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Mary Gaitskill: The Woman Who Knew Judo

Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Matthew Wamser introduces Mary Gaitskill’s “The Woman Who Knew Judo” from our Winter 2021 issue.

Mary Gaitskill’s “The Woman Who Knew Judo” was her first published piece of writing when it appeared in this journal four decades ago, and even then it was a story about the past. The narrator’s references to the mid-1960s T.V. series The Outer Limits, the civil rights marches taking place in the story’s background, and Jean Taylor’s fashionable cat-eye glasses and Bermuda shorts. And yet after all these years, this piece’s sharply observed story shows us as much about our world today as it shows us the 1960s.

Written while Gaitskill was a University of Michigan undergraduate and earning her a Hopwood Award, the story works almost like a magic trick. It’s told naturalistically, as though the narrator is remembering a series of anecdotes about her parents’ friend Jean Taylor. The scenes have a pointed attention to detail that flawlessly hides the seams of the story’s construction; each scene is subtly thematically linked to the rest of the story. The female characters talk about empowerment and autonomy. The narrator, as a nine-year-old girl, is beat up by an older boy at school. At first, the scenes seem like a series of vaguely related childhood recollections, but as the story progresses it becomes apparent that the narrator is carefully curating her memories. The story takes place while she’s still just a child in grade school, but as the plot unfolds, she notices new things about the world: the way her mother and Jean Taylor talk about women’s roles, the way boys treat her, the way husbands and wives interact. And as she pieces together her childhood observations of men and women, she learns an uncomfortable truth.

I’ve often heard that a story’s ending should change the way the reader sees everything that has led to that point. It’s the moment when the story’s pieces snap into place, when all the seemingly unrelated scenes become unified in the climactic light. For a writer, “The Woman Who Knew Judo” is a masterclass in crafting that sort of ending. But it’s not just a technical marvel. This story uses its careful orchestrated thematic links to show how a person—even a young child—begins to form assumptions about the world by piecing together what she sees and hears before she fully understands what she’s witnessing. And once she has formed that assumption—once she has learned the story’s lesson—she can never unlearn it.

The Woman Who Knew Judo

I met Jean Taylor when I was five years old. She was the tallest woman I had ever seen, and she walked slowly, with her head up and her shoulders back, her hips moving like the hips of a slender cat. She wore black slacks and she had big feet which seemed to me very graceful, especially when she wore her straw sandals with the artificial cherries on them.

She started coming to our house to take my mother to the Y where she taught my mother how to swim. When they returned from the lesson, their hair wet and sleek against their heads, they’d hang their swimsuits on the backs of kitchen chairs to dry in front of the stove while they sat with their feet up and talked. I used to sit in the kitchen and draw when Jean visited my mother. I loved to show my completed drawings to Jean. She made me feel as if I’d discovered an elemental truth, or shown her something vital. Once, when I handed her a picture I’d done of a yellow lion with spindly legs and huge round eyes, she looked at it with consideration and said, “You know, it doesn’t look like a real lion. But I think you’ve caught the spirit of a lion here, and that’s a lot more important. This lion has lion-ness.”

My father liked Jean too. When he heard her come in, he would hurry to the living room to greet her. He looked at her warmly, especially when she walked, and he teased her about “that little black bathing suit” of hers. He called her “good old Jean” and he always wanted her to sit down and have a beer and listen to his opera records. Jean would sit and listen in his black leather chair, her auburn hair piled into a loose twist on her head, her slender face resting on her long hand, her cat-eye glasses tilted to one side. I thought she looked like she knew everything. I thought she was beautiful.

