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Mary Gaitskill: a new perspective on sexual assault

by Tegan Mazur - Copy Editor
Tue, Mar 7th 2017 05:00 pm

 Those at The College at Brockport looking for a unique literary experience got their wish Wednesday, March 1, in the New York Room in Cooper Hall. Author Mary Gaitskill visited the college to talk with students of the English class Writer's Craft and to give a reading during the Writers Forum. The event began at 8 p.m., although per tradition the students who are curentlytaking the Writer's Craft class this semester had the chance to speak with Gaitskill at 7 p.m. until the event started.

Gaitskill's visit to Brockport was strikingly different from the previous visitors, Stan Rubin and Bill Heyen. In her discussion with the Writer's Craft class she was standing and walking around the room as people asked questions, unlike Rubin and Heyen who preferred to sit for the class discussion. Gaitskill was also marked by her distinct way of answering questions presented to her in the discussion. Unlike the previous event she was prone to give short simple answers to the curious students. Gaitskill had a way of encapsulating her thoughts concisely. It is entirely possible this was the marked difference between poets like Rubin and Heyen and a fiction writer like Gaitskill. Gaitskill and the class discussed several topics, including writing short stories versus writing novels, where Gaitskill likes to write best and what her writing habits are and even what it's like to work with an editor on a piece of writing. 

The main discussion, however, had to do with the novel the class had read prior to Gaitskill's arrival, "The Mare". Like many of Gaitskill's work this novel touched on sexual violence, abuse and struggle. Students had many questions on the book and even got to find out the real life inspiration for the novel, which came from a similar experience that Gaitskill herself had. Gaitskill gave a parting word of writing advice to the class. 

"You have to be very persistent and you have to be ready for a lot of rejection," Gaitskill said.

This event was the second Writers Forum event this semester, and was the opposite expereince than that of the first. Gaitskill read an essay from her new work titled, "Somebody with a Tiny Hammer", that will be coming out April 4. The essay had to do with Linda Lovelace, a famous adult film star with a complex life. Once Gaitskill stood ready at the podium, she said, "How many of you actually know who Linda Lovelace is?" These first words set the tone for the entire reading as it was clear Gaitskill was an author about her work, not about herself. The essay itself was deep and troubling at times, but much of Gaitskill's work is about confronting troubling things that should not be ignored and her essay exemplified that staunch purpose that Gaitskill takes to her writing. 

The essay explored the life of Lovelace and her tricky history with the porn industry, specifically with a famous movie she starred in called "Deepthroat". The essay is Gaitskill's reflection on the struggles Lovelace faced as a result of the industry, of that movie and of her abusive husband who produced the movie. Gaitskill explored the mixed, confusing feelings that go along with sex and abuse and the effects these can have long term. She never shied away from the subject and even had a content warning given to the audience beforehand to warn of the sensitive material of the essay. Gaitskill also did not shy away from exploring the sexual abuse in regards to Lovelace or herself, using both to weave together a beautiful essay that dared to explore what others might be too nervous to approach. The stirring part of the essay Gaitskill read, however, was not any rigid commitment to a solution, but rather an uncertain reaction on the seemingly unknowable complexity of human life and human suffering.

Anne Panning, professor for Writer's Craft, was pleased with the event. She was especially interested as there was not only her own class in attendance, but also several others classes including a Feminist Theory class under the instruction of women and gender studies professor Barbara LeSavoy, showing the scope of audiences Gaitskill attracts not just as a writer, but as a female writer as well. 

"I think she gave a lot to our students, I really do," Panning said. 

Gaitskill certainly gave her all to the audience in the New York room, for that hour they had the opportunity to see the world through Gaitskill's eyes, the goal of any writer.


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