Where are the grown-ups?

Zoë Heller

  • At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard
    Anchor, 345 pp, £7.99, August 1999, ISBN 1 86230 067 4
  • Dream Catcher by Margaret Salinger
    Scribner, 436 pp, £20.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 671 04281 5

J.D. Salinger, who is now in his early eighties, has spent the greater part of his life hiding out from the world on a hilltop in New Hampshire. Over the last half century, he has continued to write steadily, it seems, but to protect his reclusion he has refused to publish any of his work since 1968. Then – at the last minute, as it were – a former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, a woman with whom Salinger had a nine-month relationship twenty-five years ago, decided to write a memoir of their affair – a memoir in which she details, among other things, his domestic, sexual and dietary quirks. And hard on her heels, his daughter Margaret has felt compelled to write a memoir also, indicting her father for the ‘cult-like’ conditions of her childhood.

Notwithstanding the contemporary details (both women got huge advances and so on) there is something ancient about this story: something fable-like in the image of the prickly eremite dragged into the light by vengeful women. Both Maynard and Salinger fille seem to have sensed this mythical resonance, but unwilling to regard themselves as betrayers, they seek, in their respective memoirs, to identify themselves with more flattering archetypes. Maynard, recalling how, at the age of 43, she went back to confront Salinger, likens herself to the heroine in the fairytale of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ – the doughty miller’s daughter who enrages the goblin by guessing his name correctly. Margaret Salinger describes the psychological bonds in which her childhood has kept her for much of her adulthood, by repeatedly invoking Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shallot’. Only in writing her book, she intimates, has she finally escaped the ‘four gray walls and four gray towers’ of parental oppression.

It is one of the cast-iron rules of biographical writing: the more damaging and transgressive the revelations on offer, the more fervently priggish the author’s explanation of his or her motive. In this sense, Salinger’s ex-lover and daughter do not disappoint. They both present their works as spirited acts of defiance, therapeutic self-explorations, terrifically difficult journeys inspired by, of all things, mother-love: ‘After my son was born,’ Margaret Salinger writes,

I felt an urgency to make my way through the magic and miasma alike, through both history and fiction, to figure out what is real and what is not, what is worth saving and passing on to my son as his precious inheritance, and what I want to filter out, as the Native American dream catcher that hangs over his bed filters out the nightmares in its web and lets the good dreams drip down the feather onto his sleeping forehead.

For Maynard, the trigger to writing her memoir, was, she tells us, seeing her daughter turn 18. She was the same age when she fell in love with Salinger.

I imagined what I would feel if a literary legend thirty-five years her senior asked of Audrey what was asked of me when I was her age . . . For all those years, I had never looked critically at Jerry Salinger. I had always believed I owed him my never-ending silence, loyalty and protection. It came to me as a new thought that the girl he had invited into his life with that first letter he wrote deserved certain things, too . . . All these years I had been holding on to secrets that kept me from understanding or explaining myself. I knew it was at last time to explore my story.

The two women take this business of exploring their own ‘stories’ – as opposed to merely delivering vulgar exposés – very seriously, and the beans they spill about Salinger come wrapped in painstaking accounts of their personal life struggles. The lists of their dysfunctions turn out to overlap quite a bit. They share not just anguished childhoods and failed marriages but histories of depression, traumatic childbirth, problems with ‘boundaries’, eating disorders (Maynard claims that J.D. Salinger turned her on to regurgitation as a dieting technique), embarassingly libidinous mothers and gynaecological problems (Salinger has a ‘gapped urethra’; Maynard suffers from ‘severe peripheral and internal tearing’).

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