I was nine when we began visiting the Taylors regularly. My brother David and I became friends with Jean’s daughter, Julie, a tiny, nervous child two years younger than I, and we often went to the Taylors’ house to play with her. Jean’s husband, Tom, was a scientist, so the house was full of exotic creatures and things. There was a stuffed wildcat with green glass eyes crouching and snarling from the top of a bookcase, jars with rocks and fungus in them, flat dishes with invisible animals growing in them, and microscopes sitting in the window sills. There was a human skull on the desk in the guest room where I would sleep with Julie when I spent the night. We could see the skull from where we lay in bed even when the lights were out. It could’ve been scary to sleep in a room with a skull in it, but at the Taylors’ house, the skull was as benign as Frankenstein on TV in the afternoon, or dinosaur bones in a museum. I liked to touch it, and to think what it would be like if it came floating through the air one night chattering its teeth.

Mr. Taylor worked a lot, and he was very shy, so we didn’t see him very often. Sometimes he brought home cages of hamsters or white rats with pink noses and put them in the basement. I had the feeling he tortured them in the name of science, and I knew some of them wound up as frozen bodies in the Taylors’ freezer, so for a while I didn’t like him. But once, when I spent the night at the Taylors’, I came downstairs early and saw Mr. Taylor eating breakfast in the dining room by himself. He was eating eggs and raisin toast, and he was letting the two house cats sit on the table and lick egg off his plate. I had never seen an adult let animals eat from his plate before. I stared, fascinated. He looked at me, smiled shyly, and said, “Hello Freckles,” even though I had no freckles. Then he stroked the cat. At the time I could not understand how a person could put one little animal in the freezer to be dissected, and then let another eat off his plate, but I couldn’t help liking Mr. Taylor better.

In the summer, we visited the Taylors on the weekends. My mother and father would sit in the backyard in green and white lawn chairs drinking iced tea or beer, and Julie, David, and I would run around the yard acting out scenes from Combat! or The Outer Limits. When we ate lunch there, Jean would bring out a small beige card table for us to sit around, and put cheese sandwiches cut up into little squares on it, along with sliced carrot and celery and chocolate milk. When we sat there eating our sandwiches and carrots, I would listen to our parents’ discussions with interest and satisfaction. They seemed to gather in the backyard to set right the wrong in life, and to make it all clear and understood, in its right place.

Jean would sit back in her chair in a relaxed attitude, her head cocked to one side, her loosely pinned-up hair falling on her shoulders and her long, thin legs folded like griffin’s wings. I remember her talking about her job. She was a counselor at a high school that was notorious for race riots and gang fights. When she’d first started, she’d had trouble getting accepted by the teachers and counselors, who didn’t think she’d be able to handle the kids. Then, one day, a kid showed up in the office drunk and armed with a broken bottle. It was lunch hour and nobody was in the office but Jean and two secretaries.

“I’m telling you, it was the most frightening experience I ever had. All my impulses told me to run away, or to do anything that kid said to do. But I knew I had to stand my ground and not give in. When you’re dealing with somebody like that, it’s a lot like facing down an animal. You have to get a psychological edge.”

“When I was in the army it was the same way,” said my father approvingly. “Right from the start you had to stand up for yourself. If you didn’t, there were bullies who’d just run you right over.”

“That’s right,” said my mother. “I tell the kids the same thing. If anybody at school gives them a hard time, they’ve got to make it clear they won’t put up with it.”

They sat quietly in their lawn chairs, looking out into the yard, vigilant and inviolate. Then Jean continued her story.

“I heard all this carrying on, and when I came out of my office, there was this lurching six-foot kid with a broken bottle demanding to see the principal. The secretaries were both standing up against the wall looking petrified. In fact, I guess maybe one of the reasons I was able to be so calm was that they were so panicked. I’ve noticed that seeing other people get scared tends to bring out the leader in you, or something. Whatever it was, I just ignored the fact that my knees were going like silly putty and I went up to him like I was going to have a conversation with him—”

“That probably surprised him,” said my mother. “He probably expected you to collapse against the wall.”

“I think that’s right, and I think that’s what saved me. My walking up to him like that unnerved him because he wasn’t expecting it. Not only was I not afraid of him, I was acting like I expected him to be decent. That’s something I learned a long time ago. If you act like you expect somebody to be decent, then nine times out of ten, he will. If you act like you expect somebody to be a bastard, that’s just what he’ll do. You really do have a lot of control.”

