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Sex between unequals: Joyce Maynard vs. J. D. Salinger

Sex between unequals: Joyce Maynard vs. J. D. Salinger

Joyce Maynard has made a kind of cottage industry out of her long-ago relationship with J.D. Salinger, who seduced her when she was a wunderkind of 18 and he a famous writer of 53 and then abruptly threw her out, leaving her to lick her wounds, seemingly recover, and then author a tell-all memoir some thirty or so years later.

Now she’s written a curious article in the NY Times that works a variation on the same theme. It begins with a paragraph that says something about writing, fame, and literary fans:

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.

Really? Many? No doubt some; I know there were (and perhaps still are, even though the elusive Salinger himself is now gone and not just secluded) people who felt that way, who revered him in a manner that seemed both excessive and unhealthy, and who considered his self-imposed exile a tease and an invitation to pry into it. But “the human embodiment of purity”—rather than just a really famous guy who wrote a really famous book and who, like Garbo, wanted to be left alone? Surely these worshiping fans were a fringe group of near-lunatics?

At any rate, there’s little doubt (knowledge in part thanks to Maynard’s revelations) that Salinger was not especially “pure,” whatever that means: he was an older guy who dug younger chicks. That’s not in itself a crime, especially because it appears that Salinger was careful not to bed them till they had passed the legal age of consent (Maynard mentions a 14-year-old, but it seems—although it’s not clear from her article—that he probably kept the interaction to mere correspondence until she was of legal age). If that restriction was true, then the greater beef, it seems to me, is that he loved ’em and left ’em—or rather, he asked them to leave after a fairly short time—and was a controlling guy during the relationships as well. And they were young and malleable and generally controllable.

Like a lot of other not-so-admirable people, Salinger seems to have hurt quite a few of his fellow-humans. But he was neither priest nor teacher nor doctor nor therapist nor anyone in the sort of special relationship of trust and authority who would have been legally barred from sexual interactions with the people (young or old) in his charge. So Salinger’s relationships with women such as Maynard fall under the heading of consensual sex with adults who looked up to him as some sort of sage, and who were ultimately hurt by him. They might instead have been hurt by contemporaries who were not famous (or even older guys who were not famous) with whom they slept, but it was instead Salinger who did the deed. And because they looked up to him, he probably had greater power than usual to hurt them.

Maynard has another curious thing to say about it all:

I am as troubled by the use of the word “woman” to describe the 18-year-old object, briefly, of a 53-year-old’s affections as I am by the use of the word “lover” to describe my 18-year-old self, in the context of that relationship.

I wonder what Maynard’s suggested remedy would be. Move the age of consent to 21 or even older? Somehow I very much doubt it. Ban sexual relations between older men and much-younger women (or the reverse)? Or does she want to ban sexual relations between all those of unequal power?

Perhaps not; perhaps she just wants us to hate Salinger for what he did to her. In that pursuit, she’s free to use the power of her pen to do the job.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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Maynard said…

“As the mother of a daughter myself, I would say rather that a man who treats those offering up their love and trust as expendable is lesser himself for having done so.”

Genesis says…
“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

legacyrepublican | September 17, 2013 at 8:09 am

I am 53 and the only thing this story reminds me to do or think about is to stay with my wife for life! She is worth it! 😀

legacyrepublican | September 17, 2013 at 8:09 am

I am 53 and the only thing this story reminds me to do or think about is to stay with my wife for life! She is worth it! 😀

She must be a liberal, because when she implies that everybody thought something, she means, “I thought something.” I’ve no doubt she worshiped him at the time.

I believe that many people saw Salinger as living a life of pitiable seclusion. I think that is why W.P. Kinsela took him out to a ball game in ‘Field of Dreams.’

I didn’t particularly enjoy being forced to read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager in high school. Heck, I can’t even remember the protagonist’s name, because I repressed the awful memory. Shall I demand reparations from any and all associated with the man?

No, I would rather keep the memories repressed.

