Apr 112024

Mary Gaitskill’s short story “Secretary” (previously discussed) was first published in 1988, then was eventually adapted into the 2002 film Secretary. I’ve already discussed the differences between the script by Erin Cressida Wilson and the film directed by Steven Shainberg, so there’s a kind of family tree connecting the story and the movie.

Gaitskill herself has described the film as “the Pretty Woman version of my story.” (Gaitskill, Mary. “Victims and Losers: A Love Story; Thoughts on the Movie SecretarySomebody With a Little Hammer: Essays, Pantheon Books: New York, 2017) Last year, the New Yorker magazine published (March 27, 2023) Gaitskill’s follow-up story “Minority Report”. It tells the story of Debby and her life after her encounter with “the lawyer,” now given the name of Ned Johnson.

“Minority Report” is less a sequel than a retelling of the same event from Debby’s changed perspective as a woman in her 50s, and her difficulty in understanding and expressing her experience. The title explicitly comes from the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, in which precognitive people experience flashes of future events while kept in a sedated state, and a team of detectives have to interpret these scattered, impressionistic glimpses of possible crimes and decide what to do.

Thirty years later, Debby is still struggling to understand her experience with Ned Johnson, and to express it in some kind of language. She’s not even sure what the experience was, and often calls it “the thing“. Johnson remains an influence in her life, even without personal contact; he haunts her dreams, her memories triggered by random events. Debby recounts her mutually-awkward relationship with Johnson, up to the day when he spanked her for mistyping.

Now women are exposing men for doing things like this—even for doing things that, to me, look very normal compared with this. They say that a man kissed them when they did not want to be kissed, or touched their knee, or rubbed their back. I have read accounts in which the women say that they did not tell the men to stop, because they felt “frozen.” […] My friends at the credit union, where I’ve worked for the past couple of years, feel the same, that those women—or girls, as we call them—are weak and spoiled and don’t know how to handle men. I’ve never argued. But I have different feelings. Because I still don’t know why I did what the lawyer said, or why I didn’t stand up and leave, or why I went back the next day.

A lot has happened since 1988. Debby’s biography is dotted with news reports of sexual harassment. Post “Me Too”, we have a different view of sexual and power dynamics in the workplace. We have a different understanding of female masochism, too. Debby still doesn’t quite have the language for what happened, in part due to a general disinterest in sex, though she knows it doesn’t fit into a neat dyad of “victim” and “victimizer”.

But the thing that had happened with the lawyer wasn’t like that. When I thought about it, alone, under my covers, with my panty hose pulled down, I felt more alive than I ever had, the overpowering aliveness of something that’s just burst out of its hiding place. I masturbated for the first time, wanting the “climax” I had heard about. I went fast, then slow, wanting to make it last. But there was no climax. Just this huge feeling: abnormally alive and half-dead at once.

It’s important to note that Debby’s arousal does not retroactively excuse the event with Johnson. I interpret it as Debby’s first, confused experience of her masochism, though I acknowledge that some might dispute this labeling. Johnson by happenstance triggered her masochism.

After Debby quit, she developed an interest in repeating this experience.

Consciously, I began to search for someone like Ned Johnson but better. Someone I could talk to and do normal things with.

When she dates a man:

I imagined that it would be like with the lawyer but different, with kissing and warm eyes. I thought we would do the thing, maybe once, maybe a bunch of times, and then, instead of jerking off on me, he would take my virginity. But it didn’t happen that way. […] I wanted to tell him what I wanted but I couldn’t see how.

My interpretation is that Debby is a sexual masochist, and if she could just understand that, she would be fine. But for various reasons Debby just doesn’t know such a thing exists. She’s grappling with feelings and desires that she might think are unique. However, when she does get some sense of where her sexuality fits in the world, it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I remember thinking, I can’t have love, so I should just go for the thing.

That was 1984. People were listening to artistic songs about bondage and murder and women being on fire—really, these were old songs, but they were new to me. […] Later, some men did want to do more kinky stuff, way more than Ned Johnson; one of them tied me up and gagged me and hit me hard enough to leave marks. But, no matter what they did, it was a weak imitation of the thing. It was never like him simply speaking and me bending.

When Debby’s story coincides with Me Too, she’s still struggling.

…If he’d raped me I could’ve told people and they would respect it, or at least pretend to. Because rape you can at least understand. But he didn’t rape me. He wasn’t interested. He said so. I was too worthless even for that. If I’d reported it, I would’ve been reporting my lack of worth.

Finally she realizes that she’s still afraid of Johnson.

Deep, amazed fear of this person who had been able to reach inside me and activate a thing I had not even known was there […]. Fear complicated with incredulity—this person?—and anger and arousal. Yes, I was aroused. Not enough to masturbate. But enough to Google him for the first time in years.

Even when Debby speaks to a sympathetic journalist, she can’t quite express it.

I couldn’t. I tried. I used the words I had read: inappropriate touching. Assault. Masturbating. Verbal abuse. It was all the truth. But it did not describe it. I did not say what he actually did. I left out the thing.

This leads to Debby confronting Johnson face to face. He’s now an elderly, failed politician. He admits he didn’t touch Debby sexually because he thought she was a virgin, which does not please her. She physically assaults him by breaking a coffee cup against his head.

Debby manages to put that event and herself in some kind of alignment. It’s not clear if she will still have masochistic sex, but she’s realized her masochism is a part of her, not something that controls her.

Secretary the film made Gaitskill’s story into a happily-ever-after romance. The kinks and oddities of Lee and Mr. Grey happened to come together in a way that led to love and marriage. The vulnerability of Mr. Grey, as played by James Spader, goes a long way. But it’s still taking a very reckless idea, that what seems like abuse might be interlocking sadism and masochism.

“Minority Report” is a more honest and mature view of this kind of interaction and the long-term consequences of it in Debby’s life. Plus Ned Johnson is revealed as a sleazeball, not a redeemable eccentric like Mr. Grey. Personally, I like to hope that Debby can connect with her local BDSM scene and develop a good sense of her own masochism.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.