Gaitskill, Mary. “Secretary” in the Bad Behavior collection. Vintage books, 1988.
A friend and I were considering doing an unofficial commentary on the film Secretary. The project fell through before we did anything, but I did read the short story that was the basis for the movie.
The short story “Secretary” in this collection is the basis for the much-discussed film Secretary (2002), starring Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader.
In the movie, the basic premise is worked into a fairly standard romantic-comedy “marriage plot” story. The protagonist’s masochism is equated with her compulsive self-cutting, and further folded into a standard heterosexual romance.
Unsurprisingly, the story is quite different from the film. Hollywood will do that.
The story’s protagonist, Debby, is not a self-cutter. She is a masochist, but of a rather different variety than as depicted in the film. She is just aimless and depressed. Her primary desire is to disappear, to not exist. It’s a response to the subliminal rejection she feels from her family, and her menial job is another part of that.
On her way to her secretarial job, she looks at construction workers. “I had sentimental thoughts about workers and the decency of unthinking toil. I was pleased to be like them, insofar as I was.”
Later she thinks, “My first two weeks were serene. I enjoyed the dullness of days, the repetition of motions, the terse, polite interactions between the lawyer and me. I enjoyed feeling him impose his brainlessly confident sense of of existence on me. He would say, ‘Type this letter,’ and my sensibility would contract until the abstractions of achievement and production found expression in the typing of the letter. I was useful.”
The implication is she is not valued by her family. “My family’s enthusiasm made me feel sarcastic about the job – about any effort to do anything, in fact. In light of their enthusiasm, the only intelligent course of action seemed to be immobility and rudeness.” Her job with the lawyer asks very little of her and gives her validation.
While the movie links Lee’s physical suffering with emotional suffering, suggesting, the story is primarily about Debby’s emotional/psychological suffering. The BDSM content of the story is extremely mild. The (unnamed) lawyer mildly spanks her for typographical errors and does some verbal humiliation. None of the elaborate, arty stuff you saw in the movie.
The turning point in the story is when the (unnamed) lawyer masturbates after spanking Debby and ejaculates on her without touching her. This is when Debby quits, without saying so, and regresses to her family and staying in bed all day. I interpret this that Debby is fine with the physical and psychological punishment, and does masturbate. It feeds into her “small world” desires. However, the moment when she has to think about somebody else’s subjectivity, particularly desire directed at her, she shuts down completely.
The story does not have a “happily ever after” (HEA, in romance story jargon). Debby just returns to being her family’s underachieving child, and talks about being disassociated. She has the opportunity to tell of the lawyer’s eccentricities to his political enemy, but she doesn’t.
Lee’s masochism is a means to connection with another person in a traditional couple relationship. Debby’s masochism is a means of avoiding any personal connections, akin to her passive-aggressive “failure to launch.”
I think this is two different kinds of masochism: the first is self-induced suffering for someone, as in the movie. The second is just self-induced suffering. Hannah Cullwick exhibited both types, in her work before she met Munby and in her life with Munby. Von Sacher-Masoch seems to be mainly the first type, since he is so focused on his fur-clad cruel woman archetype.
Type 1 masochism is obviously more compatible with conventional marriage plot romance. Type 2 would be hard to make a movie or tell a story about, because is is about self-contained solipsism.
(What is it about Hollywood that makes people say, “Let’s take this thing, remove precisely what makes it distinct and interesting, replace that with something everybody has seen thousands of times before, and put it out into the world?”)