    JoAnne in reply to Paul. | September 17, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Agree, although I wasn’t forced to read it. I was in school in the late 50s, early 60’s and my sophomore English teacher must have been a new graduate when she came to us. She said that although “Catcher in the Rye” was on the banned book list, she would give us extra credit for a book report on it. I didn’t think much about it in those days but upon seeing where education has gone these days, she must have been one of the first of the new breed of teacher.

    Paul you are on to something. I was forced to read that book in the last year of High School and I hated it.

    Even now, after 40 years I consider it the worst ever book that I had read. It was full of self-indulgence and it had no relevance at all to my own way of life or family values.

    I cannot understand how anyone thought that Catcher in the Rye was a good novel. It was not. It was total junk. I read some Australian books also about teen boys and they superior in every way to Salinger’s junk and untalented book.

I too was forced to read Catcher in 1970 by a frsh from college 60s hippy-type. I was told it would give voice to my teenage angst and the class was ordered to write a review. I got a D, I think because I opined that despite everything he went through, in the end Caulfield’s angsty attitude and outlook had changed not one bit by the end of the book. I don’t recall if I didn’t like it on its merits or lack thereof or was just resentful at having to read it during busy ice hockey play-offs.

    Henry you summed it up perfectly!! I agree with your comment about that book.

    I remember that I had to write an examination question based upon that horrible book, but also based upon some other much better books. I cannot remember what I wrote but since I did not relate to the book you can imagine it was not flattering.

    I related best to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and especially Lydia because I saw my sister as being a lot like Lydia.

    The Australian book that I read “All the Green Year” was a much better written story. It did not have the “teenage angst”.

    It makes me wonder if they used Catcher in the Rye to create an underclass of teenage rebels who carried on in such a childish manner.

    Anyway I have always had a revulsion where that book was concerned. I never want to read it again because it was so bad.

    Only this week I read the Sir Walter Scott novel Ivanhoe. Now that is a book that has an interesting study of human nature. I would have preferred reading something like that at the age of 17 than the garbage of Catcher in the Rye.

      Jane Austen was/is FAR Superior to J.D. Salinger in just about every distinction of how a novel should be written.

      Her characters are interesting, her descriptions imaginative. To this day I will watch A&E’s production of Pride and Prejudice, and compare it the the novel. The production is almost WORD FOR WORD out of the novel in most scenes. I loved it!

      I also feel a bit sorry for you if Lydia described your sister, since she was very silly indeed.

      Henry Hawkins in reply to Aussie. | September 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      Usually, the protagonist and other main characters travel an arc throughout a story; they change, move, fail, grow, fall, etc., some transition is made. Basically, Holden gets on the proverbial angst and alienation train in, rides along for the entire book, and finally gets off the train… still angst-ridden and alienated.

This my a call for a “Legal Insurrection” after all 🙂

Ignore this unconstitutional law, if enough people civilly disobey this travesty of legal and political maneuvering. We ought to be able to defund and nullify it.

    Paul in reply to Paul. | September 17, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Crud, this comment was supposed to be for the healthcare thread. ROFL. I wonder if J.D. Salinger would agree with the civil disobedience calls….. hehe

Wasn’t there a “user/used” ambiguity to this story? That is, didn’t Maynard get some benefits from her association with Salinger? Just asking. Memory is dim.

I feel sorry for what happened to her, but I’m not sure what’s the point of regurgitating the story. She should be long over her experience, and Salinger, who, as we well know was a rather odd fellow, even if we don’t take his infatuation with young women into account, will be judged for his literary talent, more so than for his character.
As for her claim that an 18-year-old is not a woman, well… girlhood stretches into 40’s now. Certainly to 26, the age when young people are expected to buy their own birth control.

What happens when an 18 year old girl’s high point in life is being screwed by a 53 year old man; she revels in it forever. “I have his DNA inside my vagina”. “WooHoo!”

Wonder what she thinks about the DNA inside her vagina that created her kid? Shoot (forgive the pun)! Why couldn’t it have be Salinger’s?

For the record, I never even met Salinger let alone engage in salacious relations, but Michael Jackson once tried to touch my pee pee.