent). Current “feminist” publications don’t seem to talk about it very much.

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author

Can you write about it?

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I did, Mary, way back in 2009. It’s entitled “Cake it!” The characters are content editors in the corporate world, supposedly working together as a “team.” It’s an interactive hypertext narrative that was published in two zines online. We’re having to update all the files now to make it viewable/playable because they’re in Flash which is now obsolete for the most part. Thanks for inquiring! Going to go watch Women Talking now, but I’d already figured when it first came out that I’d likely be disappointed in the movie adaptation. Thanks for your extensive analysis.

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I can't comment on the rest of your terrifying experience...

...but if you want a biological explanation for reputation destruction, the usual explanation is competition for resources. A woman may want something another woman has, whether it be a coveted position, status, a romantic partner, or the like. So, you use the tools available to you. OK, maybe you don't have the muscles to bash your enemy in the head...but if people listen to you when you talk...

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What do you mean? I was talking about two experiences, one was more confusing and sad than anything; that was the one I basically lied about and the guy's reputation wasn't affected because no one I spoke to knew who he was or even lived in the same city, a city I was just passing through. The one that actually was a terrifying attack...I did tell a few people about it, but I don't think it hurt the guy's reputation at all. As I recall only one person (slightly) knew who he was, already thought he was sleazy, it didn't matter. He was a petty drug dealer, often sold bad product. So I don't understand what you're saying re: taking something from another woman.

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Feb 6, 2023·edited Feb 6, 2023

Oh, no, I was responding to the earlier comment by Dog L. "Women do have power, and they abuse it in ways that defy explanation. " Sorry for the confusion!

Generally the way the comment 'trees' work a comment on a comment is considered to be responding to the comment up the 'tree' from the original post, not another comment at the same level. Depending on the way software is set up it can be confusing to read. There are all kinds of solutions programmers and user interface designers have tried to make this more readable and they all have their pluses and minuses. I've commented on another board where the offsets are larger, so it's easier to see who's responding to what, but then you run out of space to write a response.

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author

Oh thanks for clarifying!

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Feb 4, 2023·edited Feb 4, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

"I wanted to say that people are all different, and so are situations, that there is no one “correct” way for a victim of rape to feel..."

The idea that women’s experiences should be relegated to sameness in some sort of mind hive is infuriating. My experiences which may share similarities with others, are uniquely my own and my way of coping is also mine. If we did not learn to cope we would in some instances, go mad. This policing of women’s group thought is dividing us as human beings. The only “safety” is through compassion and the ability to hear one another without judgment.

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Feb 4, 2023Liked by Mary Gaitskill

Thank you for writing this, Mary

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