“Well, if you’ve got some sonofabitch who wants to shoot you and take your money, it doesn’t matter what you expect,” said my father. “He’s gonna do whatever he damn well pleases.”

“Well, yeah.” Jean held her long hand out in the air. “You can only exert your will to a point in a situation where somebody bigger and stronger is threatening you. If somebody’s determined to hurt you, then he can. I’m just saying you do have some power in how you choose to react.”

“That’s true,” agreed my father, nodding. “There’s a lot of subtle factors involved.”

“So anyway, I said to this kid, well, if you want to see the principal, you can come in and wait for him and act like a human being. He’s out with everybody else for a conference at Jefferson and I’m not going to call him and tell him you want to speak to him immediately, no matter how many times you shake that thing at me. Then I turned my back to him and walked to the nearest chair and sat down.”

“Boy, that was taking a risk,” said my mother.

“I didn’t even think about how dangerous it was at the time, or I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Now that I think back on it, he probably didn’t want to hit me to begin with. Besides, I think I really put him off the track by responding so calmly.”

“And even if he’d tried anything, you could’ve thrown him. Right?” My father said this because Jean had been taking judo classes two times a week at the Y. Whenever he said anything to her about it, he’d raise his eyebrows and tilt his head back speculatively, as if he didn’t really believe that judo could help Jean throw large, drunken boys around, but that he wasn’t sure. But Jean said, “Right,” and went on to tell about how she succeeded in rendering the boy civil and embarrassed by the time the principal arrived.

On Saturdays, Jean and my mother would go to the A&P in Jean’s station wagon, sometimes with the three of us in the back seat. Jean’s legs were long and tanned in her bermuda shorts, and she was regal behind her shopping cart. She always lingered in the fruit and vegetable area, and she bought a lot of round yellow grapefruit. Sometimes she bought a pineapple or mangoes, things my mother never got. She chose the fruit carefully and deliberately, and her long earrings would dangle wonderfully as she leaned forward to examine the avocados and cantaloupes. When she wore her yellow shorts and straw sandals, she looked as if she might gather the fruit up in a big straw hat and wear it on her head like an island lady.

My mother became vivacious when they shopped, and she and Jean would talk about books, art exhibits, soap operas, and gossip. Sometimes they would talk about our fathers, particularly if they thought we weren’t listening. They had a long talk about the time my father yelled at my mother because she wanted to watch Mitch Miller on TV instead of listening to his new opera record.

“Well, that’s marriage for you,” said Jean. “They want you to bring them their tea in bed and then sit there and admire them while they drink it. Then they want you to listen to them while they talk about it. Didn’t you know that?”

“Well, no, I didn’t. But I’m learning fast.”

“Don’t you learn, make sure he unlearns. Get it straight now. If he wants to listen to opera, fine. You want to listen to Mitch Miller, however awful Mitch Miller may be.”

“That’s right dammit. I have the right to be an uncultured slob in my own home. I’ll sing along with Mitch if I want to!” She and Jean laughed and a lady with puffy blond hair and round pink earrings stared at them.

“Tom and I started out on the right foot partially because I always had my own job,” continued Jean as they pushed their carts down the aisle. “He always understood that I wanted to have my own life as well as sharing his. He always understood it was my house as well as his. When I told him I did not want a tarantula in a cage in the basement, there was no tarantula in the basement.”

They walked along silently for a time, staring thoughtfully at the packaged food on either side of them. Then Jean said, apparently out of nowhere, “You know, you’re going to think this is terrible, but I think any woman who lets her husband beat her deserves it. It sounds harsh, but I really think you have to take responsibility for your own life.”

“Well, it is harsh, but I think you’re basically right,” said my mother. “I think women who put up with that kind of crap must like it in some way.”

