Breathless new documentary on JD Salinger fails to call a spade a spade

September 29, 2013
Salinger's biggest hit

Salinger’s biggest hit

A new documentary on author JD Salinger is out.  Shane Salerno worked on it for an entire decade and finally, it aired at the Telluride Film Festival not too long ago and Salerno headed up a major PR push.  Reviews, though, have not been good, characterizing it as a breathless, hyped up film  with little substance.

I caught a riveting interview of Salerno on Charlie Rose’s TV show a few weeks ago, and from what he had to say, it’s clear that we’ll learn a lot more than we’ve heard to date about the very private Salinger. Or, we may have learned it already from the interviews and reviews.

I’m interested to see the film. But really, this post is about the careful way Salerno avoided calling Salinger a pedophile or casting even the slightest aspersion on the author’s predilection for girls under 18.  It’s infuriating.

Case in point:  Salinger was 30 years old when he met a 14-year-old on the beach and had a romantic (but, Salerno says, not “sexual”) relationship with her.  “I’m going to marry your daughter,” he told the girl’s mother.  When a 30-year-old goes after a 14-year old? He’s a pedophile. Even if he’s a well-regarded author. Let’s call a spade a spade. Or a pedophile a pedophile.

Case in point: He fell in love with 16-year old Oona O’Neill, the beautiful daughter of the playwright. Salinger was 22 and the pair were separated by his service in the second World War. She married another famous pedophile, Charlie Chaplin.  Salinger ended up marrying a 19- year old. *

Case in point:  Seeing 18-year-old writer Joyce Maynard on the cover of the New York Times magazine in a photo startling for its Lolita-ishness, he began a correspondence with her. She ended up dropping out of college in her sophomore year to live with him for 10 months. He was in his late 40s. Her mother advised her to “dress like a child” to be more appealing to him.

So many of Salinger’s books are about child-love of one type or another, whether veiled or outright.

What bothered me about the Charlie Rose interview was that Salerno tiptoed around calling Salinger’s interest in teenage girls what it is–not normal. Today we would call him a pedophile.

Salinger was a great writer. And clearly a perv.

I’m all for respecting the work of great writers, but I’m also all for an honest look at them. An honest assessment. And that, I fear, is where Salerno may not have gone far enough.

The guy wrote some good books. But he’s not a god.

By the way, the companion book to the documentary is getting panned by readers.  Salerno and his co-author took the easy way out and gathered 720 pages of interview quotes. Readers report that the whole is disjointed and an unpleasant read. Since the book’s pretty pricey, I might scan it in the library. Be forewarned.

Also, I’m rather peeved at the way Joyce Maynard has been demonized for writing her story–which includes her relationship with Salinger. Let’s get real. If you’d been romanced age age 18 by a great author, wouldn’t you want to write about it?  And then there’s the way some have excoriated her for selling Salinger’s letters to her in 1999, a time when she badly needed money to support her children.  Tech guru Peter Norton bought them and said he would return them to Salinger. But that’s another story entirely.

*This footnote refers to a story I read on my second least favorite source–Huffington Post--which defended Salinger and then said “Chaplin is no pedophile.”  Even the most cursory search would show up plenty of evidence of Chaplins’ interest in young girls. Anyone can write anything on Huffington Post–it’s just not vetted. Just like on my LEAST favorite source, Wikipedia, which is such a go-to search today that it shocks me.


37 comments on “Breathless new documentary on JD Salinger fails to call a spade a spade
  1. hank says:

    You left out Woody Allen. And you probably didn’t know my grandmother’s brother, who at 52 married a 16 year old. Now, are you a pedophile is you stay married? He stayed married 34 more years (his only marriage), they had four children together, she never remarried after he died.
    My grandmother, for that matter, pregnant at 15 from the return visit of the 23 year old boy ‘across the farm’, stayed married to him for the next 67 years.

    Yes, these famous clydes had some issues, but compared to the topics and subjects in the Natoinal Inquirer, I’m not able to get as exercised as your riff here today.

    • Do you have, or have you ever had, a 14-year-old daughter? Just curious.

    • admin says:

      Chuck, some people say it was less about “lust” for him and more about lost innocence..of course, same thing said about Michael Jackson. I’m not exactly exercised as much as I think Salerno kept “hands-off” the topic, which I think is dishonest in any docu that purports to discuss someone’s life. I’m not sure it was because he didn’t want to slur a literary god or for some other reason, but it does bear discussion. Of course our grandparents lived in an era when marriage in the teens was normal, so it’s not exactly comparable. Except maybe for Chaplin. It’s a complex issue and now I want to go read about the psychosocial meaning of all this!

