By JOYCE MAYNARD in the New York Times, September 14, 2013
“As the mother of a daughter myself, I would say that a man who treats those offering up their love and trust as expendable is lesser himself for having done so.”
Image: Eleni Kalorkoti
In the 50 years since J.D. Salinger removed himself from the public eye and stopped publishing, he has been viewed — more accurately, worshiped — as the human embodiment of purity, a welcome antidote to phoniness. To many, he was a kind of god.
Now comes the word — though not really news, to some — that over the years when he was cherishing his privacy, Salinger was also carrying on relationships with young women 15, and in my case, 35 years younger than he.
“Salinger,” a new documentary film touches — though politely — on the story of just five of these young women (most under 20 when he sought them out), but the pattern was wider: letters I’ve received over the 15 years since I broke the unwritten rule and spoke of my own experiences with the man revealed to me that there were more than a dozen. In at least one case, Salinger was corresponding with one teenage girl while sharing his home with another: me.
Like many of the others involved, I was a young person in possession of particular vulnerabilities as well as strengths — a story that began with my family, not Salinger, and inspired me to seek out an Ivy League education with the dream of becoming a writer. Nine months after I arrived at Yale, having published a story that attracted Salinger’s attention, I received a letter from him. Then many more.
I was 18 when he wrote to me in the irresistible voice of Holden Caulfield, though he was 53 at the time. Within months I left school to live with Salinger; gave up my scholarship; severed relationships with friends; disconnected from my family; forswore all books, music, food and ideas not condoned by him. At the time, I believed I’d be with Jerry Salinger forever.
His was a seduction played out with words and ideas, not lovemaking, but to the young girl reading those words — as with a few million other readers — there could have been no more powerful allure.
Salinger wasn’t simply brilliant, funny, wise; he burrowed into one’s brain, seeming to understand things nobody else ever had. His expressions of admiration (“I couldn’t have created a character I love more than you”) were intoxicating. His dismissal and contempt, when they came, were devastating.
I was 19 when he put two $50 bills in my hand and sent me away. Years after he dismissed me, his voice stayed in my head, offering opinions on everything he loved and all that he condemned. This was true even though, on his list of the condemned, was my own self.
This was not made easier by Salinger’s unwritten edict on secrecy: if Salinger wrote you a letter, you must never say you received it. If he broke your heart you must never mention it happened. To do anything else constituted more than the violation of the privacy of a great writer; it was proof of one’s own reprobate soul, the exploitation (a word with which I’ve grown familiar over the years) of a man so much purer than the false and shallow world around him, an artist who wanted only to be left alone.
To a stunning degree, for a period of over half a century, Salinger managed to convince a significant portion of the reading population that his words and actions should be exempt from scrutiny for the simple reason that he wrote those nine stories, and “The Catcher in the Rye.” And because he said so.
Now the story well known to me is known to the world, though there are voices raised up still, decrying the violation of Salinger’s legendary privacy. But while this recent burst of disclosure might seem to demystify the man (or call his role as sage into question), a troubling phenomenon has surfaced along with the news.
It is the quiet acceptance, apparently alive and well in our culture, of the notion that genius justifies cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art. Richard Schickel, writing of Salinger’s activities, expresses the view that despite the disclosures about Salinger’s pursuit of young women he lived “a ‘normal’ life.”
“He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses,” writes the film critic (and father of daughters) David Edelstein. The implication being, what’s the fuss?
One of these girls, 14 when Salinger first pursued her long ago, described him in terms usually reserved for deities, and spoke of feeling privileged to have served as inspiration and muse to a great writer — though she also reports that he severed their relationship the day after their one and only sexual encounter.
Some will argue that you can’t have it both ways: how can a woman say she is fully in charge of her body and her destiny, and then call herself a victim when, having given a man her heart of her own volition, he crushes it? How can a consensual relationship, as Salinger’s unquestionably were, constitute a form of abuse?
But we are talking about what happens when people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status — use their power to lure much younger people into sexual and (in the case of Salinger) emotional relationships. Most typically, those who do this are men. And when they are done with the person they’ve drawn toward them, it can take that person years or decades to recover.
Continue reading this New York Times article HERE.