What do you think of when you think of Lolita? The answer is not always your fault. Publishers want to sell copies and sex sells, or can. But Lolita, Lolita. I have been reading Mary Gaitskill’s essays, and in her essay “Pictures of Lo,” she puts it perfectly:
Lolita may be fairly described as a ‘threnody’ for the destruction of a child’s life….
yet a high percentage of the covers go for cute.
In my adolescence, it was Lolita in heart shape sunglasses, sucking a lollipop. And there have been some 150 other versions.
Lolita is the story of a young girl at the mercy of a step-father who responds to her nascent sexuality by targeting her, kidnapping her and sleeping with her as his captive step-daughter in one place after another until outsiders suspect. Her sobbing, which he sometimes hears at night, he duly, perhaps guiltily, hears but ignores.
When she finally escapes, she becomes — as many abused children do — a denuded lessened figure, a shadow of what she might have been.
Mary Gaitskill’s collection of essay and reviews, Somebody with a Little Hammer, is so forthright and perceptive and strong; Gaitskill sees through all of the nonsense and depravity of the convenient and willful transformation of victim to seductress. And I believe I know a thing about this, having had my last little work, 52 Men, treated as if my character were a happy go lucky nymphomaniac (sorry, but no.) I quote Gaitskill here, writing of Linda Lovelace, in Gaitskill’s essay “Icon:”
You don’t need special shrewdness or even much experience to recognize a predator; all you need is a working animal instinct.
But some people’s instincts have been ruined. Some people’s instinct have been so ruined by such disrespectful treatment that, for them, disrespect is not merely a norm; it has a kind of hyper-reality that is absolutely compelling. Such people don’t necessarily identify as masochistic in a conscious way… It’s hard to know them — that is, to know how hurt they are, and how intractable the damage is.
I do not know what happened to Gaitskill that she understands this. It is, perhaps, a good thing that I don’t, so it be not too reductive. But the point is, that somehow she does, and I totally relate to her.
In another essay in the collection a young person asks her in real time her why she loves him. She says:
This is why —
You’re not somebody who just wants to hear nice bullshit.
You care. You want to know what’s real.
I love you for that.