    • Woody Allen was not a pedophile. He was the victim of a neurotic woman who palmed Frank Sinatra’s son off as Woody’s son and then refused to let Woody get close to the boy,causing him deep heartbreak. It was natural for Woody to fall into the welcoming arms of Soon Yi who was 18 and fell head over heels for Woody. The pedophile label came from Mia’s feverish mind when she found she could no longer control Woody and had to get revenge by falsely claiming that Woody had sex with Dylan Farrow who was about seven years old at the time that Mia took the video of Dylan parroting what Mia needed her to say to take to the court to destroy Woody. Woody never hurt anyone. Salinger hurt Joyce Maynard.

      • It’s hard to say what the truth is because neither of us was there. We can only believe or not believe.
        But I do believe Dylan. I also think Mia is a little unglued as a personality.

  2. Shana Rowan says:

    I don’t follow this blog and I have no idea what you’re all about – I stumbled here through a Google news alert. I almost never comment on things online. But I had to in this case.

    The clinic definition of a pedophile is an adult who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. While illegal, and inappropriate, older men with consenting teenage girls is not the same thing.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for clarifying. It’s all about the “age of consent,” perhaps.

      • ralph says:

        “Pedophile” is not relative to age of consent laws or norms–there’s simply a better word for men like Salinger that you are not aware of yet. Salinger and others attracted to young people who are not pre-pubescent but are not yet fully developed adults (this one is sometimes subject to age of consent norms) are ephebophiles.

    • Ashleigh says:

      As a Licensed Clinician, I can say Salinger was, indeed, a pedophile! He had sexual & romantic interest in very young girls — they do NOT have to be Pre-pubescent, as someone falsely wrote! He hung out with children as playmates, & drove school kids all around… Not allowed in today’s day & age, that’s for sure!

      A 14-year old is TOO young for a grown man in his 30’s… Plain & simple… Does this make him less of a great author? No! But he was clearly stunted in his emotional growth. Which is why he was a pedophile. He never grew out of his own adolesence, and was stuck there… So even in his 50’s, he’s still 16 in his mind, & drawn to young teen girls… Just as most 16 year old boys are… In his own way, he was Peter Pan. Which is why, when his exceedingly young wife became a MOTHER, that was entirely too grown up for him, and in essence, she became “too old” for him, and he lost all interest in her. It’s also why he wasn’t much of a father — too adult of an activity for such an eternal 16 year old boy…

      He may have been 91 when he died, but inside he was still 16… He never grew up, so his attraction to teens made sense to him… And THAT is a pedophile…

      • KS says:

        You have hit the nail on the head. I know a few men like this and they don’t function well in society. No one likes them yet these people are extremely popular and intriguing to others. As JD Sallinger was also!!

  3. Tracey says:

    I agree I am waching now and this is crazy.

  4. admin says:

    I did the the documentary the other day, and I have to stand by my statement. The elephant in the room was never really addressed.

  5. Karen @ Baking In A Tornado says:

    I was so disappointed last night when I was able to catch about 10 minutes of that Charlie Rose interview. I wish I could have seen more.

    I do not understand spending a decade studying someone and then not coming right out and saying what you found. Why not? Sort of sounds like a form of Stockholm syndrome, doesn’t it?

    • admin says:

      I thought the documentary danced around a lot of issues. That 14-year old, (and where was her mother in all this)….the 16 year old….perhaps these girls weren’t prepubescent but some were close to it. In any case, he definitely had issues with women and it would have been interesting to have a shrink or two put some perspective on it.

      • Ashleigh says:

        I AM a Licensed “shrink” in California & I posted above! He was emotionally stunted & never grew past 14-16… And like most 14-16 year old boys, he was attracted to young girls, whether he was in his 30’s or 40’s or 50’s… And THAT is a pedophile!

        And, as I stated earlier, it’s why his wife, who was many, many years younger than him, became “too old” for him once she gave birth & became a mother… It’s also why he wasn’t a good father, as fatherhood is entirely too adult a responsibility for a Peter Pan…

        He was also a classic Narcissist, too. A Pedophile and a Narcissist. And a brilliant author. Catcher In The Rye is my all time favorite book, but he was a Pedophile and a Narcissist, hands down. There isn’t another Clinician out there who would disagree with me…

  6. Well, as I understand it, and have experienced it in my work, a pedophile is typically one who has desires for prepubescent children. Age 22 and age 16 is statutory rape, not an uncommon age difference in many worlds.
    There are many definitions, here is one from Psychology Today, “Pedophilia is defined as the fantasy or act of sexual activity with prepubescent children.” That being said I know very little about Salinger. Lots of men are attracted to teen girls–they clearly have emotional issues but that doesn’t make them pedophiles.

