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She Slept With J.D. Salinger!

[whitespace] Joyce Maynard Fragile Investiture: One of the most valuable points of Joyce Maynard's memoir is its warning that young women would do well not to trust sugar daddies bearing gifts.

Joyce Maynard finds her way home to the truth

By Sarah Coleman

Early on in her new memoir, At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard writes that as a child, she was "consumed with a desire to win contests, earn money, earn recognition from the world and, above all, from my parents." Though she claims she's lost that intense hunger to please, Maynard's inner child must be reeling right now. Having broken her silence in At Home in the World about the creepy affair she had with J.D. Salinger in 1973, when she was 18 to the famous author's 53, Maynard has won herself both fans and detractors.

In fact, this is her second time around as a Notorious Writer; the first was in 1972, when her essay "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life" made her a de facto spokeswoman for her generation. It was this essay which also launched her relationship with Salinger, who wrote her a fan letter from his hermit's hideaway hole in New Hampshire.

Though there's no doubt that the relationship with Salinger is the book's pivotal event, it occupies only a third of the narrative. Of the remainder, half describes Maynard's childhood as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a frustrated, overbearing mother; the other half follows her through an ill-fated marriage and the birth of three children. The early section, in which Maynard describes how her parents pushed her to be a literary wunderkind, will strike a chord with any child of ambitious parents. Maynard is, to put it mildly, a little peeved that these aspects of her book have been overlooked.

"The critics' response to this book has been so limited," she says in a phone conversation from her home in Marin County. "Thank God it wasn't the literary establishment's approval I was seeking; otherwise I'd be sitting in a chair right now, rocking back and forth and muttering."

Even before she set out to write the book, Maynard says, she knew she'd be taken to task for "presuming to talk about this icon, Salinger." She feels there's a double standard afoot--that "the same kind of truth-telling that has resulted in my being labeled, by some, 'a shrill, hysterical fishwife' or 'a vengeful harpy,' if manifested by a male storyteller might be termed 'brave, gritty, raw honesty.' "When I mention the literary wars between Philip Roth and his ex-wife Claire Bloom (Roth's new novel, I Married a Communist, contains a vicious characterization of Bloom, who exposed him in her 1996 memoir, Leaving a Doll's House), Maynard wants to know whether Roth, like Bloom, has been criticized for exploiting their relationship for "material." When I say I haven't heard any criticism of Roth yet, she exclaims, "Well, now isn't that interesting!"

Unlike Bloom's book, At Home in the World has solid literary underpinnings. Though it may not be a masterpiece, it's a well-crafted memoir that gives insight into the life of a troubled young woman. Ironically, Salinger himself guided Maynard toward this kind of disclosure. Worried that she was writing too much callow, crowd-pleasing journalism, he tells her in the book that "some day, Joyce, you'll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you're keeping everyone happy, and you'll simply write what's real and true."

So how would she feel now if Salinger came out with a novel based on their affair? "I'd actually be fascinated to read such a novel--I'd be the first one to buy it," she says. "One of the extraordinary difficulties I've had to grapple with all of my adult life is trying to make sense of an experience that changed my life without any word from the other participant about what had happened, or what it meant to him. I'd love to find out."

At a recent reading at Booksmith on Haight Street, Maynard didn't look like a woman grappling with extraordinary difficulties. Perky and upbeat, she threw out one-liners as though she were entertaining the troops. "Throughout my life, nothing has terrified me more than not talking about something," she told the audience. "As you might have noticed, I've gotten over that."

Maynard's fans are legion, and the evening provided a few fresh recruits. Abby, who described herself as a "San Francisco street artist," had brought her grandson and a flask of tea with her. She confided she'd never before attended a book reading. "I think this is the greatest book I've ever read," she told Maynard. "You articulate things that have never before been articulated."

Other audience members were devotees of the Web site community Maynard hosts at www.joycemaynard.com ("I've always maintained a high level of interaction with readers," she says of the site) and had come out to support her. One young man was struck by Maynard's assertion that "Salinger was the closest thing I had to a religion." "I'm in that kind of situation with a friend, a loved one, and it's wrong," he says. "You've given me the courage to make that phone call."

"It's fascinating to see the degree to which this book has touched a nerve in people," Maynard says. She has traveled around the country for the past six weeks, she says, and "not a reading has gone by when some young woman, or older woman, hasn't come up to me and said, This happened to me. By which they didn't mean that they'd received letters from J.D. Salinger, but that they too had the experience of giving themselves over to a vastly more powerful and controlling man. And that they knew the damage such a relationship can produce."

Current events, of course, lend weight to this theme. In the long term, one of the most valuable points of Maynard's book might turn out to be its warning that heroism is a fragile investiture, and that young women would do well not to trust sugar daddies bearing gifts. Two years too late for Monica Lewinsky, the message now packs an extra punch.

"Women have recognized themselves in my story and have been left feeling less isolated and shameful as a result," Maynard says. Musing on the abuse she's received, she remarks, "This book, in some senses, holds a lamp up to the reader's life. If somebody has dark secrets, they're not going to feel very comfortable with someone else who's decided to turn the light on."

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From the November 2-15, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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