AT HOME IN THE WORLD
 

































The Afterword from AT HOME IN THE WORLD:


Nearly two years have passed since that chilly November day when I stood on

Jerry Salinger’s doorstep and asked him my question -- "what was my purpose

in your life?" Seeing him again as I did that day -- with the eyes of a mature

woman, and not a terrified and worshipful teenager -- freed me to write this book.

More than that it changed my outlook on my life.


For more than four decades I had lived with a deep and abiding need to please

others. Since the age of eighteen, I had been haunted by the fear of J.D. Salinger’s disapproval and wrath. And I wasn’t wrong that my decision to break a long-held silence concerning a literary icon’s role in my life would bring terrible wrath and disapproval upon me.


Released from the fear of actively displeasing the man whose opinion once meant more to me than that of anybody else, I felt able for the first time to speak with true honesty not only of the part of my history concerning Jerry Salinger but about so many other things that had brought me to where I stood that day. Because when one piece of a story is missing, none of the others quite makes sense.


Essentially, this is a book about a woman’s life, and about shame and secret keeping. But after this book was published, many people expressed the view that because my story involved that of a great man who demands not to be spoken of, I owed him my silence. The attacks, not only on my book but on my character, were brutal, intensely personal and relentless.


It appeared that to many of my critics the sole significant event of my life had been sleeping with a great man. This was disheartening not just personally, but for what that portrayal of me and my story indicated about those writers’ perceptions of women. One day I hope some feminist scholar will examine the way in which a woman’s recounting of her history is so often ridiculed as self-absorbed and fundamentally unimportant. (So often, our stories deal with such topics as relationships, our bodies, the formation of a sexual identity, giving birth, making a home, the deaths of loved ones, the disintegration of a marriage, raising children.) I believe it is a measure of the hostility towards women still deeply woven into the texture of our culture that when a female writer gives voice to the struggles that are the stuff of women’s lives, she is so often dismissed as emotional, self-indulgent, and trivial. One need not look far for examples of male writers who have written freely and with no small measure of self-absorption about the territory of personal experience, who are praised for their courage and searing honesty.


I did however receive affirmation of the work I’d done in these pages. Readers wrote to say the story I told was theirs as well. In letter after letter, I read the stories of men and women who had grown up in alcoholic families. I received letters from women and men well-acquainted with shame and secret-keeping in their own lives, thanking me for my willingness to speak openly of experiences they had supposed were theirs alone, or simply too painful to speak of.


I heard from women and young girls who had given themselves over to relationships with more powerful older men, and known the damage of their rejection or -- equally harmful -- the cost of transforming themselves into someone they were not, for the sake of that man’s love. My story might have involved any man of vastly greater power to myself, any mother whose love threatened to consume her child, any child who ever took upon herself responsibility for an alcoholic parent’s sobriety, or a family’s happiness. It might have been their story and often they told me it was.


Not wholly surprising to me were letters I received from two other women who had also engaged in correspondences with J.D. Salinger eerily like my own -- one, within weeks of his dismissal of me.


I have no doubt these women’s stories were true. They quoted lines from Salinger’s letters to them nearly identical to ones in his letters to me, whose contents had never been made public. Like me, these women had been approached by Salinger when they were eighteen years old. Like me, they once believed him to be the wisest man, their soulmate, their destiny. Like me, they had eventually experienced his complete and devastating rejection . Also like me, they had maintained, for years, the belief that they were obligated to keep the secret -- out of fear of the very form of condemnation I was now receiving for having refused to do so.


Based on what was so often said about me for breaking my own silence, the fears of these women to speak of their experiences appear justified. Even now, it seems, there are many who would say it remains a woman’s obligation to protect the secrets of a man for the simple reason that he demands it. More than that, it appears to be a matter of some dispute whether a woman has the right to tell the truth about her life -- and if she does, whether the story of a woman’s life is viewed as significant or valuable.


The pursuit of privacy has been portrayed by many as evidence of purity of character, just as the refusal to bow to the genteel notion of secret-keeping has been depicted as inappropriate and invasive -- a profound betrayal of trust. I have come to believe that sometimes what is truly inappropriate and invasive are certain activities on the part of the very individuals who will later invoke their sacred privacy as a cloak for the concealment of their behavior. To suggest that an individual enjoy immunity from scrutiny or accountability for his actions, because he holds some position of power (whether as a priest, a professor, a politician or a man of great wealth or accomplishment) is to clear the way for the exploitation of the very people most vulnerable to influence and manipulation -- generally, the young. There lies the true betrayal of trust. It is yet another instance of indignity that the victims of these individuals are so often blamed and humiliated themselves when they give voice to their experience.