  7. When I first viewed the documentary and heard that”Salinger was 30 years old when he met a 14-year-old on the beach and had a romantic relationship with her…” and wanted to marry her, the first thing I thought of was Lolita scenario, second that this behavior could get you arrested, third, wildly inappropriate.

    In the State of California, this is a “Registrable Sex Offense.” It doesn’t matter if it’s consensual, mutual, or not. The over 18 and under 18 age is Unlawful Sexual Intercourse (Statutory). Over 21 and under 16 is another crime.

  8. Diane says:

    All I can say is Yikes!
    I’ve never read Salinger’s writing. Too graphic for me. I do have daughters. And granddaughters. I know what I’d be saying if an older man was making advances . . .

  9. Vwoolf says:

    Watched the documentary. Elephant in the room is a good analogy. JD Salinger was a pedophile.
    All the signs:

    1. Grooming his victims
    2. Stalking
    3. Moving on to another when too old.
    4. Engaging in perverse one-sided sex acts
    5. Encouraging the mothers of his victims to participate

    Joyce is a narcissist, IMO. However, her mother encouraged the union of perp and victim, even helping her dress for her first encounter with Salinger. With all Joyce had going for her at the time…a Yale education, an invitation for future publications in the New Yorker, talent, one wonders just how much of her future that perp took away.

    Victims often cannot come to grips with their victimhood at the time. Salinger is no different than wife abusers and torturers of women chained up in houses.

    I’m surprised no-one came to the aid of these once defenseless women. Just because they seemed to have choices does not mean they were emotionally mature enough to make them.

  10. nietzche 777 says:

    I am amazed to see people in the field of journalism that never ask the hard or serious questions. the documentary that cosumed ten years was nothing more than a valentine to j.d. salinger. where were the parents when salinger was walking the 14 year old child. how was it he was allowed to socialize with a underage girl without causing any alarm. the saddest thing about such cases is that the victim is often given the blame. the elephant in included j.d. salinger and the people who produced this weak attempt at journalism.

    • admin says:

      I am so with you on “where were the parents???”. Among other things.

      • Marie says:

        This post is several years old now, but still relevant as the subject has not changed. I just came across it because I did not realize that Salinger was a pedophile before today. I read about it in a Vanity Fair piece contributed by one of Salinger’s young loves -Maynard.

        I feel disappointed in my own soul for not understanding better what I was reading in Salinger’s work when I was so deeply enamored by it as a teenager myself. Yet, I also understand that my interpretation of his work as my then impressionable 16 year old girl self, wasn’t seen through the same lens that my 42 year old woman self wears today.

        That is the draw of Salinger’s writing though. As a young girl I related to his simple explanations of the human condition as experienced by strange and oddly likable characters. Just like most teens are who fell in love with his work. I was strange and odd. It was easy for me to fall in love with his stories bc I could relate to the awkwardness then.

        I suppose that is why many readers found Catcher in the Rye to be such a gripping novel when it’s typically first read – in high school. The cursing, the isolation, the failures, the attempt of finding of one’s self after first tragedy and heartbreak – what teen can’t relate???

        Having said all of that – Maynard wasn’t necessarily a narcissist as one person wrote – but she certainly was the product of a narcissist mother who pawned off her child for the sale of image, money, and status. That’s not Maynard’s fault. I’m guessing it took years of therapy after all of that horse shit played on her as a young woman who really knew nothing at the time. What stupid things did we all
        do and what would we have done in her situation? Who knows.

        What I do know now, sadly, is that JD Salinger preyed on people much younger than appropriate for whatever messed up reason he had programmed into his brain from his own troubles. I don’t want to say he was a monster, bc no one wants to grow up and be a weirdo with strange desires that could hurt others. It happens for reasons beyond my comprehension and it’s very sad.

        I don’t condone relationships between people so far apart in age because it’s truly not natural and the younger party is certainly going to be miserable at some
        point as they grow up and want a real relationship, not just to be the pet of an old prune with strange desires. Or when they are tossed aside like an old suitcase for a younger model. That is what happened – period.

        It’s not the same thing as 15 year old Aunt Bessy on the farm getting knocked up by 28 year old Billy Ray from down the way – back in the good old days as someone else wrote here . I think it’s safe to assume those people had very little other opportunity, probably little education, no internet access, most likely bored as shit, and thankful for gin.

        Salinger on the other hand, was a person of distinction with enormous opportunity. He chose young girls for whatever reason and took advantage of their naivety. Wether you want to call him a pedophile or a teenagophile or whatever… it’s wrong and can’t be truly called mutually consent-able. He knew that and we know that.

        It’s gross and makes uncomfortable and sad – but I guess that’s also part of growing up. I see things differently and clearer as I go along. Some for
        the better and some for the worst.

