This essay applies trauma theory and relational psychoanalysis to a close reading of Mary Gaitskill's short story "The Dentist." It argues that the sadomasochistic relationship central to this story, and to much of Gaitskill's fiction, is rooted in trauma and can be illuminated by an understanding of the post-traumatic condition.
Mary Gaitskill's story "The Dentist" begins with an arresting description of a billboard advertisement for the perfume Obsession:
It was a close-up black-and-white photograph of an exquisite girl
with the fingers of one hand pressed against her open lips. Her
eyes were fixated, wounded, deprived. At the same time, her eyes
were flat. Her body was slender, almost starved, giving her
delicate beauty the strange, arrested sensuality of unsatisfied
want. But her fleshy lips and enormous eyes were sumptuously, even
grossly abundant. The photograph loomed over the toiling shoppers
like a totem of sexualized pathology, a vision of feeling and
unfeeling chafing together. (137)
The description, along with the narrative commentary, not only encapsulates the psychological drama of the story which follows, but it also offers an astute analysis of the post-traumatic condition. This state, as Judith Herman has discussed, is one of opposing, "contradictory responses of intrusion and constriction," one in which the victim finds herself caught "between floods of intense, overwhelming feeling and arid states of no feeling at all, between irritable, impulsive action and complete inhibition of action" (47).
Gaitskill's account of the billboard image as a vision of "fixated" deprivation and excess, pain and flatness, "of feeling and unfeeling chafing together," vividly captures what Herman calls the "dialectic of trauma" (47). This dialectic is also enacted narratively on several levels as it figures in the story's individual characterizations as well as the relationships between characters and the relationship the narrative sets up with the reader. Like the central character, the reader is kept off balance as the story oscillates between expressions of intimacy and distance, grim masochistic pain and comic irony. The reader experiences momentary shocks in the narrative that, along with a generalized sense of ambiguity and doubt, both reflect and re-enact what has been described as the post-traumatic syndrome. As Laurie Vickroy discusses in her study of trauma and contemporary fiction, "trauma writers position their readers in similarly disoriented positions of the narrators and characters through shifts in time, memory, affect, and consciousness" (28). These dynamics are central to "The Dentist" and to much of Gaitskill's fiction in general. Finally, a great deal has been written about the healing power of narrative for trauma victims. While Gaitskill's story brilliantly dramatizes the "sexualized pathology" of a trauma survivor, the question of whether the story actually resolves or heals that pathology seems to me a thornier issue.
Trauma, as defined by Laplanche and Pontalis in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, is "an event in the subject's life defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organisation" (465). Herman elaborates: "Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning. [...] They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe. According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of 'intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation'" (33). Besides the common response of terror and rage, however, Herman also stresses the general numbing of responsiveness, the sense of disconnection or "dissociation" that trauma typically evokes: "a state of detached calm, in which terror, rage, and pain dissolve. …