There’s a chilling op-ed in the Sunday New York Times today: “Was Salinger Too Pure for This World?” The author, Joyce Maynard, is a novelist and memoirist who spent a brief sliver of her teens being in an exploitative relationship with famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who was 35 years her senior. In fact, as it turns out, Salinger’s dalliances with teenage girls, some of them as young as 14, were a well-kept-but-known-by-some secret. The nature of these relationship ranged from illegal to highly unethical, and were always terminated with a admonishment to keep all of it completely hidden, to respect the well-earned privacy of a literary genius.
Any person who is familiar with abuse and exploitation will recognize Salinger’s pattern – seeking out talented but vulnerable young women, using his finely honed voice to seduce them, making them sever relationships with their friends and family, and then eventually turning them out when he has no use for them anymore with threats to maintain their silence. It’s classical predator behavior – almost a cliché.
I once engaged in a conversation with a fellow writer about artists who do bad things. Roman Polanski was the incendiary example that was being tossed around. I came down firmly on the side of separating art and the artist. I maintained that just because Roman Polanski is a rapist does not mean that his films are any less important. His bad deeds don’t invalidate his work. And I still believe that. Beautiful, important, affecting works of art can be created by all types, even the nasty and downright evil. The interesting thing about this op-ed, though, is that it’s making the opposite – and equally valid – point: that just because someone’s art is magnificent and revered does not excuse that person from their actions. Genius does not negate cruelty. A brilliant literary voice shouldn’t keep you out of prison or safe from condemnation or derision or anything else.
Historically, many people who have known about Salinger’s treatment of these women and girls have completely dismissed it. Joyce describes how many people are quick to defend Salinger, even knowing the way he treated these women:
It is the quiet acceptance, apparently alive and well in our culture, of the notion that genius justifies cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art. Richard Schickel, writing of Salinger’s activities, expresses the view that despite the disclosures about Salinger’s pursuit of young women he lived “a ‘normal’ life.”
“He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses,” writes the film critic (and father of daughters) David Edelstein. The implication being, what’s the fuss?
In the two hours it takes to tell the story of “an icon,” the director of the new Salinger documentary focuses on Salinger as a victim of World War II-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. The director’s idea seems to be that Salinger’s interest in young women sprang from his emotional war wounds and attempt to reclaim innocence. Absent from the discussion is an assessment of the cost to those whose innocence the great man sought to claim.
One of my favorite bloggers, Cliff Pervocracy, has an essay called “The Missing Stair” that talks about what happens when, for whatever reason, a community closes in around a predator instead of ousting him. That is, the behavior becomes utterly normalized. No one thinks to warn new people away because they themselves are so accustomed to the problem, they just know to hop right over it. It isn’t just the excuses for the behavior that maintain the status quo – it’s the persistence of silence. In the same way, Salinger has been allowed to continue to hurt a number of young women, who have suffered deeply as a result.
Former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once said “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” You do not have to stop reading The Catcher in the Rye to condemn Salinger’s actions. It, and his other work, has endured and will endure, and will always be meaningful to many. But maintaining a lie about Salinger as a person – or not speaking about it at all – is an injustice all its own.
Bring on the sunlight.