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The girl who left Yale for Salinger

Every time J. D. Salinger's name comes up in the news, I think of Joyce Maynard ’75. I'm not so sure this would please her. Maynard is an accomplished and well-reviewed author: her novel To Die For became a wickedly funny movie (she cowrote the screenplay with Buck Henry), and Labor Day was touted by Jodi Picoult in the New York Times as "a novel you cannot miss." (It's about to become a movie itself.)  Her latest novel, After Her, was just released last month.

But Maynard is also famous for something that happened when she was a Yale freshman. A precocious writer, she got her picture on the cover of the New York Times Magazine accompanying an essay she wrote called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." Salinger, who by 1972 had retreated to a life of seclusion in New Hampshire, struck up a correspondence with her, and after her freshman year, she moved in with him. He broke up with her ten months later, and she never returned to Yale as a student.

In 1999, after years of silence about her relationship with Salinger, she published a memoir about it called At Home in the World; at about the same time, she sold the letters Salinger had written her. The book and the sale caused a sensation, and Maynard was widely criticized for violating Salinger's famously guarded privacy and exploiting her relationship with him.

I was one of the people who casually disdained these actions, until she came to Ezra Stiles College for a master's tea just after the book's publication. Hearing—and then reading—her story, my question went from "how could she do that?" to "how could he do that?" Salinger's damaging and manipulative treatment of the young Maynard—and apparently many other very young females—was the real scandal.

All this is current again, of course, because a much-hyped eponymous documentary about Salinger premieres on Friday, and Maynard's name is coming up in the media. She timed a rerelease of At Home in the World to coincide with the film, and she recently talked to public radio's Here and Now about her ongoing link to Salinger and her willingness to talk about him:

"It would have not been my choice that the name of a man who I last had a conversation with in 1973 would continue to haunt me on a regular basis—not by my choice, but what am I to do? Say nothing? Let other people decide what the truth is?"

The documentary Salinger got a preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival last week, and Maynard—who was at the festival to promote the film version of Labor Day—sat in the front row. Afterward, she told IndieWire blogger Anne Thompson that the film didn't talk enough about Salinger's relationships:

"I think the film is an extraordinary accomplishment, vastly expanding our understanding of an important writer and the effect of post-traumatic stress on him. And absent from that portrait is one crucial element very personal to me which is the post-traumatic stress inflicted upon dozens of—not women—girls. They're spoken of as women. There was not a single woman in Salinger's life. They were girls, and I was one of them. I survived well. I have a film here and a new novel out that has nothing to do with Salinger. But there will not be a complete portrait of Salinger until it is fully acknowledged that he engaged in serial repeated emotional damage to dozens of young girls."

It's hard to imagine someone who has lived her life more differently from the reclusive Salinger than Maynard: she was an early adopter of online community, talking to readers via her message board in the 1990s. And she is notably candid about herself: at the live storytelling venue the Moth, she told audiences a sad, funny story about her mother's death, her divorce, and her complicated history with breast implants. More recently, her wedding to Jim Barringer in July was covered in the New York Times, including the detail that they met at an online dating site. She told the Times that she's "a believer in just diving in," a sentiment that calls to mind Salinger's bitter words to her when they met years after their relationship ended. "The problem with you, Joyce," he told her, "is you love the world."


Filed under Joyce Maynard, J. D. Salinger
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