At Home in the World: Excerpt from the New Preface
I was getting off a plane when I learned the news: J. D. Salinger was dead.
I was fifty six years old, and with the exception of one brief meeting on his doorstep, thirteen years before—an encounter that lasted no more than five minutes, in which I found myself the object of a greater wrath than any I’d ever known, a kind of nuclear attack—nearly four decades had passed since the last time I had spoken with the man.
But I had loved him once, and more even than how I’d loved him, I had worshipped him. Jerry Salinger was, I used to say, the only religion I ever knew. I had grafted my sense of who I was in the world so utterly onto his view of how a person should be, that there existed a time, after he entered my life, when I no longer knew who I was, separate from him, and a time when I could no longer imagine life on earth without Jerry. Everything I believed came from him.
Don’t trust doctors, he told me. Less so, psychologists. Don’t trust food cooked over a hundred and ten degrees, people who use the word “grand” to describe something they like a lot. Don’t trust what you read in the New York Times, or the writing of John Updike, anybody who made a movie in Hollywood after the year 1960, or so-called jazz improvisation, or your mother. (Meaning mine.)
He told me what movies to watch, what music to listen to, what food to eat. Jerry told me what to think, and write, and not write, what was real and what was false. He told me who to be, and because I adored him, I wanted to be that person.
The relationship lasted just eleven months, and ended forty years ago. But absent as Salinger has been, all my adult life, he remained a daily presence all those years. First (when I was nineteen, then twenty, twenty-one) this was because I just longed so desperately to earn back his good opinion of me, if not his physical presence in my life. That feeling dissipated at last, but even after it did, I heard his voice in my head: offering up opinions of everything he loved, and everything he condemned, and for a long time, his views were simply mine. This was true, even though, on the list of the condemned, was my own self.
I believed I was a lesser person for my failure to hold onto the esteem and love I had once inspired in the man I believed still to be the wisest and best person I’d ever known, or ever would—the purest, the most enlightened, the funniest. He had told me once, early in our time together, that I was a wonderful writer, and the most lovable girl. When he told me, a year after, that I was a shallow, worthless person, I believed him, same as I believed that I must protect his well known requirement of total privacy—say nothing of my time with him, or even the paralyzing sorrow I’d experienced after he sent me away, even at the expense of my desire to make sense of what had happened.
For me, there would be no therapist with whom to untangle the story. No doctor to address the deeply shameful, sexual problem Jerry had diagnosed in me, that had left me with the picture of myself as a freak. Even at the point of making a marriage—to a man chosen in part, perhaps, because I knew he’d never ask about this part of my story— I honored the unwritten code, well known to anyone who knew the man, that I must never speak of Salinger. He was so much more important than I.
It had been he who first told me, in response to reading an article of mine he’d read in the New York Times, that if he knew anything at all, it was that I was a real writer. Now I heard him telling me, my aspiration to be a writer was a hollow one. I was a shallow person, fixed on a meaningless goal of publication. He uttered the word as if it were an obscenity.
He presided over my life, long after his departure from it, in certain ways that cut to the core. This part is harder to speak of, but must be named, because, I know now, it is not only a part of my story but that of so many young girls who give themselves over, as I did, young, to a man of vastly greater age and power:
Salinger was the first man with whom I shared a sexual relationship, and one whose assessment of me as a girl (never a woman) shaped my first view of my own sexuality for a very long time. I worked for a few decades to undo what Salinger instilled in me about myself, not only as a writer, but as a sexual person.
And Salinger remained a presence in my life, because whether I spoke about him or not (and for twenty five years, I did not), hardly a day passed, and never as long as a week, that I wasn’t asked about him. I might marry, give birth to children, turn thirty, and then forty, and then fifty. I would surpass the age he’d been, when I knew him—53—and I would still be, to many people I encountered, the girl who lived with a famous writer.
I might organize a political campaign, write my own books—and I did, a dozen of them—and still, almost invariably, the reviews began with the fact that when I was eighteen, I’d lived with J.D. Salinger...
To read the entire preface, ORDER At Home in the World, re-released Sept. 2013.
Joyce Maynard with Charlie Rose, talking about At Home in the World