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’).

Of the two women, Maynard, a sometime columnist and novelist, has the surer command of this confessional genre – the greater facility for transmuting her shrill neuroses into women’s page pieties. Her opening chapter about her alienated childhood is a masterpiece of slickly reasonable victim-prose. Here, as throughout the book, she keep things peppy with a terse, ‘devastating’, present-tense narration. She is the daughter of marvellous, clever parents, she tells us. She and her sister grow up in a richly cultivated household. (Her mother even writes a book called How to Raise a Cultured Child.) And yet, her family is ‘pervaded by strangeness and isolation’. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother is creepily over-involved in her daughters’ lives. ‘My mother sees nothing odd or hurtful in applying a strange green ointment called Zambuk to my vagina, at night, as late as junior high.’ Little Joyce is intellectually precocious but emotionally and sexually stunted. She begins writing freelance articles for Seventeen magazine at the age of 15, but at 18, she arrives at Yale still wearing shift dresses sewn for her by Mommy.

In 1972, during her freshman year, she writes a cover story for the New York Times Magazine: a piece entitled ‘An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life’, in which she affects a young fogeyish disenchantment with her hipster generation. The article is accompanied by several winsome photographs of its author and attracts a great deal of attention – including, most thrillingly, a fan letter from 53-year-old J.D. Salinger. As one might have guessed from all the wise children – those fresh-faced, smart-as-a-tack moppets – who appear in his fiction, Salinger is a sucker for Maynard’s sweetie-pie ennui. The crabby author and the lost little girl start up a regular correspondence. She goes to see him in New Hampshire, wearing a baby-doll dress appliquéd with letters of the alphabet that her mother has made specially for the occasion. A few months later, having by now secured a contract to write a book about growing up in the 1960s, she drops out of Yale and moves in with him.

Life at the New Hampshire hideaway proves to be very exacting. The Salinger diet is macrobiotic. (Fiddlehead ferns and sunflower seeds feature prominently.) Every day there is a long, mandatory session of meditation and yoga. Phone calls from anyone but immediate family are forbidden. And Salinger is always giving Maynard grief for being too interested in ‘worldly things’. Sex, too, is a problem. Every time they attempt intercourse, Maynard, who is a virgin, ‘clamps shut’ and develops a severe headache. These difficulties notwithstanding, she finds herself deeply in love. On Saturday nights the two of them push their tray tables back from the TV and foxtrot to the music acts on The Lawrence Welk Show. She wants to give Salinger a baby and Salinger, who is busy researching homeopathic cures for her ‘vaginismus’, co-operates in this fantasy. (The name of their future child has come to him in a dream, he says. The child will be a girl and she will be called ‘Bint’.)

But these riotously good times can’t last. Salinger grows increasingly disappointed with Maynard’s failure to embrace his code of ‘abstemiousness’. She tries hard, but she is always doing something wrong: reading TV Guide at breakfast when she should be studying her copy of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, violating the dietary code by baking toxin-filled banana bread. Worst of all, she can’t help being excited by the minor celebrity that her forthcoming book will afford her. (‘I think I’ll pass on that’ is Salinger’s icy riposte when she asks him for an endorsement quote.) Things come to a head when a reporter from Time magazine calls Salinger at home to ask if he is really Maynard’s boyfriend. Not long afterwards, while they are holidaying in Florida with his two teenage children, he dumps her. Maynard returns in despair to New Hampshire to clear out her things. She closes her account of this painful episode with the following sentence: ‘On the window of Jerry’s bedroom, where the glass is dusty, I write, with my finger, the name of the child we had talked about: BINT.’