So long as we question a woman’s right to her own story, we allow the perpetuation of the same dangerous and damaging patterns generations before us experienced. Because the most powerful tool most of us possess is our own voice. Take that away and what do we have?


I don’t think I have ever addressed a group without hearing this question asked of me: What do your children think about your book? Speaking strictly as a writer, I would have to say it strikes me as a dangerous notion that a person allow herself to ask the question “what will people think?” when she sits down to tell her story, make a painting, compose a symphony. But as a parent, I did of course ask myself many times, throughout the writing of this book, how it would be for my children to read a story filled with so much intimate detail about their mother. Whatever the cost, as a writer, I couldn’t have made that choice had I possessed less confidence in my children’s love and my love for them, and their capacity to handle the truth.


Raised myself in a household in which painful experience was not freely discussed, I believe that a person’s best source of strength and protection resides in her ability to speak openly and without shame about the real events of her life. I believe my children have learned that lesson. So far only one of them -- my fifteen year old son Willy -- has read this book, my older son and daughter having made the choice to wait for a while. But they are well acquainted with the stories in these pages, and will find no large surprises when the day comes that they read my story.


Recently a woman posted an indignant message to me on the discussion forum of my website, asking how I could live with myself, knowing that one day my children were likely to read At Home in the World. Willy was in the room at the time, so I read her question out loud to him. “Mind if I answer that?” he said. Word for word, here is the note he dashed off to her:


  1. “Oh Kathe,” he wrote. “I have read my mother’s most recent book and though parts were hard to hear, I was glad to read every page of it. I am sure that in your own life you have been faced with adversity and pain that affected you profoundly, as has my mother. The fact that she chose to express hers in writing is -- I believe -- a sign of her strength and an expression of the faith she has in her children. I am the youngest of my siblings and possibly the 'least mature', however, not for a moment do I suspect any coflicting feeling from my fellow siblings when I say that we all love and support our mother despite her zany stories of despair and woe. I think that we can all relate and learn from these tales if they are approached with an open mind (and in my case, a little love).


  2. Sincerely,

  3. Stephen Wilson Bethel


Writing this book felt in many ways like a beginning for me -- though chronologically, I am well into my middle years. But it also represented the conclusion to a dark chapter of my life. Having written this story, I felt able at last to lay it to rest. The old battles with my children’s father are finished, with a recognition that as much as I needed to forgive the man to whom I was once married, I needed his forgiveness of me, too. As for my parents, I believe any careful reader of these pages will recognize that while this story recounts their failures and mistakes, it is also a celebration of their extraordinary lives and the richness of their legacy to me.


I am often asked by readers if I ever heard from J. D. Salinger after the publication of At Home in the World. I did not, and hadn’t expected to. For me, that visit I made back to New Hampshire on the eve of my birthday constituted the farewell I had been looking for all those years. And so -- with my younger children heading off to college, and the challenge before me of footing the bills -- I decided to sell J. D. Salinger’s letters to me, written over a quarter century ago.


As I prepared to hand the letters over to a New York auction house, I read them one more time. I came to a passage warning of the extraordinary danger of letters from strangers, and the power of words on the page. Jerry Salinger was right: a letter can be a dangerous thing, as I now know well. Ironically, no letter I ever received exerted more destructive force than the one I was even then holding in my hand.


I did not sell the letters as an act of vengeance, but neither did I feel compelled not to sell them, as some sort of act of exaggerated loyalty. I believed the letters were better entrusted to a person whose appreciation of Salinger found its origins in an understandable love of the writer’s prose, rather than one who made the costly mistake of trying to live out fictions best left on the page.



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When it was first published in 1998, At Home in the World set off a furor in the literary world and beyond. Joyce Maynard's memoir broke a silence concerning her relationship-at age eighteen-with the famously reclusive author J. D. Salinger, then age fifty-three, who had read a story she wrote for The New York Times in her freshman year of college and sent her a letter that changed her life. Reviewers called her book "shameless" and "powerful" and its author was simultaneously reviled and cheered.


With what some have viewed as shocking honesty, Maynard explores her coming of age in an alcoholic family, her mother's dream to mold her into a writer, her self-imposed exile from the world of her peers when she left Yale to live with Salinger, and her struggle to reclaim her sense of self in the crushing aftermath of his dismissal of her not long after her nineteenth birthday. A quarter of a century later-having become a writer, survived the end of her marriage and the deaths of her parents, and with an eighteen-year-old daughter of her own-Maynard pays a visit to the man who broke her heart. The story she tells-of the girl she was and the woman she became-is at once devastating, inspiring, and triumphant.


“This  portrait was taken by Richard Avedon in 1973, at a time in my life when I was not at home, anywhere on earth.  That has changed.”    

- Joyce



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