      • Salinger’s treatment of Joyce Maynard was despicable but I don’t see it as pedophilia or as throwing Joyce over for a younger woman. Salinger threw Joyce over while he and Joyce were on vacation in Florida with Salinger’s two children who were about the same age as Joyce. That tells me that it was the children, not Salinger, who could not accept Joyce. They felt usurped by Joy as Salinger’s children and they were not going to allow that so they let Salinger know he had to get rid of Joyce and he did. I am pointing out a different slant. Bigshot intellectual goes after young girls is not too weird. But when you throw in the incest factor, that’s when the plot thickens. I am not saying Salinger molested his daughter at all. But there is an element there of emotional incest in there somewhere.

    • Babz says:

      That’s because it’s plain old commerce, not journalism. Given Salinger’s age on commencement of the work, it was obviously timed to cash in on his inevitable death. As it was no big secret that there was “more Salinger to come” given all the accounts of his daily writing.

      Why our society worships the man is a better question. Perhaps because he validated youth worship and extreme selfishness – a documented phase that teenagers are supposed to pass through – not dwell in.

      Why worship a man (albeit genius IQ) that was obviously struggling with multiple emotional issues. Running from philosophy to religion, etc while dumping his angst on whatever young and dumb female who happened to fall into the traps he set. Make no mistake, such men rarely spend much time with emotionally healthy adult women simply because such women have learned how to avoid any relationships with them.
      FYI – Catcher in the Rye was required reading for my sophomore year in high school – I didn’t like it then and don’t like it now. But one can see how the “me/I” generation, as my father who was Salinger’s age nicknamed them, locked onto the book as a gospel.

      It’s also nice to see that much of the world has moved on and is more curious, than enamored with Salinger. Here’s hoping that all those future dollars that go into the Salinger Literary Trust will actually do some good.

  11. stephie says:

    Seriously. Did you listen when you were watching? Or did you just hear what your judgmental ear wanted to hear? First off, things were a bit different back then. Second, what about the young girls who wanted a sexual relationship with him and he declined because it made him uncomfortable? You preach wanting the “whole” story, yet you yourself leave things out to make your argument stronger. They had countless interviews with woman saying there was no hanky panky. He was certainly narcissistic, and it was sad how he saw woman as they got older. Unsettling? Yes. Pedofile? No.

    • admin says:

      I’m probably one of the least judgmental people around. But I draw the line when a grown man courts a 14 year old girl. Things weren’t all that different back then, which I know because I’m in the generation of those girls. At that time, most parents would not allow a man that old to court a 14 year old girl. It was inappropriate then as it is now. That hasn’t changed one bit. Also, I wouldn’t give him credit for declining sexual relationships with young girls–that’s a given in our societal structure, not something to be lauded. He may not meet the dictionary definition of pedophile, but you’re right, it’s unsettling. From my point of view, the documentary lacked a 360 degree view of the guy and really did ignore the elephant in the room. When I wrote this, the docu hadn’t come out, just Salerno’s interviews about it, but I’ve seen it since. And while this discussion has pointed out that he may not be a pedophile as strictly defined, he certainly was one warped human being as far as his attraction to young girls goes. I appreciate your adding to the conversation.

  12. Steve Inman says:

    JD had serious issues no doubt, many of which could be attributable to his unusually difficult to reconcile WWII assignments. Nonetheless by marrying a Nazi, and his thereafter lifelong fixation on youthful girls solidifies my view that he was perv first (“so you’re a Nazi who actively supported genocide of and atrocities against my people, you are one smoking hot Fraulein!”), damaged goods second. We do need to remember though how much more accepted, and for the right outcomes in the eyes of the parents, those age-gap relationships were not that long ago.

    • admin says:

      Hey, thanks. A few commenters have said that attitudes were different toward this kind of age gap, but really, I don’t see it. That 14 year old? I’m going to have to do a bit of research.

  13. I’m not sure that calling Salinger a PERV is appropriate, simply because he introduces his readers to a succession of young girls in his stories. And yes, that young girl reappears in the pages of CATCHER, taking the form of Phoebe. What I feel is going on with Salinger is a quest to find innocence and to elevate it above the fake deep adult world we live in and, by so doing, create one that values the primal magic of existence.

    • Marie says:

      Why did his “quest” to find innocence have to romantically involve very young girls? Not really linked. Childhood is a fake world; it’s great while you’re there but you don’t even realize it until you’re gone. Innocence is a fake world. Sorry – to burst your bubble but you’ve got to see everything to really live and love. A quest for innocence and trueness sounds like a creepy defense for inappropriate adult behavior.

  14. David Morgan says:

    “I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair.”

    Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

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