NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
The Cult of Joyce Maynard
September 6, 1998
By Larissa MacFarquhar
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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Having offered to share her life with her readers, Joyce Maynard is hardly ever home alone.

She has written about everything from her messy divorce to her breast implants ‑ and now there's a detailed account of her youthful affair with J.D. Salinger.
The literati may be appalled, but her devoted fans relish every word.

Joyce Maynard wrote her first memoir, "Looking Back," when she was 19; now, at 44, she has written her second, "At Home in the World." In the 25 intervening years, Maynard bought a house, nearly had a nervous breakdown, lost her virginity to the soundtrack of "Pippin," met Mary Tyler Moore and Muhammad Ali, was raped, got married, appeared on TV, had three children, emptied her breast milk into the Atlantic, planted a garden, went broke, had an abortion, clawed through a heap of garbage looking for a lost retainer, wrote three novels, watched her parents get divorced and die, got divorced herself, bought another house, got breast implants and took them out again, took tennis lessons, sold most of her possessions and moved from New Hampshire to California. Over the years, Maynard has related many of these events in her syndicated newspaper column (now defunct) and in articles for women's magazines. Oddly, she has been chastized severely, and often for imagining that any of them could possibly be interesting.

The one thing Maynard has done that everyone agrees is interesting is have a nine‑month affair with J.D. Salinger. The story, as Maynard tells it in her new book, goes like this. Twenty‑six years ago, when she was a freshman at Yale, Maynard published an essay in these pages, "An 18‑Year‑Old Looks Back on Life," that made her famous. Among the hundreds of letters she received in response to the article, and to the winsome photograph of her that appeared on the cover, was one from Salinger, then 53. Maynard corresponded with him for several weeks, met him, fell in love with him and quit school to move into his house in New Hampshire. He told her that she was very talented, and that he loved her. They talked about having children. They lived together through the winter of 1972 and into the following spring. But she began to irritate him: she was sloppy, she read TV Guide and little else, she wrote what she thought people would like to read because she wanted fame and glamour. She was too clenched up to have intercourse ‑ she got terrible headaches when they tried. Finally, disappointed, Salinger sent her away.


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For years, Maynard refused to discuss this affair. In doing so now, she is violating the privacy of a figure who is revered in a very personal way by a great many people, both for his writing and for his decision to retreat into the silence that Maynard is breaking. She will be -indeed she already has been ‑ called shameless and mercenary. Maynard knows this, of course.

In the months preceding the book's publication, Maynard was to be found at home in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, editing her manuscript and driving her 14‑year‑old, Willy, to his tennis tournaments. She has spent much of her life engaged in mother activity of this sort -perhaps she'd be a better writer if she hadn't. We met at a match one afternoon and lay on the grass in the shade with Maynard's unsightly dog and her exquisite son. Maynard laughed frequently ‑ a loud laugh with a hysterical edge to it, involving knee‑slapping.

Writing this book had been, for her, the exorcism of a past that has been festering for years. “When I first embarked on it, it felt like such a forbidden thing, like my grandfather eating pork," she said. "But now I've come to feel there's nothing so terrible about the truth, and it's such a relief."

Maynard could now joke about her notoriety. She told me about a guy she met at a party in San Francisco. "He came over to me and said: Joyce Maynard! You're the one who lived with...' " Maynard snapped her fingers, imitating the man trying to remember the name. "'Thomas Pynchon?' I said, and he says: 'Yeah! That's the one!"

The day she went to meet Salinger for the first time, Maynard wore an extraordinary dress. She and her mother designed it together for the occasion. It was, she says, almost an exact replica of the dress she wore to her first day of first grade ‑ very short and made out of stiff white material covered with alphabet letters in primary colors. Maynard's mother, Fredelle, used to refer to clothes as "costumes," and this dress was to be Maynard's costume for her meeting with Salinger, for playing the part of helpless little girl to his much older man.

There is still something unsettlingly childlike about Maynard. She is tiny and cute; her dark brown eyes are so big they are just short of buggy. She wears red hooded sweatshirts and little sheepskin booties. But there is also something almost tangibly maternal about her, as though her skin retained impressions from her children's bodies.

The thing people say about Maynard is that she takes up a lot of space. She is not one for keeping quiet about things. She is dramatic and demands attention. She experiences wild ups and precipitous downs. She is always getting into car accidents. Once, in a pizza restaurant with her family, she dumped a glass of beer over her head by way of communicating her frustration with the evening. "It's easy to wonder whether it's love she's looking for, or fame, or attention," says the novelist Joseph McElroy, an old friend. "God knows, Joyce wants attention and intends to get it."

