I woke up on January 27, 2010 to learn that J.D. Salinger had died. I was 22 years old.
Throughout the course of the day, I received messages from family and friends checking in to see how I was doing, if I was okay. I guess you can say I was the walking cliche who had read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and felt forever changed by it. But it wasn’t because I connected with Holden Caulfield. In fact, a lot of his ideas of the world bored me and made me roll my eyes. I have my cynical moments but I’d like to think I see the world with even just the thinnest veil of optimism. It was deeper than the main character, deeper than this beautiful setting of New York City, a place I hadn’t truly tapped into yet as a teenager in the suburbs of Long Island. There was something in the way that Salinger wrote that grabbed me by the metaphoric lapels and shook me. Perhaps it was the conversational way that he told his story through Holden’s narrating that made me feel like maybe he was talking directly to me. Or, to be less dreamy-eyed and naive about it, maybe I felt as if we might have a nice chat, J.D. and I, if ever he stopped being a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire. (I held out hope for this very scenario until the day he died.)
I constantly wondered what it might be like to live inside his head, to have written these characters who are just a step or two outside of being mentally and/or emotionally stable. I liked it, loved it as a young person dealing with her own imperfect mind and emotions, with a family that was coming apart at the seams. The Caulfields weren’t perfect. And, with further reading, I learned that the Glass family was even less perfect than them.
I have this story I always tell of when I was 11 years old and my parents had just begun their trial separation. One of my teachers asked the class if our parents were divorced and I don’t know why she did this, I really do not. Maybe she was making some point about statistics? She was a math teacher. Or… maybe she was going through her own stuff? She was a bit weird. But I saw a number of kids raise their hands. Two, at first. Then three, four, five. I sat there with my hands under my thighs, as if to fight the inherent urge my 6th grade body had to be honest about my life. These jokers were all lying. There was no way the most popular girl in our grade had divorced parents! How could she have ever gotten to be so cool? You know? Because my parents fought and I didn’t sleep very well and I was nervous around boys and sometimes I cried for no real reason. Those were not the makings of a popular girl. Not that my lack of popularity was the fault of my parents’ impending divorce, but I assumed, at the time, that it certainly would not help. And so I had no other choice but to assume everyone else was lying and looking to embarrass the sole person (me) who really did have divorced parents and admitted it in front of the class.
The point is, it took me a long time to realize that the strange badness that I dealt with wasn’t just mine. It wasn’t just me. And figures like Salinger were able to help me realize it.
Plus, his writing. His writing. It’s so good in that it’s not overwrought with pretension and yet you feel like you’ve gained something new; perspective, amusement, sadness, introspection.
Senior year of high school, I was writing college admission essays and one of the schools asked for the applicant to write an extra chapter for the book of the applicant’s choosing. It could have been anything in the world. I chose, of course, to tack a chapter on to the end of The Catcher in the Rye. Post-revelation that Holden had been in a mental hospital since Page One. (I digress here but I feel I have to tell you about the chapter: Holden sitting on a bench in the hospital’s courtyard beside Jane Gallagher who had surprised him with a visit. They talked about Allie and Phoebe and their old days of playing chess, and then a light rain started to fall, and everyone else scattered inside, but not Holden, and not Jane. They sat in the rain with Holden’s hand clamped onto hers and he closed his eyes and leaned his head back and felt a little sliver of peace for once in his goddamn life.) This was an ungraded assignment but I went to my AP English teacher and asked for feedback. It was over ten years ago but I’m assuming I’ll never forget her lilting cursive in red ink telling me that my extra chapter sounded eerily identical to something Salinger himself could have written.
(Though, I imagine Salinger might have ended it with a suicide attempt, if you want to know the truth.)
Maybe that’s the proof of how he helped me. He didn’t grow up with this book like I had. I saw Holden finding peace, much like the way I, at seventeen years old, was hoping I would find it. And somehow, between the lines of phonies and prostitutes and children running through a field of rye, I was able to see the glimmer of possibility.
Anyway… Thank you.