“That’s right,” said Jean, nodding her head. “They’ve got to be getting something out of it, or they wouldn’t remain in that position. The thing is, what are they getting?” They moved down the aisle, meditative and quiet.

I was discomfited by that exchange, partially because I sensed that Jean and my mother weren’t comfortable about it either. It had come up so suddenly, as if it were connected in their minds with the conversation that had gone on before. Their hard words, which were uncharacteristic of both of them, seemed to mask some great uneasiness, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

Shortly after I overheard this conversation, I was beaten up by a boy in the fifth grade, a grade higher than me. Jimmy Race had followed me home from school one day yelling that he’d beaten my brother David in field hockey and that I had a nose like a pig. David wasn’t there because he was a safety boy and had to stay after school. After about two blocks of this, I threw my books down and told Jimmy Race to shut up or I’d flatten him. He pulled my hair and yelled, “Oink nose!” I scratched his face and kicked his shins like my mother told me to do if boys picked on me. He knocked me down and gave me a bloody nose.

The next day, David beat up Jimmy Race on the playground, but I was still too embarrassed to go to school for two days. My mother let me stay home and sulk because my nose looked awful. The second day I was home, Jean came to visit my mother during her lunch break. She understood why I didn’t want to go to school, but she thought I should face down Jimmy Race.

“You did your best, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “Everybody loses sometimes, even tough people. It’s part of being a person to lose and be embarrassed sometimes. The most important thing is not to quit. Be tough enough to go back and look that snotty kid in the eye.” She put her arms around me. “Besides, you can learn to take care of yourself. Why don’t you sign up for a judo class at the Y? They’re starting them for kids in the summer, and I can teach you a few things before then.”

I became obsessed with judo. When Jean taught me how to tuck my head in and roll forward on my shoulder and land on my feet, I practiced every day. I would practice anywhere. Sometimes I would be walking through the living room while everybody was watching TV, and I’d roll across the floor and land on my feet right in front of the screen.

“Has Jean Taylor taught you how to throw anybody yet, Sweet Pea?” asked my father one night at dinner.

“No,” I said. “I’m just learning how to roll so that if anybody throws me, I can land and not hurt myself.”

“Do you think you could learn how to throw me?” asked my father, pausing with his fork in the air.

“I dunno.”

“Jean could probably throw you,” said my mother. “She’s been taking judo for a year.”

“Well, Jean Taylor’s a good woman,” said my father. “She’s smarter than hell. But if she tried to throw me, it would be a mistake. I haven’t had four years in the army for nothing.” I thought Jean could throw my father very easily if she wanted to, but I didn’t say anything. I remembered the time Jean once said, “Well, you just can’t argue with that old male ego. When they get that way, you just have to rub them under their chins and let them think they’re the greatest. Of course, you go on knowing you could do it just as good.” I sat quiet and watched my father eat his dinner.

A few weeks later, we visited Jean and Julie for hot dogs and potato chips. Mr. Taylor was out of town for a convention, so Jean barbecued the hot dogs while my mother helped in the kitchen. My father sat in a lawn chair and talked to Jean as she stood over the grill in her bermuda shorts poking at the sweating dogs with a long metal prong. I don’t remember what they were talking about, but what he said seemed to please Jean, and they were both smiling and laughing and looking at each other out of the corners of their eyes, as if what they were saying had some hidden meaning.

When my mother walked out of the house with a basket of potato chips and a tray of packaged cupcakes, Jean clapped her hands for us to gather round the little card table. We all sat down and began picking the icing off the cupcakes. Our parents sat in their lawn chairs and held their hot dogs on paper plates on their laps. They began to talk about a Civil Rights march in the south which had been ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan. Three black people had been killed, including a sixteen-year-old girl.

“Well, those sons of bitches are sick, that’s all there is to it,” said my father. “When they find the one that shot that colored girl, I hope they hang him.”

“They’ll find him all right,” said my mother. “You can’t go around murdering women and kids and get away with it.”

