JD Salinger’s Pursuit of Teen Girls Gets Renewed Attention After ‘Allen v. Farrow’

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Actress Michelle Williams arrives at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards clutching a 'Catcher in the Rye' accessory.
Actress Michelle Williams arrives at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards clutching a 'Catcher in the Rye' accessory. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Vanity Fair published a compelling essay by prolific author Joyce Maynard. In it, she drew a parallel between Woody Allen and J.D. Salinger, saying both men harbored obsessions with very young women. Maynard was inspired to write the piece after watching recent HBO documentary series, Allen v. Farrow. But her motivation was born from the fact that, when she was a teenager, she had a relationship with the then-53-year-old Salinger.

Maynard wrote:

A few months past my 18th birthday, J.D. Salinger wrote me a series of letters that led me to believe he loved me as no one else ever had ... He told me I was brilliant and perfect, his soul mate and that we would live our days out together ... I withdrew from college ... walked away from a full scholarship at Yale, a writing job in New York City, the book tour for my first published work ... He sent me away less than a year later with words of contempt and disdain ... [It] left me in a state of profound shame that endured for decades.

Like so many Woody Allen fans who felt awakened by Allen v. Farrow, I saw Salinger in a completely new light after reading Maynard's essay. Until yesterday, I had been entirely in the dark about his life-long pursuit of, and dalliances with, teen girls. Which is incredibly embarrassing to admit, particularly as someone who has read “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor”—a story in which an army sergeant obsesses over a young teenage girl.

Maynard continues:

Over the years that followed, I heard from well over a dozen women who had a similar set of treasured letters from Salinger in their possession, written to them when they were teenagers. It appeared that in the case of one girl, Salinger was writing letters to her while I sat in the next room believing he was my soul mate and partner for life.

After reading Maynard's Vanity Fair article—titled, incidentally, “‘Predatory Men With a Taste for Teenagers’ Joyce Maynard on the Chilling Parallels Between Woody Allen and J.D. Salinger”—the proverbial floodgates opened. I realized that information about Salinger’s predilections had been in plain sight for years, and not hiding even a little.

Sponsored

A quick internet search revealed to me that the Guardian had written about Maynard and Salinger’s destructive relationship in 2018. Maynard had also written about it in The New York Times in 2013. Salon wrote about it in 2010, right after Salinger died. As did a pre-fame Lena Dunham, on Twitter!

In fact, Maynard has been talking about the emotional and mental damage wrought by J.D. Salinger’s pursuit of her since she first revealed details of the affair in her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World. In a 2010 review, Huffington Post relayed that the J.D. Salinger described in Maynard's book was, “pompous, astoundingly unfeeling, deceptive and defiantly hypocritical.”

The memoir also details abusive and coercive behavior by Salinger, including restricting Maynard’s diet to such a degree that her periods stopped. And while At Home in the World reveals that their relationship was never fully consummated—because Maynard was too fearful of losing her virginity—there is at least one description of her orally servicing Salinger while openly weeping.

Before the book had even come out, a 1998 New York magazine article detailed Salinger's habit, at the age of 34, of “entertaining teenagers who attended the local high school. In particular, he often escorted teenage girls to school dances and sporting events.”

I've never been in the habit of researching the spouses of writers, but Salinger's relationship history—now that I actively look for it—is one giant alarm bell. When he was 30, Salinger met and formed an attachment to 14-year-old Jean Miller. The two exchanged letters throughout her teens, apparently despite the objections of her mother. When she finally slept with him, at the age of 20, he immediately ditched her. When he was 36, he married 21-year-old Claire Douglas. When he was 69, he married 21-year-old Colleen O'Neill.

So why didn't I hear about all this sooner? Perhaps if I was active in literary circles, I would have known this whole time. Perhaps selective deafness was somehow at play because I spent so many of my teen years enthralled by Salinger's work. Perhaps, after he died, I was too busy reading romantic eulogies about his brilliant, reclusive self to hear anything that his critics were saying about him.

After At Home in the World came out, Maynard was roundly criticized by both Salinger fans and the press at large for the details she shared about him. (In fact, she battled the same vitriolic public disdain that Mia Farrow had endured just six years earlier, during her divorce from Woody Allen.) In her Vanity Fair essay, Maynard recalls being called a “predator” in The New York Times and “indescribably stupid” in The Washington Post. By the time Maynard sold her letters from Salinger in a Sotheby's auction for $156,000, even Entertainment Weekly was calling her “a self-absorbed blab-it-all.” Perhaps it was criticisms like these that formed a firm barrier between me and the truth about the J.D. Salinger. Or maybe I just looked the other way because I didn't want to hear it. Frankly, I don't even know at this point.

Last week, I wrote about the cruelty of making Tina Turner repeat the details of her abuse over and over again for the sake of public education (and entertainment). But if Maynard hadn't repeated herself over and over and over again for the last 23 years—if she hadn't continued being the much scoffed at “blab-it-all”—I, and other readers, likely would never have heard her at all.

Sponsored

It takes an enormous amount of strength and will for anyone to share details of their own abuse. But when those details concern a person who is more famous and more beloved and more respected than you, then the uphill battle requires an unbelievable reserve of tenacity. Maynard should not have had to spend literal decades battling to be heard over all that other noise. No survivor should. But I for one am grateful that she did. Shamefully, it took this long for her to get through to me.