Sunday, April 11, 2004
A while back I went through a memoir phase and read a couple written by significant women in the life of reclusive literary icon J.D. Salinger: Dream Catcher, by his daughter Peggy Salinger, and At Home in the World, by Salinger’s waify ex-girlfriend, writer Joyce Maynard. Whether they were seeking retribution, or this was a healing act on their part, or one of raging spite, these women were definitely kicking him where it hurts. Salinger, in case you don’t know, is the Greta Garbo of letters. Since retreating at the height of his fame and success to a cabin in the New Hampshire woods, he has pathologically guarded his privacy, refusing to interview or publish (although he has been writing steadily, locking all of his work away in a fireproof house safe) or answer most of his fan mail. Well, unless it happens to be from a nubile fans 40 years his junior, like Joyce Maynard. He seems to be kind of a creep in that regard.
It's a little sad that someone who is so obsessively guarded about his privacy has had not one but two tell-all memoirs published about him in the space of two years.
You have to feel a little bit sorry for the guy (but not too sorry to read them, of course). Whatever he is like, he sure did something to provoke the wrath of not one but two women, because they set out publicly to hound him like Furies and destroy what he treasures most: his privacy. My theory is that he is suffering from a permanent case of battle fatigue caused by the action he saw in WWII which, combined with the pressures of fame, turned him into a very peculiar hermit.
As far as Peggy Salinger goes, it cannot have been easy growing up with a cult literary icon as a father, one who wrote a book that psychotic assassins like John Hinkley and Mark David Chapman carried on their persons when they were captured. It doesn’t help that she found him to be an autocratic perfectionist and hypochondriac, whose delvings into bizarre medical remedies and quackery led him to do things like consume large quanties of raw lamb and drink his own urine, about which Peggy S. goes into in embarrassing detail.
Peggy might not be the most reliable narrator, though. In her memoir, Peggy Salinger also writes about how her mother, Claire Douglas, a Jungian analyst famous in her own right, was a London child war refugee in WWII. While her mother was on a boat headed for the United States that boat’s sister ship, the Benares, was torpedoed by Nazis. Peggy writes that her mother had been waving to the children on the deck of the doomed ship at the time, and witnessed all of them burning to death. I was in a morbid mood one day and decided to research this horrific event, which was easy because the sinking of the City of Benares was a notorious incident because the U-boat captain ordered the attack on a ship full of refugee children late at night so rescue would be impossible and was tried as a war criminal because of it. (Too bad for him that he didn’t know enough about V-rocket technology or other Nazi science useful to the U.S.'s Cold War efforts to have escaped that fate.) Since the Benares was sunk in such stormy conditions late at night, I couldn’t believe that Claire was on the deck waving to children in such rough weather at that hour. This obvious error cast a pall of doubt over everything else that Peggy writes in the book, and I wrote that on my review on Amazon.
A few months later I received a telephone that, according to the caller ID, originated from the Jungian Institute in Los Angeles. A woman identifying herself as Claire Douglas, Peggy Salinger’s mother, wanted to discuss my Amazon review of her daughter's book. I thought she was calling me to upbraid me and defend her daughter, so I almost hung up on her like a coward. Instead, she told me that she wanted to thank me for exposing one of the many, many lies in her daughter’s books, and for defending those who would not come forward to defend themselves. I gather that she and her daughter are estranged. Anyway, it was quite an interesting experience and goes to show you the risks and rewards of putting yourself out there on the internet.
I'm still awaiting J.D.'s phone call.
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