“But the thing is, those maniacs have been killing women and kids for years,” said Jean. “Sometimes I wonder if the police are on their side. Doesn’t it seem like they could’ve stopped them by now if they’d wanted to? Sometimes it seems like they just don’t care.”

“Aw, now, you can’t say that,” said my father. “Those Klanners are an isolated group of nuts. Nobody supports people who kill innocent kids.”

“But whether people support them or not, they’re getting away with it. I just can’t tell you how much it upsets me to hear about things like this going on,

with nobody doing anything to stop it. It makes me think Negroes should form groups to fight back if the law can’t protect them.”

My father looked annoyed. “That’s a silly idea,” he said. “That’s vigilante justice. Suppose everybody decided to fight back every time they thought somebody’d done something wrong to them instead of going to the law That’s a nasty world you’re making for yourself.”

“I agree with you in general,” answered Jean. “But what if you went to the law for protection and it didn’t do a damn thing? You’d have no choice.”

My father tightened his mouth with annoyance and looked away from Jean. Then he looked back at her, started to speak, changed his mind and looked away again. My parents and Jean chewed their hot dogs rapidly and quietly.

“Say Becky,” said Jean. “How’s judo coming? Are you practicing your rolls?”

“I can roll twelve times in a row in a circle around the yard,” I said.

“That’s impressive,” said Jean. “Sounds like you’re ready for the throws themselves.”

“Yeah!” I said. “Any time.”

“Why don’t you show her something now?” said my mother. “So we can see some judo.”

“How about it, champ?” said Jean.

“I’m ready any time you are,” I said happily.

Jean stood before the circle of lawn chairs. I went to her, feeling shy and proud. My father was looking at me as if he was seeing a new and very surprising facet of my character, and wasn’t sure what he thought of it.

Jean and I stood facing each other. She grabbed my wrist while telling me how to break her hold, turn my back to her and hoist her into the air.

“Get your hip into me,” she said as she loomed over me. “It’s called the big hip. You’ve got to use your hip.” I planted my feet, thrust my hip into Jean’s body, and tried to pull her onto my back. “No, that’s not right,” said Jean. “Turn your body and bend your knees. Squat.” I panted. We were so close I could smell her faint scent of soap and perspiration. I was bent completely over and Jean was pulled halfway across my back, her breasts crushed against me, her feet barely on the ground. I shifted every which way, trying to figure out how to throw her on the ground before I collapsed, while she gave instructions. Suddenly, her weight seemed to shift and become lighter. “Now,” she said. I yanked her arm, thrust my hip, and long, big Jean rolled forward over my body and onto the ground before me. I stood and stared at her, awed by what I’d done. Jean rolled elegantly to her feet and adjusted her glasses.

“Hey, there you go,” said my father.

“That’s some trick,” said my mother.

“It’s fake,” said David. “You couldn’t do that in a real fight. It took too long.”

“That’s because it was her first time,” said my mother in an exasperated tone. “Don’t rain on her parade.”

“It’s not that slow in a real situation,” said Jean, tucking wisps of hair behind her ears. “Once you’ve been practicing for years, you get fast. An experienced person could do it to an attacker before he had time to figure out what was happening to him. It’s a question of balance. If you get a person off balance, it doesn’t matter how big he is.”

“Why don’t you show us?” said my father. “Why don’t I pretend to be an attacker and you can throw me?”

Jean didn’t say anything.

“Maybe you’re afraid you can’t do it to an old army man,” said my father.

“Throw him Jean,” I said. “I want to see what it looks like.”

“I can understand if you don’t want to,” said my father. “I’m not like those Y people you’re used to working with.”

“Jean!” I looked at her imploringly.

Jean looked at me and then at my mother. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, shrugging lightly.

They stood in the same spot where Jean and I had stood. I came close and smiled, wanting Jean to throw my father. You could tell by looking at him that he didn’t think she could.

