"The Other Place" by Mary Gaitskill Originally published in the February 14 & 21, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m familiar only with Mary Gaitskill’s reputation: great, dark writing about taboo topics. I am not aware of having read any of her work before. “The Other Place” certainly confirms her reputation for me, and I hope to look into more of her work soon.
The story begins by misdirecting our attention:
My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns. He is thirteen. He loves video games in which people get killed. He loves violence on TV, especially if it’s funny. How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally.
It would seem that the narrator, Douglas’s father, is going to relate a story about his son’s development into a desensitized lover of graphic violence. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested at this point. But quite soon the narrator introduces the taboo and his own perverse role.
My wife, Marla, says that this is fine, as long as we balance it out with other things — family dinners, discussions of current events, sports, exposure to art and nature. But I don’t know. Douglas and I were sitting together in the living room last week, half watching the TV and checking e-mail, when an advertisement for a movie flashed across the screen: it was called “Captivity” and the ad showed a terrified blond girl in a cage, a tear running down her face. Doug didn’t speak or move. But I could feel his fascination, the suddenly deepening quality of it. And I don’t doubt that he could feel mine. We sat there and felt it together.
I was not expecting this father to confess to his own love of violence, particularly violence against women. Here he is worried about his son but then we suddenly learn that he himself feels the lusty fascination with a woman in captivity. It’s a father-son moment, sure, but not the comforting kind. The story becomes only more uncomfortable.
Shifting our attention from Douglas’s nascent lust, the narrator recounts his own adolescence. “I believe I had a normal childhood,” he says. Gaitskill proceeds to write — in the softest language of nostalgia — the narrator’s perceptions, and they’re terrifying.
When I was a kid, I liked walking through neighborhoods alone, looking at housees, seeing what people did to make them homes: the gardens, the statuary, the potted plants, the wind chimes. Late at night, if I couldn’t sleep, I would sometimes slip out my bedroom window and just spend an hour or so walking around. I loved it, especially in late spring, when it was starting to be warm and there were night sounds — crickets, birds, the whirring of bats, the occasional whooshing car, some lonely person’s TV. I loved the mysterious darkness of trees, the way they moved against the sky if there was wind — big and heavy movements, but delicate, too, in all the subtle, reactive leaves. In that soft blurry weather, people slept with their windows open; it was a small town and they weren’t afraid. Some houses — I’m thinking of two in particular, where the Legges and the Myers lived — had yards that I would actually hang around in at night.
The Legges had a daughter named Jenna: “She was on the ground floor, her bed so close to the window that I could watch her chest rise and fall the way I watched the grass on their lawn stirring in the wind.” Going back to the beginning of the story, is the narrator concerned about his son? Or is he somewhat proud? We learn, after all, that they don’t necessarily have a lot in common and that the only thing they really succeed at doing together is fly fishing — and even that is a bit strained.
Then again, this is just the beginning of the story. The narrator goes on to recount his fascination with violence against women, which started, as best he can remember, when he was about the same age as Douglas.
But suddenly, when I was about fourteen, I started getting excited by the thought of girls being hurt. Or killed. A horror movie would be on TV, a girl in shorts would be running and screaming with some guy chasing her, and to me it was like porn.
As the reader might expect, this lusty fascination isn’t perfectly satiated by the television. The narrator’s imagination compensates:
And I would go invisibly into an invisible world that I called “the other place.” Where I sometimes was passively watched a killer and other times became one.
As he admits later on, going to this other place “was great.”
Gaitskill isn’t writing about this topic just to make the reader uncomfortable. She’s not writing against taboo just to be irreverent. This is a sensitive piece. Despite the despicable side of the narrator, we still see him as a loving father and a sensitive older man who, at this point, seems more nostalgic and fascinated in his younger self. He obviously still suffers from (or is aroused by) his lust, but he comes off, to me, as genuinely worried about his son and grateful that he has gone through it himself so he can help, though this is probably something they can never talk about out loud.
I enjoyed this story immensely. There is so much to think about, and Gaitskill’s writing was superb throughout. I’m very curious about how others responded, so I’m looking forward to any comments.