Friday, June 25, 2010

At Home in the World

As most people know, J. D. Salinger was the author of the twentieth-century American classic, The Catcher in the Rye.  Many people also know that after the book was published, he moved to a farm in New Hampshire, never wrote another book, and lived in seclusion for the rest of his life. 
"What a genius he was," I said to my husband, when Salinger died earlier this year at ninety-one, "And what a lonely life he led."
Genius, maybe.  But after reading Joyce Maynard's memoir, I've learned his life was not what it seemed.  And far from lonely.
In At Home in the World, Maynard reveals the details of an affair she had with Salinger when he was fifty-three and she was eighteen.  (She looked about twelve, though, with her huge, sad eyes and wafer-thin body.)  A freshman at Yale, she came to Salinger's attention in 1972, when the New York Times Sunday Magazine published her photograph on its cover in connection with her essay An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.  Salinger wrote her a fan letter, and thus began a months-long courtship by mail and telephone, which culminated with Maynard's visiting him at his farm in New Hampshire. 
She eventually dropped out of Yale and moved in with him. Still a virgin and very tense, their relationship was never fully consummated.  In one scene she writes:  He takes hold of my head, then, with surprising firmness, and guides me under the covers. Under the sheets with their smell of laundry detergent, I close my eyes. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Still, I don't stop. So long as I keep doing this, I know he will love me.
Salinger indoctrinated her with his homeopathic theories about food (they ate peas and brown rice most of the time, and lamb burgers, which he froze and cooked for a few minutes at 150 degrees).  He also taught her how to induce vomiting in order to avoid absorbing "toxins."  (I'm sure that helped her anoxeria!)
He controlled every aspect of her life, going so far as trying to talk her out of cooperating in the promotion of a book that Doubleday had contracted her to write.
At Home in the World is a memoir by a writer who has the courage to show herself, warts and all.  (And I very much admire that.  As a writer of sorts myself, I know how difficult that is to do.)  She also writes about her strange family, her terrible marriage, her children, and her career adventures.
Even before she decided to write the book, Maynard says, she knew she'd be taken to task for "presuming to talk about this icon, Salinger." She feels there's a double standard afoot, that "the same kind of truth-telling that has resulted in my being labeled, by some, 'a shrill, hysterical fishwife' or 'a vengeful harpy,' if manifested by a male storyteller might be termed 'brave, gritty, raw honesty.'"  (Right on, Joyce!)

Salinger often accused Maynard of writing too much callow, crowd-pleasing journalism.  "Some day, Joyce, you'll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you're keeping everyone happy," he said, "And you'll simply write what's real and true."  (Little did he know she would one day write his real and true story!)

After nine months, J. D. Salinger discarded Maynard like a worn-out rag doll, causing her to go into a deep depression and a long-lasting obsession that she confronts at last in the book.  And although she left thinking she would always hold a special place in his heart, she learned years later that she was just one of many very young girls he lured into his New Hampshire hideaway hole.


Lorrie said...

People lead such complicated lives, and celebrities do it in the spotlight. It can be hard to accept these flaws in people we've admired from a distance.

judy said...

Thanks, Brenda for the piece about Joyce Maynard. I was a fan of her newspaper columns, and often wondered if she was still writing. I will be looking for her book as a result of your sharing this info.

I follow your pieces here and am amazed at their warmth, depth and breadth. Have a grand daughter that fits into that preceding piece. Just so real and honest and fun! Thanks for sharing all of this on your blog.

Brenda said...

Thank YOU, Judy! It's readers like you who make it all worthwhile.

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley