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 write 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 theme. It begins with a paragraph that says something about writing, fame, and 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 this was 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 seems Salinger was careful not to bed them till they had passed the legal age of consent (Maynard mentions a 14-year-old, but it appears—although it’s not clear from her article—that he probably only corresponded with her until she was of legal age). If that’s 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; or at least Maynard was.
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.
[NOTE: Cross-posted at Legal Insurrection.]