It does not require a particularly sceptical turn of mind to suppose that, had Maynard experienced a similar affair with a less famous man, her emotional wounds might not have proved quite so enduring or have required the ‘healing’ powers of a tell-all book. In one of her memoir’s several suspiciously exact transcripts of conversations held twenty-five years before, she quotes Salinger advising her on her writing: ‘Some day Joyce, there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy and you’ll simply write what’s real and true.’ Maynard wants to imply that this memoir is just such a story: that in retailing her recollections of Salinger, she is obeying the man’s own exhortations to writerly honesty and candour. But even Maynard understands, I think, that realness and truth are not the same thing as full disclosure. And for all its tattling about bedroom manners, At Home in the World is not exactly a candid book. Its untrustworthiness has less to do with its factual particularities, or even with its general characterisation of Salinger as difficult and unkind, than with Maynard’s refusal to credit her adolescent self with qualities other than skinny victimhood. Like a lot of failed love affairs – perhaps most of them – her relationship with Salinger appears to have been premised on mutual misrecognition. It was a comedy of mistaken identity. He thought she was a precocious innocent – a ‘swell girl’ who would enjoy fiddlehead ferns and extremely restricted telephone privileges. She thought he was a lovely, nurturing daddy who would give her writing tips and the cachet of intimacy with a ‘literary legend’. One could argue that Maynard got the better of the error – she did after all come away with the cachet, the ‘experience’. But she cannot bring herself to relinquish, even for a moment, the image of her tragic, owl-eyed self, surrendering to a cruel lecher.

Nor can she admit to her complicity in aspects of the romance that she now finds morally revolting. Much of her retrospective disgust with Salinger has to do with his preference for very young women – a preference which she depicts as sinister and vampiric. Yet it seems fairly clear that, at the time, she understood and catered to it. Why else would it have occurred to her to wonder, when she turned 19, whether she was getting ‘too old’ for Salinger? Why else would she have deliberately infantilised herself by wearing a child’s frock to their first meeting? She was, she says, dressing ‘the part of the child innocent’, but at the same time she avoids taking responsibility for this role-playing. It was her mother who sewed the outfit, after all. She was just a confused girl: a girl who on first seeing Salinger’s naked body, wanted, more than anything else, to ‘curl up on his lap’, who cried in anguish when giving him blowjobs.

At Home in the World expends some energy on convincing its reader that J.D. Salinger was ‘sick’ – a less charming Humbert Humbert. But Maynard herself appears to have been something rather more dangerous than a Lolita: not a girl playing at womanhood, but a young woman mesmerised by the erotic possibilities of remaining a baby.

J.D. Salinger’s attitudes towards women and girls receive further analysis in Margaret Salinger’s memoir. Here, the daughter accuses the father of sacrificing women, in his life and his fiction, on the altar of his mystical beliefs: ‘Behind every good, enlightened man, Christ figure, Teddy or Seymour in my father’s writing, there’s a damnation or demonisation of womanhood and a sacrifice of childhood.’ Salinger goes on to offer her own busy case-history (multiple breakdowns, multiple personalities, hallucinations, bulimia, marriage to a karate instructor who later ran off with her money, an arrest for shoplifting, religious conversion, a suicide attempt, even a prolonged bout of chronic fatigue syndrome) as evidence of what childhood exposure to Salinger’s toxic misogyny will do to a person. Doctors who have treated her for her various disorders over the years have, she says, identified her symptoms as those ‘common to the community of what they call “torture babies”, infants who have experienced repeated and sustained trauma over time’.

Information about the precise nature of that trauma remains elusive. Oh, she gives us pages about her father’s cranky religious fads – how, during his brief enthralment to Christian Science, he wouldn’t let his young children visit doctors and tried to cure their ills with painful bouts of acupuncture. She laments his cool, parental detachment. ‘I’ll always love you,’ he told her when she was ten years old, ‘but when I lose respect for a person, I’m done with them. Finished.’ But none of it ever adds up, as she seems confident it will, to a logical ‘explanation’ of her adult problems.

The fanatical blamelessness of Salinger’s account of herself brings to mind Merry Levov, the sullen teenager in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Merry, who runs away from her middle-class home to join the underground and plant bombs in the name of peace, is another ‘problem child’ of the 1960s – ‘chaos itself’, in Roth’s phrase. It is Merry who prompts her father, Swede Levov, to wonder despairingly: ‘What happened to our smart Jewish kids? They are crazy. Something is driving them crazy. Something has set them against everything. Something is leading them into disaster.’ Like Merry, Margaret Salinger knows that the man who asks the question is himself the culprit. The ‘something’ responsible for all her ills is the mad, bad world of criminal adults.

