Somebody with a Little Hammer

Somebody with a Little Hammer

by Mary Gaitskill

Paperback(Reprint)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307472335
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 654,698
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To (nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award), and Don’t Cry, and the novels The Mare, Veronica (nominated for the National Book Award), and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Artforum, and Granta, among many other journals, as well as in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

Hometown:

New York, New York

Date of Birth:

November 11, 1954

Place of Birth:

Lexington, Kentucky

Education:

B.A., University of Michigan, 1980

Read an Excerpt

The Trouble with Following the Rules
 
On “date rape,” “victim culture,” and personal responsibility
 
In the early 1970s, I had an experience that could be described as “date rape,” even if it didn’t happen when I was on a date. I was sixteen and staying in the apartment of a slightly older girl I’d just met in a seedy community center in Detroit, where I was just passing through. I’d been in her apartment for a few days when an older guy (he was probably in his mid-twenties) came over and asked us if we wanted to drop some acid. In those years, doing acid with strangers was consistent with my idea of a possible good time, so I shared a tab with them. When I started peaking, my hostess decided she had to go see her boyfriend, and there I was, alone with this guy, who, suddenly, was in my face.
 
He seemed to be coming on to me, but I wasn’t sure. LSD is a potent drug, and on it, my perception was just short of hallucinatory. On top of that, he was black and urban-poor, which meant that I, being very inexperienced and suburban-white, did not know how to read him the way I might have read another white kid from my own milieu. I tried to distract him with conversation, but it was hard, considering that I was having trouble with logical sentences, let alone repartee. During one long silence, I asked him what he was thinking. Avoiding my eyes, he replied, “That if I wasn’t such a nice guy, you could really be getting screwed.” This sounded to me like a threat, albeit a low-key one. But instead of asking him to explain himself or leave, I changed the subject. Some moments later, when he put his hand on my leg, I let myself be drawn into sex because I could not face the idea that if I said no, things might get ugly. I don’t think he had any idea of how unwilling I was—the cultural unfamiliarity cut both ways—and I suppose he may have thought that white girls just kind of lie there and don’t do or say much. My bad time was made worse by his extreme gentleness; he was obviously trying very hard to turn me on, which, for reasons I didn’t understand, broke my heart. Even as inexperienced as I was, I could see that he wanted a sweet time.
 
For some time after, I described this event as “the time I was raped.” I knew when I said it that the description wasn’t accurate, that I had not said no, and that I had not been physically forced. Yet it felt accurate to me. In spite of my ambiguous, even empathic feelings for my unchosen partner, unwanted sex on acid is a nightmare, and I did feel violated by the experience. At times I even elaborately lied about what had happened, grossly exaggerating the threatening words, adding violence—not out of shame or guilt, but because the pumped-up version was more congruent with my feelings of violation than the confusing facts. Every now and then, in the middle of telling an exaggerated version of the story, I would remember the actual man and internally pause, uncertain why I was saying these things or why they felt true— and then I would continue with the story. I am ashamed to admit this, because it is embarrassing and because it conforms to the worst stereotypes of white women. I am also afraid the admission could be taken as evidence that women lie “to get revenge.” My lies were told far from the event (I’d left Detroit), and not for revenge, but 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.
 
***
 
I remember my experience in Detroit, including the aftermath, every time I hear or read yet another discussion of what constitutes “date rape.” I remember it when yet another critic castigates “victimism” and complains that everyone imagines himself or herself to be a victim and that no one accepts responsibility anymore. I could imagine telling my story as a verification that rape occurs by subtle threat as well as by overt force. I could also imagine casting myself as one of those crybabies who want to feel like victims. Both stories would be true and not true. The complete truth is more complicated than most of the intellectuals who have written scolding essays on victimism seem willing to accept. I didn’t even begin to understand my own story fully until I described it to an older woman many years later, as proof of the unreliability of feelings. “Oh, I think your feelings were reliable,” she replied. “It sounds like you were raped. It sounds like you raped yourself.” I didn’t like her tone, but I immediately understood what she meant, that in failing to even try to speak up for myself, I had, in a sense, done violence to myself.
 
I don’t say this in a tone of self-recrimination. I was in a difficult situation: I was very young and unready to deal with such an intense culture clash of poverty and privilege, such contradictory levels of power and vulnerability, let alone ready to deal with it on drugs. But the difficult circumstances alone do not explain my inability to speak for myself. I was unable to effectively stand up for myself because I had never been taught how.
 
When I was growing up in the sixties, I was taught by the adult world that good girls did not have sex outside marriage and bad girls did. This rule had clarity going for it, but little else; as it was presented to me, it allowed no room for what I actually might feel, what I might want or not want. Within the confines of this rule, I didn’t count for much, and so I rejected it. Then came the less clear “rules” of cultural trend and peer example, which said that if you were cool, you wanted to have sex as much as possible with as many people as possible. This message was never stated as a rule, but, considering how absolutely it was woven into the social etiquette of the day (at least in the circles I care about), it may as well have been. It suited me better than the adult’s rule—it allowed me my sexuality at least—but again it didn’t take into account what I might actually want or not want.
 
