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September 18, 2023

Joyce Maynard’s Remarkable Resilience

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New Haven, Guatemala, California. Joyce Maynard has lived in many places, and she doesn’t need much. As long as she has her laptop and can work on her writing, she feels at home, she explained to me over Zoom in July 2023. Maynard, whose long and prolific career as a writer began in 1972 when she was a student at Yale University, is, on the day we connect, working from her New Hampshire summer cabin. She is revising her upcoming novel, the sequel to Count the Ways (2021), an arduous and all-consuming endeavor. “You’re literally the first person I’ve spoken to today,” she says, as we begin our conversation.

Writing is something Maynard does every day, not out of obligation, like “going to the gym,” she jokes, but rather as “an ongoing conversation with [her]self.” Writing is also something Maynard has done for most of her life. Her childhood home was essentially a “writing bootcamp.” Growing up, she would read her stories out loud to her parents, and together, over tea and cookies, they would workshop them, discussing everything from metaphors and rhythm to syntax and punctuation. Maynard began publishing her work at a young age, and as a first-year student at Yale, she wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine entitled, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” With this essay, she was propelled to national prominence and deemed the voice of America’s youth.

Since then, Joyce Maynard has been a journalist at The New York Times and a nationally syndicated columnist. She’s also written 12 novels (two of which have been adapted into films), as well as numerous works of non-fiction. Despite these impressive achievements, the first thing that comes up when one searches Maynard’s name online is J.D. Salinger, a man with whom she had a relationship when she was 18 years old. He was 53. After Maynard’s New York Times Magazine article came out, she received a letter from Salinger, and they quickly began corresponding. Soon after, she had dropped out of college and moved in with him. Less than a year later, while they were vacationing in Florida with Salinger’s son and daughter (who was only a few years younger than Maynard), Salinger gave Maynard 50 dollars and sent her away. 

Maynard tells this deeply disturbing story in her 1998 memoir At Home in the World, which I read this summer, and which prompted my conversation with her. When it was first published, At Home in the World received significant pushback, and Maynard was blacklisted by the American literary world. In writing about Salinger, she had not only violated the privacy of a notorious recluse who abhorred the media, but she had also gone after a “god” of American literature — a term she uses herself during our interview. Maynard was called an opportunist, a leech and even a predator. In a scathing op-ed, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused her of using a powerful man to advance her career. After publishing her memoir, Maynard struggled to find editors, and people boycotted her events. She recalls a talk at Columbia University, where only a handful of students showed up — their professor had discouraged them from attending.

But beyond shaming Maynard for simply telling her story, critics also reduced her book to her short-lived relationship with J.D. Salinger, failing to appreciate the memoir’s complexity, richness and core message. Indeed, At Home in the World is far from a Salinger tell-all. It’s an honest, moving and thought-provoking coming-of-age story. Maynard writes about growing up in the 60s, her father’s struggles with alcoholism and her longing for an all-American family. She also describes many universal experiences, like first love, motherhood and the loss of a parent, in a way that is both deeply personal and relatable. She does not hesitate to delve into more taboo topics as well, like her decision to have an abortion or her struggles with eating disorders.

Undoubtedly, Salinger is an important character in At Home in the World, for he was a crucial figure in Maynard’s life.  In this book he appears to be quite eccentric, manipulative and extremely overbearing. He only ate raw food, did not believe in modern medicine and, turns out, also wrote letters to several other young women. The scene where he forces Maynard to perform oral sex is particularly damning — however, he is not painted as a villain per se. As a reader, I was actually often frustrated by Maynard herself: Why are you dropping out of Yale? Why are you quitting your internship at The New York Times to go live with him? I wanted to shout at her! As a young, twenty-first century student with similar journalistic aspirations as college-aged Maynard, I found these decisions incomprehensible. Strikingly, the adults in her life encouraged — or at least never discouraged — her to choose Salinger over her education and her career. Her mother even made her an A-line dress for her first meeting with the famous author.

All in all, At Home in the World is not a takedown of a powerful man, but rather the story of a young woman who falls head over heels for the wrong person — in her own words, “a predatory man with a taste for teenagers.” It is the story of a woman who made a decision (a mistake, I would personally argue), which society will not let her live down, even 50 years later. Because of her eight months with Salinger, Maynard will always be associated with him, and this strikes me as incredibly unfair. In an interview for Jezebel, Maynard predicted that her short-lived relationship with Salinger would be the opening of her obituary. What also seems very unfair is the fact that Maynard was punished, but Salinger wasn’t. He was not held accountable for what he did, while she was ostracized for simply telling the truth at a time when our culture was still very reluctant to hear and believe women. When I ask Maynard if she thinks there would be a different reaction today, she answers with a definite yes, but she also tells me that the MeToo movement is not retroactive. Women who come forward today are taken seriously, but her fate was cast long ago.

And yet, in our conversation, Maynard does not dwell on these issues too much. She is not reluctant to talk about Salinger but seems more inclined to discuss other topics. She is particularly eager to give me writing advice: “Don’t shut your own self down,” she counsels, and “Name your obsessions; let them be the engine that fuels your work.” She conveys to me her passion for helping women tell their own stories and her experience teaching writing workshops: “I am not nearly as strict as my mother was with me,” she says, only half-jokingly. We touch on her decision to enroll at Yale again in 2018, as a 60-something year old sophomore (our generation was a bit too politically correct for her taste). She tells me that it is always a joy for her to connect with young readers, especially college students, possibly because her college years were all but traditional. She brings up her travels, her love for Guatemala and her recent stay in Paris.

Toward the end of our conversation, I return to the topic of Salinger and ask Maynard about cancel culture: Wasn’t she essentially canceled after the publication of her memoir? Should we cancel Salinger? Maynard answers with a firm no. She is fervently against cancel culture and insists that it is crucial to separate artists from their work. She does tell me that she is surprised that Salinger is still widely read in schools: “There are much better books for young people to read,” she says. Maynard also admits that she was not expecting such a strong reaction to her memoir, which she attributes to her inherent naivety. It was “absolutely crushing,” she acknowledges.

Despite it all, she kept going. Some people might have been deterred by such vitriol, but Maynard “wanted to show them that [she was] still here, still writing,” she tells me. Her resilience is remarkable, and although she discloses that she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder, I find that there is an undeniable confidence to Maynard. “I don’t care what people say about me anymore,” she declares, as we near the end of our discussion. “Do I feel shame for my life? No!” she adds, boisterously. 

After a little under 90 minutes, Maynard has to go back to her writing. She tells me to stay in touch and to remain endlessly curious. When I end the Zoom call, one thing is obvious to me: Maynard is not only at home in the world, but profoundly and inspiringly at peace with it, too. 

Rafaela Uzon is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].