The pairing of Maynard and Salinger ‑ the writer whose metier is autobiography and the writer who's so private he won't even publish ‑ was an unlikely one, and the story of their affair makes for uncomfortable reading. The Salinger that emerges from Maynard's side of the story is a rather attenuated figure. We don't see him writing or talking about writing ‑ he didn't let her into that part of his life. We see him only in his relationship with Maynard: the waxing and waning of his love for her and the eccentric domestic rituals with which the waning was entwined (his peculiar diet, his meditation, his practice of homeopathy). At the time she was living with Salinger, Maynard was at the height of her fame: she had become the unofficial spokesperson for the Youth of America, and people were continually calling her up, asking her to appear on the radio, to write articles, to have her photograph taken. Under Salinger's influence, she turned many offers down. Still, Salinger could tell she was tempted, and was disgusted by her worldliness.

Of course, Salinger's own obsessive privacy was also a form of caring about the world's opinion, a poisonous sensitivity. In one of Maynard's few references in her memoir to Salinger's writing, she observes that his voice in person is Holden Caulfield's voice, only not so kind. In her account, the contempt for everything and everyone "phony" that in the teenage Holden betokened a kind of hopeful idealism seems in the older Salinger rigid to the point of cruelty.

Maynard bought her house in Marin County two years ago. It sits on the steep side of a woody hill; from her deck you can see Mount Tamalpais. One wall of Maynard's living room ‑ the wall she faces when she is sitting at her computer, working- is hung with 24 brightly colored masks. Maynard has always felt these masks to be a benevolent presence while she writes, and she recently realized that they represent her readers to her.

Maynard's relationship with her readers is extremely close. One flew her family around in his private plane. Another recently asked her to officiate at her marriage. Several have lent her their homes to write in. When she left New Hampshire for California two years ago, Maynard invited her readers to a tag sale, and some traveled from distant parts of the country to attend. Many keep in almost daily contact with her through her Web site (www.joycemaynard.com), on which Maynard posts bulletins about her life and exchanges messages with readers. Occasionally, she posts a note to explain why she cannot have coffee with absolutely everyone who wants to meet her. "A man wrote me from prison, to say my stories about my kids and my family were the one lifeline he had to the outside world. I wrote back with a picture of my children. He wrote back to say he'd come to visit us ‑ maybe fix the wiring in my house and paint it, maybe marry me ‑ as soon as he got out on parole. For the brutal murder of his parents, I learned." Still, those who check in regularly can learn, at a virtual remove, what Joyce's children are doing, what she's been cooking lately and where she's going on vacation.

One longtime Joyce watcher, a television producer in New York, explained to me by E‑mail: "She's the literary equivalent of 'The Truman Show' or Princess Diana ‑ we've watched Joyce grow up with us. It's my favorite soap opera: 'Joyce's Life."

Writers who write (or seem to be writing) about themselves tend to provoke very personal responses from their readers. To some, such responses are irritating, intrusive mistakes. After the publication of "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman received a letter from a woman who, heeding his expressions of lavish desire for his readers, offered herself up to the poet as the fleshy, sexual partner he appeared to be seeking. Whitman wrote back to her in chagrin and some disgust, explaining that he had not meant his poem to be taken literally. Maynard might have responded differently. It's not that she wants sex from her readers, exactly ‑ but she does look to them, and has come to depend upon them, for love and reassurance. This is, of course, precisely the relationship to her public that Salinger warned Maynard to avoid, because praise can tempt a reader to repeat himself. But for Maynard, writing per se has never been the point.

Maynard doesn't see herself as a "literary" author. She calls herself a "journeyman writer," and an "entrepreneur." She has produced three novels, the most successful of which ‑ "To Die For" ‑ was made into a movie, but most of her time has been spent turning out articles for money. She wrote about getting breast implants for Self and then, four years later, about having them taken out again. When she had an abortion, she paid for it by writing about it for Redbook. She is not embarrassed by this. "I've assessed sports bras," she shrugs. "I've written about what the best ride is at Disney World. Last year, Willy wanted to go to tennis camp, so I got a job ‑ this was really a new level ‑ as the spokesperson for Dia­per Genie. There was a time when my husband, Steve, and I were $10,000 in debt from uninsured medical expenses ‑ my daughter had broken her arm, we had two babies in diapers and I just didn't know what I was going to do ‑ and that was the moment I thought, I have a trade, a trade that I can ply as much as if I were a carpenter.