The encounter in Detroit, however, had nothing to do with being good or bad, cool or uncool. It was about someone wanting something I didn’t want. Since I had only learned how to follow rules or social codes that were somehow more important than I was, I didn’t know what to do in a situation where no rules obtained and that required me to speak up on my own behalf. I had never been taught that my behalf mattered. And so I felt helpless, even victimized, without really knowing why.
 
My parents and my teachers believed that social rules existed to protect me and that adhering to these rules constituted social responsibility. Ironically, my parents did exactly what many commentators recommend as a remedy for victimism. They told me that they loved me and that I mattered a lot, but this was not the message I got from the way they conducted themselves in relation to authority and social convention—which was not only that I didn’t matter but that they didn’t matter. In this, they were typical of other adults I knew, as well as of the culture around them. When I began to have trouble in school, both socially and academically, a counselor exhorted me to “just play the game”— meaning to go along with everything from social policy to the adolescent pecking order—regardless of what I thought of “the game.” My aunt, with whom I lived for a short while, actually burned my jeans and T-shirts because they violated what she understood to be the standards of decorum. A close friend of mine lived in a state of war with her father because of her hippie clothes and hair—which were, of course, de rigueur among her peers. Upon discovering that she had been smoking pot, he had her institutionalized.
 
Many middle-class people—both men and women—have learned to equate responsibility with obeying external rules. And when the rules no longer quite apply, they don’t know what to do—much like the enraged, gun-wielding protagonist of the movie Falling Down, played by Michael Douglas, who ends his ridiculous trajectory by helplessly declaring, “I did everything they told me to.” If I had been brought up to reach my own conclusions about which rules were congruent with my particular experience of the world, those rules would’ve had more meaning for me. Instead, I was usually given a set of static pronouncements. For example, when I was thirteen, I was told by my mother that I couldn’t wear a short skirt because “nice girls don’t wear short skirts above the knee.” I countered, of course, by saying that my friend Patty wore skirts above the knee. “Patty is not a nice girl,” replied my mother. But Patty was nice. My mother is a very intelligent and sensitive person, but it didn’t occur to her to define for me what she meant by “nice” and what “nice” had to do with skirt length, and how the two definitions might relate to what I had observed to be nice or not nice—and then let me decide for myself. It’s true that most thirteen-year-olds aren’t interested in, or much capable of, philosophical discourse, but that doesn’t mean that adults can’t explain themselves more completely to children. Part of becoming responsible is learning how to make a choice about where you stand in respect to the social code and then holding yourself accountable for your choice. In contrast, many children who grew up in my milieu were given abstract absolutes that were placed before us as if our thoughts, feelings, and observations were irrelevant.

Table of Contents

A Lot of Exploding Heads
On Reading the Book of Revelation 

The Trouble with Following the Rules
On “Date Rape,” “Victim Culture,” and Personal Responsibility 

A Lovely Chaotic Silliness
A Review of The Fermata by Nicholson Baker 

Toes ’n Hose
A Review of From the Tip of the Toes to the Top of the Hose by Elmer Batters, and Nothing But the Girl, edited by Susie Bright and Jill Posener 

Crackpot Mystic Spirit
A Review of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus 

Bitch
A Review of Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel 

Dye Hard
A Review of Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates 

Mechanical Rabbit
A Review of Licks of Love by John Updike 

I’ve Seen It All
Thoughts on a Song by Björk 

And It Would Not Be Wonderful to Meet a Megalosaurus
On Bleak House by Charles Dickens 

Remain in Light
On the Talking Heads 

Victims and Losers: A Love Story
Thoughts on the Movie Secretary 

The Bridge
A Memoir of Saint Petersburg 

Somebody with a Little Hammer
On Teaching “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov 

Enchantment and Cruelty
On Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie 

Worshipping the Overcoat
An Election Diary 

This Doughty Nose
On Norman Mailer’s An American Dream and The Armies of the Night 

Lost Cat
A Memoir 

I See Their Hollowness
A Review of Cockroach by Rawi Hage 

Lives of the Hags
A Review of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic 

Leave the Woman Alone!
On the Never-Ending Political Extramarital Scandals 

Master’s Mind
A Review of Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk 

Imaginary Light
A Song Called “Nowhere Girl” 

Form over Feeling
A Review of Out by Natsuo Kirino 

Beg for Your Life
On the Films of Laurel Nakadate 

The Cunning of Women
On One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan al-Shaykh 

Pictures of Lo
On Covering Lolita 

The Easiest Thing to Forget
On Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love 

She’s Supposed to Make You Sick
A Review of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn 

Icon
On Linda Lovelace 

That Running Shadow of Your Voice
On Nabokov’s Letters to Véra 

Acknowledgments 

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