“Now,” he said, “this is how real people attack.” He jumped forward, spun Jean around and grabbed her, holding her arms down tightly and pressing his body against her. Jean bent her knees and threw her hip out just the way she should. But my father didn’t loosen his grip; he moved with her instead. Jean looked annoyed. She threw her hip to the other side. He moved with her. “What are you gonna do now?” he said panting a little.

Suddenly Jean squatted and swept one of her feet backward and then forward. She hooked my father’s ankle and threw her body to one side. A startled look flashed across my father’s face. He lost his balance, and he and Jean fell to the ground. He lost his hold on her in the fall, but when she started to get up, he grabbed her again. They rolled around, elbows and legs flying.

David and Julie got up and came closer. Julie looked scared.

My father rolled on top of Jean and tried to grab her. She got his head in the crook of her arm and violently thrust her pelvis into the air. My father’s body rocked with her thrusting, but he held on.

“What are they doing?” asked David.

“He’s hurting my mama,” said Julie in a quiet, timorous voice.

“But she threw him,” I said. “She’s winning.”

Julie’s lip quivered.

I looked at my mother. Her face was flushed and she looked like she wanted to be somewhere else.

My father flipped Jean on her stomach and pinned her. “See?” he panted, “See?” Jean struggled, but he held her. “Judo doesn’t work with me,” he panted.

Then he began to spank Jean. I had never seen an adult do something like that to another adult before. He spanked her very lightly, and it couldn’t have hurt. But he was spanking her.

Jean’s head was turned sideways, and she smiled at my mother as if to say that she was really in complete control of the game, and that my father was being very silly. My father continued to spank her.

Julie could stand it no longer. “He’s spanking my mama!” she screamed.

“He’s spanking my mama!” She ran toward her mother, and began to cry in high-pitched squeals.

My father let go of Jean and sat up, staring at Julie with surprise and pity. “Oh no, little girl, we were only playing. I’m not hurting your mama, don’t worry.” He stood and put his hand on Julie’s shoulder.

“That’s right honey,” said Jean, sitting up. “We were only playing.” Julie stared at Jean, her wide blue eyes full of tears, and her face pink. She did not believe her mother.

I stared at Jean and my father. My face was flushed too, and my heart was thumping dully. I turned away from the group and walked toward the house. That evening, when my father came to my bedroom to say goodnight, as he always did, I didn’t look at him. I felt curiously unable to tell him how angry and hurt I was about what he had done. I wanted to pretend that nothing was wrong, that I didn’t care about what had gone on between him and Jean Taylor. In fact, I wanted to pretend that I didn’t know what had happened. But I did know, and he knew it.

He came in and sat on my bed and said, “Well, are we ready to climb the Magic Mountain?”

I turned my head away from him and didn’t answer.

He was quiet for a minute, and then he began to sing, “Up the Magic Mountain, one, two, three. Up the Magic Mountain, yessiree,” in a low, soft voice, like he used to do when I was Julie’s age.

I didn’t sing with him.

He stopped singing after a few seconds and sat in silence. Then he said, “Well, we had a nice time at old Jean Taylor’s, didn’t we?”

I waited a minute before I finally whispered, “Yes.”

He sat silently on my bed for a long time. I stared at the wall until I couldn’t tell what it was any more.

Then he said, in a strange, low voice, “Do you know how much your old daddy loves his little girl?”

My father had never said anything like this to me before. It scared me. It made me feel that something serious and irreversible was happening right at that moment, and that there was nothing I could do about it. I almost turned and looked at him. I suddenly felt that I had to look at him or I would lose him forever. Then I thought about Jean Taylor, and how she had looked when he was spanking her.

My father reached down and put his hand on mine. A strange sensation darted through my stomach, and I jerked my hand away from him as if he’d bitten it.

I felt him stiffen. He only sat on my bed for a few seconds more. Then he left the room without a word.

I turned my head away from the wall. I lay on my back and stared into space while tears formed in my eyes and rolled down my face. I knew I wasn’t going to sign up for that class at the Y.