Me, Too

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Author: Joyce Maynard
Date: Sept. 9, 2018
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,549 words

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It has been said of me, in the pages of this newspaper, that I am a predator. The author of those words was hardly alone in her assessment. In 1998, nearly 20 years before the #MeToo movement, I published a book about my relationship with a famous and revered writer who sought me out when he was 53 and I was 18.

I won't catalog here all the epithets -- ''stalker,'' ''leech woman,'' ''opportunistic onetime nymphet'' -- of which I and my work (''a tawdry boudoir confession'') were the objects that season. The story I told in my book, ''At Home in the World,'' was received in the literary press with near universal condemnation. This did not destroy my career or my emotional well-being, but it came close.

My crime -- which earned me the dubious distinction of being, in the opinion of one prominent critic, the author of possibly ''the worst book ever written'' -- lay in my decision, after 25 years of silence, to write a memoir in which I told the story of my relationship with a powerful older man.

In the spring of 1972, following the publication in The Times Magazine of an essay of mine accompanied by a particularly guileless photograph of me (bluejeans, scruffy hair, no makeup), I had received a letter from J.D. Salinger in which he offered his admiration, friendship, mentorship and spiritual guidance -- and, in subsequent letters and phone calls, urged me to leave college, come live with him (have babies, collaborate on plays we would perform together in London's West End) and be (I truly believed this) his partner forever.

I gave up my scholarship and dropped out of Yale, cut off communication with my friends and moved (with a suitcase of miniskirts and record albums I was forbidden to play) back to my home state of New Hampshire to be with him. Seven months later, during a trip we'd taken to Florida, with words as devastating as they had once been captivating and entrancing, he put two $50 bills in my hand and instructed me to return to New Hampshire, clear my things out of his house and disappear.

Believing Salinger to be the most spiritually elevated man I would ever know, I accepted his assessment of me as unworthy, and for the next quarter-century I barely spoke of my experience, even to the man I ultimately married, with whom I had three children. Still, word had got out that I'd left Yale to be with Salinger, and during those years, hardly a week went by when I was not asked about the great man. Each time I said that I would respect his privacy.

But when my daughter reached the age I had been when Salinger sought me out, I reread his letters for the first time in more than two decades. Until then, I had never been able to view my younger self as deserving of protection and care. Yet when I imagined my daughter experiencing what I had at her age, I saw my relationship with Salinger through an utterly altered lens.

The publication of ''At Home in the World,'' and my subsequent choice to sell Salinger's letters to me at auction -- over 38 pages of what were definitely not love letters but were without question valuable literary documents -- inspired an avalanche of disdain and outrage. (The letters were purchased by a wealthy man who said he would return them to Salinger.)

That season, at a rare literary event to which I had been invited, an entire row of writers I respected greatly rose from their seats en masse and, as I took the stage, departed the room. I like to think that had they stayed and listened to me that day, they might have questioned their assumptions.

For 20 years, I've lived with the consequences of having told that forbidden story, and though I've since published nine novels and another memoir, none of which involves Salinger, few reviews of any book I write fail to mention that when I was 18 I slept with a great writer, and, more significantly, that I later committed the unpardonable offense of telling that story, or, as it is frequently stated, of writing a ''tell-all'' -- language that aligns me with tabloid personalities.

Last fall, when word of Harvey Weinstein's abuses of women in the entertainment industry overtook the press, followed by near daily revelations about other prominent and respected men accused of similar violations, I supposed this was the moment when my own experience might be seen in a new light. I thought my phone would ring.

The call never came. And though I believe that if the book I wrote 20 years ago were published today it would be received differently, it does not appear that enlightenment concerning the abuses of men in power extends retroactively to women who chose to speak long ago, and were shamed and humiliated for doing so. As recently as last fall -- on the occasion of my having published a memoir about the death of my second husband, a book in which Salinger never appears -- I was referred to as ''the queen of oversharing.''

Oversharing. What does it say about us that a woman who speaks the truth of her experience should be dismissed for telling more than the world feels comfortable hearing? (And it is always a woman who will be accused of this; when a male writer confesses intimate details of his life, he's brave, fearless, even brilliant. Consider, just for starters, Norman Mailer. Or, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard.)

The other day I received an email from a young journalist asking my thoughts concerning the #MeToo movement. She had found a copy of ''At Home in the World'' in a bookstore in Paris and read it on the plane home. Not yet 7 when the book was published, she was unfamiliar with my story and curious about how it might be received differently today.

We have come a long way in this woman-fearing culture of ours, from 1971, my freshman year at Yale, when a teaching assistant's unsolicited kiss of a female student could be perceived by her classmates and by his colleagues as normal, even flattering to the student. We have come a long way, too, from 1998, when a respected female critic, eviscerating a scene in my memoir in which I somewhat delicately describe the experience of forced oral sex with a man 35 years older, wrote of ''that busy Maynard mouth.''

But here is what hasn't changed. It's a scene that takes place whenever I visit a bookstore to speak about my latest work. After I've read a passage and spent 20 minutes discussing its themes, a hand goes up and someone -- typically toward the back of the room -- asks a question that is for him or her more pressing than any other. ''What about those manuscripts we've all heard about, that were locked away in Salinger's safe and due to be published after his death?'' this person wants to know, thereby reducing me to a woman whose sole value lies in her distant proximity to the only writer who truly matters here. What crumbs of information can I impart?

I know of no manuscripts, I tell this person, though it's true that during the months I spent living with Salinger he disappeared every morning into the room where he wrote and was gone for hours. I know he sat at his typewriter, and I know he was writing. I also know that we made a trip over the small covered bridge from New Hampshire into Vermont every day to visit the post office. There were always envelopes to drop in the box.

I am 64 now. In the decades since I published my story about those days and their enduring effect on my life, I have received many letters from readers. Some are from women with chillingly similar stories to share, of powerful older men who, when these women were very young, captured their exceedingly naive trust, as well as their hearts, and altered the course of their lives.

I have also received letters and emails from women around my age, with a more familiar story to tell: of having received a letter long ago, around the age of 18 -- an absolutely captivating letter, magical, even -- composed in a voice they recognized as that of Holden Caulfield, though bearing an even more familiar name at the bottom of the page and containing words I could recite, I know them so well. It turns out that at least one of the recipients of these letters was carrying on her correspondence with Salinger during the very winter when I was living with him, so careful never to disturb his writing.

Somewhere in this story there may be a predator. I leave it to my readers -- in possession of greater perspective, perhaps, than the readers of 20 years ago -- to decide which person that was.

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PHOTO: Joyce Maynard's cover of The New York Times Magazine.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A553491964