Exorcising J. D. Salinger

Joyce Maynard faced the truth about her affair with the famous author, and now she would like to move on.


November 28, 1999|By Bill DeYoung | Bill DeYoung,GAINESVILLE SUN

The past 12 months have not exactly been a walk in the park for Joyce Maynard. A year ago, she published her seventh book, a memoir called "At Home in the World," in which she retraced her steps from precocious, unfulfilled teen to successful, smart and (relatively) stable woman.

It was a bumpy journey, and Maynard -- no stranger to revealing the most intimate details of her adult life through her writing -- made herself put down some pretty hurtful stuff. Central to the story, and to understanding the girl and the woman, was Maynard's yearlong affair with a man 35 years her senior.

The man was literary icon J.D. Salinger. He was 53, and Maynard was 18.

Salinger, who hasn't published a word or even appeared in public since the 1950s, is a revered, almost mythical figure. When Maynard told her story, the critics tore her to ribbons. How dare she exploit his legendary name?

"In the hundreds and hundreds of outraged and indignant things that were written about this book, no one ever said, 'She lied, it never happened,' " Maynard says. "What they said was, 'She shouldn't have talked about it.' Fascinating distinction. 'She should have kept her mouth shut.' "

Maynard was called everything from a parasite to a hack.

"And the notion seemed very prevalent -- and this was deeply offensive to me -- that the one significant act of my life was sleeping with a famous man. You know, I feel my work sort of speaks for itself. At the point that I published this book, I had published six other books and supported a family, I'd been a newspaper reporter, done plenty of other things that had absolutely nothing to do with Salinger. You could like my books or not like my books.

"But to suggest that I have lived off of Salinger all my life is a profound disavowal of the facts. And it's basically saying a woman's story doesn't matter."

Before this brouhaha began, Maynard, 46, was best known for her novel "To Die For," which became a movie starring Nicole Kidman, and for her syndicated newspaper column chronicling the rise and fall of her own marriage.

Today, the divorced mother of three lives in Mill Valley, in northern California. She's now on a book tour that has her fielding questions about "At Home in the World."

Well, about J.D. Salinger, mostly.

"I supposed for most of the past 25 years that this was a book I would never write," Maynard says. "It wasn't even a possibility. And I was regularly confronted with the task of explaining my experience with Salinger."

In 1972, the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" wrote Maynard, then a Yale freshman, a fan letter. He had seen her essay "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life" in the New York Times Magazine. They became pen pals, friends, lovers. She moved into his secluded home in Cornish, N.H. One day, she writes, Salinger simply told her to pack up and get out.

"I felt I had this obligation to silence for a long time, so I didn't even allow myself to entertain the thought of what the story might be," explains Maynard. "I think a lot of people have some little drawer in their life that they don't open. It's too uncomfortable. This one was it for me."

Although Salinger is a prominent figure in Maynard's book, he is just one of a cast of characters. "At Home in the World" is about her children, her ex-husband, her friends, her parents.

"It's very rare that I can ever have a conversation that I don't find myself talking about growing up in an alcoholic family," the author explains. "It's one of the core experiences of my life. And this book, much more than it's about Salinger, is a book about that. ..."

She is steadfast in her belief that the truth, however painful, is a liberating thing. "Creating work that doesn't move a reader doesn't particularly interest me," she says. "I'm really interested in the reader out there, and I believe there are many who also had some of these kinds of growing-up experiences."

Just as the indignation about "At Home in the World" was dying down, Maynard put a collection of Salinger's letters -- those he wrote to her while reeling her in during that long-ago spring of '72 -- up for auction at Sotheby's.

She was again reviled, insulted and accused of exploiting Salinger's name.

"Why would I not sell them?" she asks. "Why would I have some obligation to keep a bunch of letters that for me were the record of an abusive experience, tucked away in my drawer? That could help put one of my kids through college? Instead I should tuck them away to preserve the reputation of J.D. Salinger?"

A private collector paid $140,000 for the letters.

"I didn't have any kind of a moral problem with it," she adds. "I should add that these letters are not the gooey, messy, sexual sort of stuff that will embarrass a person. The only thing that's really embarrassing about those letters was already known: that a 53-year-old man wrote them to an 18-year-old girl."

Maynard passes no judgment on Salinger in "At Home With the World." She was, after all, a willing participant. She merely states the facts as she saw them.

That covers yesterday and today. As for tomorrow?

"I'm done with this story. The next damn time somebody says 'What about J.D. Salinger?' I can hand them my book. I don't ever have to tell this story again. I'm so ready to be free of it."

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