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Mary Gaitskill’s Liliths

Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and writer of fiction about women, strip poles and sexual guilt, Mary Gaitskill read a story at Franklin Park bar in Brooklyn on April 12 in which cuckolded political wives Silda Spitzer and Elizabeth Edwards become the Eves to Ashley Dupré’s and Rielle Hunter’s Liliths, and in doing so they take a muted sort of revenge by way of compulsory pedicures in Queens.

Gaitskill prefaced the reading of her story, “The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon,” which was originally published in New York magazine, by asking the packed room who had heard of the myth of Lilith. A few tentative hands rose. For the rest, she quickly sketched a figurative picture of Adam’s first wife, created from dirt like him, an equal and therefore rightfully unwilling to obey. Gaitskill’s austere gaze warmed when she engaged and audience and read her prose aloud.

Great writers make careful use of lore that came before them, and that’s just what Gaitskill’s story does with Lilith, though it likely won’t satisfy Jewish women who have worked to free Lilith of her seductress chains.

What’s a one-time born-again Christian from Kentucky doing conjuring Lilith? This is Mary Gaitskill we’re talking about. Decades ago, she herself removed her clothes for money. Her beautifully human characters are often women whose sexual selves can be perplexing and caustic; they are capable of inflicting and enduring tremendous pain, and we return to them, and to her work, again and again.

I’ll admit that I was dubious when the story began with diary entries by Ashley Dupré and her letters to Mrs. Spitzer offering advice, begging for connection and signed “oxox, Ashley.” But danger beckons when Mrs. Spitzer sends an unmarked car for Dupré who, when she arrives at a Queens nail salon, is called Lilith.

There was a woman in a long white sleeveless gown, and the light behind her was so bright that at first I couldn’t see anything but her. She looked like she didn’t like me at all, but still she said, “Lilith, enter by special invitation.” I tried to say, “That’s not my name,” but what came out was, “Thank you.”

Hillary Clinton is splayed and asleep upon one of those heavenly pedicure chairs (I pictured ones with massaging knuckles) as Monica Lewinsky fingers her feet and later pockets a tip. Elizabeth Edwards’s piggies are done by Rielle Hunter, who is, called “baby-eater,” anallusion to the mythology, by Jenny Sanford. It’s less of a comedy than it sounds, and more an eerie dose of comeuppance that poor Ashley Dupré is too dense to understand.

Gaitskill tapped into what Jewish women have long known in reclaiming and honoring the first woman on earth: the initially disregarded heroine, and perhaps our first feminist, is a powerful icon. Yet, her Lilith is a merely a temptress, if a recovering one, in a posture completely opposite of Jewish invocations of her. Coquette is a juicy convention, but frankly, though I liked the story’s imaginative thrust, naming women who married men cheat with Lilith doesn’t help our efforts to embrace her and dispel her reputation as biblical slut. Gaitskill’s primary Lilith, Ashley Dupré, is like a neglected child wooing her absent mother, and that she craves this bizarre kinship makes her not a Lilith at all. She is punished for seeking out love, but for Jewish women who know the real Lilith, punishment is beside the point. Our Lilith never did anything wrong.

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