Please Love Me, Mary Gaitskill

Jul 13th, 2015 | By | Category: Columns

I met Mary Gaitskill once, and only once, which stands to be one of the most memorable and embarrassing evenings of my life.

This was while I was earning my MFA. Several of us were very enamored with her work, so she was an ideal candidate for our Visiting Writer’s Series. I was beside myself with anticipation – her collection “Bad Behavior” was the very first book that had made me hold my breath. I referenced her constantly in workshop. I had reread certain stories enough times where I practically had them memorized. So, imagine my increasing delight to be seated amongst my friends, waiting her for her take the stage and read.

The director of our program gave a short introduction. It was just as much about Gaitskill and her work as it was about our collective admiration of her. And Mary sat there, all dignified and glorious, as she heard that our cohort had never been so enthusiastic for any other speaker. And then it happened. The director cleared her throat and said, “one student in particular has been singing a count-down leading up to this day.”

I get embarrassed easily. I get extremely shy during these events. I rely on my friends to shield me from my own awkwardness. How quickly they turned on me. No sooner had this statement been uttered, the classmates around me seemed to move away, as if parting like the Dead Sea, all of them glaring at me. For a brief moment, I was singled out looking at my literary icon look back at me with a cocked eyebrow.

It gets worse.

The reading was wonderful. I had brought two books to get signed, thinking two was just the right amount as to not look over-eager. My friends watched me stand in line, not bothering to keep their voices down as they bluntly said, “He looks like a child trying to give teacher an apple.” But I didn’t care. This was a small brief moment that was meant to be enjoyed. I suddenly stood in front of Mary Gaitskill, handed her my books with a goofy smile on my face.

I cannot remember what she asked me. It was probably not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.

But I replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

(I come from a southern military family, where these formalities are still quite important.)

She looked up at me, tilted her head and gave me a look that could only mean, “Ma’am? You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

That’s it, folks. My wild night meeting my favorite author. And what better way to commemorate the occasion with a list? How to tell if you are in a Mary Gaitskill story:

1. You live in New York, you’re broke and you are about to do something self-destructive.
2. The phrase “retreating inside yourself” describes the majority of your leisure time.
3. You are feeling conflicted about the person you have just slept with, about to sleep with or have slept with many times.
4. That person is quite possibly the devil incarnate.
5. The few years you worked as a fashion model exposed you to the sadistic seedy underbelly of the world…and you are now dissatisfied with real life.
6. You are in Ann Arbor, you’re broke and you are considering doing something self-destructive.
7. A family gathering unlocks a slideshow of terrible but unrelated memories.
8. You are standing in a bar you hate, surrounded by people you do not trust and you have just ordered a third drink.
9. You worked as the personal assistant for a crazed philosophical novelist and cult leader who may or may not have been (but most likely is) a thinly veiled version of Ayn Rand.
10. Tricking is only something you do when you’re in a low period in between jobs.
11. That attractive drug-addicted coworker just gave you a Valentine’s Day Card that says, “Beware of the Assassins.”
12. You have run away from home to Vancouver, you’re broke and you have already done so many self-destructive things that it makes sense not to change anything.


Defenestration-Jonathan HarperJonathan Harper is the author of the short story collection, Daydreamers (Lethe Press, March 2015),  which has been nominated for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. Visit him online at


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