“Secretary,” by Mary Gaitskill (1988) E

Date read: 11.30.10
Read: Online, via Nerve
Reviewer: Emera

Secretary - James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

The 2002 film Secretary stars the incomparable Maggie Gyllenhaal as an emotionally fragile young woman who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her lizard-eyed, hypercontrolled lawyer boss (James Spader): two very unhappy people who find that they are each other’s complements, emotionally and sexually. After seeing the movie twice, and both times loving its tenderness, quirky humor, rich visuals, and slinking soundtrack, I finally read the Mary Gaitskill short story (click to read) on which it was based.

Predictably, the movie and story are utterly different beasts, with the film departing from the story’s restless, sickly unhappiness. Gaitskill called the film adaptation the “Pretty Woman” version, which is apt, but doesn’t, I think, negate the film’s sensitivity and sweetness. In the film, the secretary (Lee) and lawyer (Mr. Grey) find a genuine connection, with Lee eventually emerging as the one with the strength to dictate the terms of their relationship.

In Gaitskill’s story it’s pretty clear that the (nameless, sleazily charismatic) lawyer is using the secretary (Debby in the story) for his own gratification because he knows she’ll let him get away with it. Yes, some part of her does enjoy it – after her last encounter with the lawyer, she remarks impassively (and hilariously), “I didn’t feel embarrassed. I wanted to get that dumb paralegal out of the office so I could come back to the bathroom and masturbate.” But the undertones of her identification with the humiliation that she experiences are much more troubling, and by the end of it, she returns home to be soundlessly reabsorbed into her dysfunctional family, who, given their “intuition for misery,” ask no questions.

Apart from the entirely divergent emotional experience, what struck me most on reading the story is how successful the film was in capturing Gaitskill’s written style. Debby’s narration is flattened, almost child-like, but interspersed with bursts of ungainly, oddly vivid imagery: “There were no other houses or stores around it, just a parking lot and some taut fir trees that looked like they’d been brushed.” “He clapped his short, hard-packed little hands together and made a loud noise.” And my favorite – “A finger of nausea poked my stomach.” Gyllenhaal’s Lee, with her wise-child face, shabby graceless suburbanity, and propensity for awkward remarks and fits of snorting laughter, recreates the experience perfectly, particularly when juxtaposed with the plush, hushed interior of Mr. Grey’s office. I expect most audiences will prefer the transformative love story that follows in the film, but Gaitskill’s original is stylistically memorable, bitterly intelligent, and draws lingeringly unsettling character portraits in a few terse pages.

Go to:

Mary Gaitskill: bio and works reviewed

4 thoughts on ““Secretary,” by Mary Gaitskill (1988) E”

  1. Nicely written. I too read the story and saw the movie numerous times. While I cannot say that the books are well written, the 50 Shades of Grey books were written by someone who also clearly loved the film Secretary. The man is named Grey. He has copper colored hair. The woman in brunette. He is cold, closed and complicated. To me the 50 shades is like fan fiction based on the film Secretary. Also apparently the man in 9 1/2 weeks film was named Grey, though I don’t see so many similarities beyond that name with the 50 Shades books. Just FYI ….

    1. Interesting indeed; thanks for commenting! I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the 50 Shades phenomenon, but I did wonder at one point whether it might have taken inspiration from the Secretary film, since there isn’t exactly a profusion of other BDSM-centric works in mainstream culture. The connection sounds likely, from what you’ve said.

    2. Actually, 50 Shades was supposedly based on the Twilight phenomenon. Apparently it was first published online as Edward and Bella fanfic before being tweaked to be a non vampire non fanfic trilogy and published in hard copy.

  2. I see similarities with Secretary, 50 Shades of Grey, and Twilight. Take the Twilight influence out of 50 Shades, however, and add a little more realism (as in; don’t make Christian Grey a billionaire… make him seem normal on the outside, but quirky and eccentric on the inside) you could have had a really great story/book series with it. I rather like 50 Shades, but I most definitely love Secretary, as it’s realistic, yet fantasy-like rolled into a unique film. :)

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