In the face of overwhelming assault, the child, like a good fighting combat unit, jettisons a piece or pieces of the self to save the rest . . . Some of these parts of me died in exile, each on some desolate island since childhood. Some are alive but missing in action. I have spent years, with doctors and friends beside me, cruising the archipelago, calling out ‘All-y all-y in come free.’

The note of shrill excess in Maynard’s recollections is horribly amplified in Dream Catcher. Salinger describes the most minute of childhood distresses in the heightened, ‘recovered memory’ style, with language so intense, and tone so injured, that it often takes a while for the reader to gather that what is being described is the process of getting caught up in bed sheets at the age of four, or the shock of seeing one’s father’s reversed image in his shaving mirror at the age of seven.

Unlike Maynard, whose destructive mission has the virtue of a certain clarity, Salinger never quite decides what form to give her hostility. Her book is a baggy monster of filial animus. Sometimes she plays the biographical scholar. (In one early chapter, she offers twenty pages of ill-digested research on anti-semitism in 1920s New York.) Sometimes, she plays the literary critic, pointing up the ‘real-life’ provenance of various motifs in her father’s fiction, and attacking specific passages in his work for what they suggest about his poor parenting skills. Her response to Holden Caulfield’s fantasy about catching children from falling off the edge of a rye field is to wonder, indignantly:

Where are the grown-ups? Why are those kids allowed to play so close to the edge of a cliff? Where are the responsible adults who should build a secure place for those kids to play, or a fence at least, so some young boy like Holden or some young girl like me doesn’t have to engage in perpetual rescue?

Sometimes, in passing, she throws out interesting information about Salinger’s life. We learn that his infantry regiment landed on Utah beach on D-Day, that Salinger, a staff sergeant, fought on or near the front line until VE Day, that he was present at the liberation of a concentration camp (she can’t recall which one) and that in May 1945 he was admitted to a hospital outside Nuremberg for battle fatigue. (He refused to accept a psychiatric discharge.) We also learn of a bizarre, shortlived marriage to ‘Sylvia’, one of the low-ranking Nazi officials whom he arrested while in Germany. ‘My mother said he told her that Sylvia hated Jews as much as he hated Nazis and she let him feel it. Their relationship, he said, was extremely intense, both physically and emotionally.’

Whether any of this information is really more ‘important’ than the daughterly tittle-tattle about Salinger’s domestic shortcomings is a moot question. Salinger’s war record may, one suspects, appeal to just the same low-order curiosity as the evil father stories do. But the former does have the distinction of being, more or less reliably, the truth. And in a book filled with such highly interested and baroque accounts of the past, simple facts are at a premium.

Salinger and Maynard would like their books to be read as indictments not just of J.D. Salinger, but of the irresponsible era in which they grew up: the era that injured them with its permissiveness and failed to make them feel ‘safe’ as children. ‘What were they thinking?’ they ask repeatedly of the neglectful parents who gave them the dangerous liberties of their youth. Certainly, with their seething resentments and jargony whine (‘Possessing fragile boundaries sucks beyond belief,’ Salinger attests plaintively), their fetishistic preening of ancient hurts and stagey, New Age celebrations of motherhood, these memoirs provide a vivid profile of a particular kind of 1960s-made woman. Indeed, read together, they form an interesting cultural document of late 20th-century pseudo-feminism.

It is in their corrupted notions of female ‘rights’ – of what they ‘deserve’ – that both Maynard and Salinger have found happiness and some measure of calm in middle age. Owning their own victim status has made them feel good, it seems. They are comfortable in their own skins, at last. Maynard recently got breast enhancements and they’re fabulous! The one reward that continues to elude them, however – even in these, their sanctimonious autumn years – is a sense of proportion. That most banal but invaluable of assets shows no signs of turning up any time soon. It is useless to tell these women to grow up. Their books are offered, after all, as testaments to their maturity. The only hope – one shared presumably by the old man in New Hampshire – is that having done their worst, they are ready, now, to pipe down.