Today, The New Yorker published “Minority Report,” a new short story by Mary Gaitskill in which she “revisits” her classic short story “Secretary,” originally published in her 1988 collection Bad Behavior, and adapted (loosely) into a movie in 2002, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.
In “Secretary,” a seventeen-year-old girl named Debby is hired to work as (you guessed it) a secretary by a lawyer who soon begins to punish her for her errors by spanking and otherwise sexually degrading her—a state of affairs that Debby finds both horrifying and somehow exciting (or as Gaitskill herself put it, “the experience speaks to something in her but in a profoundly negating way”).
As “Minority Report” opens, Debby is “well over fifty years old,” and has frequent dreams about the lawyer. Inspired in part by the #MeToo movement (which goes unnamed), she spends the story thinking about what happened to her, and how the lawyer’s abuse has affected her as an adult. “It’s something she has kind of absorbed, and it has become . . . not normal exactly but fully integrated into herself,” Gaitskill told Deborah Treisman in an interview accompanying the story. “So she’s trying to figure out what this has meant in her life. It’s hard, because, in a perverse way, what the lawyer did awakened her and made her feel more alive than ever before or since. But that aliveness came at a heavy price.”
Eventually, Debby confronts the lawyer, and achieves at least a little bit of catharsis. In fact, it was the idea of this confrontation that sparked Gaitskill’s decision to return to the story, some 35 years later.
“The story came out of a conversation I had with some people who wanted to make “Secretary” into a play; a number of different ideas for an ending were discussed, and, to me, the best one was a final encounter or confrontation between the man and the woman,” Gaitskill explained. “The other people weren’t so into that idea—they wanted it to be all about Debby, and, anyway, what could happen in that confrontation? I couldn’t answer that question in the moment, but I decided to write a story and see how it evolved.”