"It troubles me that people speak about writing for money as ugly and distasteful. During that first flurry of criticism of this book, all kinds of people said, 'Oh, she's doing it for the money.' And I thought, Well of course I get paid! Imagine someone suggesting that a doctor shouldn't get paid!" (Maynard received a low‑six‑figure advance for the book from Picador U.S.A.)

"But I have to say," she continues, "there was no amount of money that could have persuaded me to write this story at any other stage of my life. I've had some very desperate money times over the years, but it was just never an option. And it wouldn't be something I'd get into now if I didn't feel that it was the right thing to do."

In 1986, Maynard published a collection of her syndicated newspaper columns in a book, cutely titled "Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life." On the cover is a photograph of Maynard and her three children standing in front of their old home in New Hampshire. Maynard's eyes are red, and her mouth is drawn together in a tight half‑smile. She looks awful. The cartoonish sweetness of her face is somehow exaggerated and made grotesque by her miserable, hopeless expression. She has just been crying, because her husband refused to be in the picture. The children look restless, glancing off in different directions. The camera is down near Maynard's knees as though it is another child at whom Maynard is gazing in mute apology.

This cover was appropriate. In her column, Maynard tended to portray her life as a homey sitcom, each installment representing a lovable mistake made and a lesson humbly learned. But all the while, her marriage to Steve Bethel, an artist, was disintegrating. "A good home must be made, not bought," she wrote in one typically precious column. "In the end, it's not track lighting or a sun room that brings light into a kitchen."

It's easy to make fun of essays like this. And yet there is something movingly quixotic about Maynard's failed attempt to make her painful, messy, unflattering life, through her columns, into happy television. She wasn't wrong, either, about what was required of her: after her separation announcement, 20‑odd newspapers discontinued her column on the grounds that, as far as family matters were concerned, she was no longer fit to comment.

Maynard was taught to write by her mother, a frustrated intellectual who in her middle years took to writing on family topics for women's magazines. In her articles, Fredelle, too, tended to render her life "the way it should have happened," as she used to put it. "To get the rhythm of a sentence, she would sacrifice authenticity every time," Maynard recalls fondly. Her husband, Max, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, was an alcoholic, but his drinking was never discussed. It is to the emotional consequences of concealing this shame that Maynard attributes her subsequent need for self‑exposure.

Maynard's current book is a departure from her habitual college‑application‑essay style. She set out to write it very plainly, and she certainly did. There's barely an adjective in the entire thing. There's none of the murky texture of memory; her story is presented as immediate, undigested experience in the present tense. "I didn't want to tell a reader what to think of any of this," Maynard explains. "I wanted people to live through it." This is, of course, just another variety of self‑deception. But, oddly enough, it works. She has, as she intended, let herself rip, and while Maynard diluted can be cloying, Maynard at full strength ‑ in her very shamelessness; in the unrelenting thoroughness of her self‑exposure; in her determination not only to tell the truth but to tear it open and eviscerate it and squeeze it until it is bled dry is surprisingly powerful.

It is unlikely, however,that this change of style will be appreciated. Maynard is no longer as famous as she once was, but ask anyone of roughly her age who grew up in this country, and he will not only know who she is ‑ but chances are he will react to her name with startling venom. Perhaps to them it still seems like only yesterday that, as teen‑agers, they picked up that issue of The New York Times Magazine with Maynard on the cover and wondered, Why isn't that me?

The degree of derision Maynard inspires is astonishing. Jonathan Yardley of The Washing­ton Post complains that, reading Maynard's work, "you may ... find yourself struggling to comprehend self‑infatuation so vast and reckless that the victim cannot imagine a detail of her life so minute or trivial as to be of no interest to everyone else on this planet." Writes a former Yale classmate of hers, Alex Beam, in Slate, "She has hacked her way through three decades wrapped in a delusion torn from the Oliver Sacks casebook: The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Someone Interesting." An odd confusion runs through much of this criticism: in their hurry to condemn Maynard for imagining that the trivial details of her life are interesting, her critics tend to veer into claiming that trivial details of life in general are not interesting. In the world of Maynard criticism, it can seem as though the novel never existed.

Maynard has been attacked like this her entire career, but she still gets infuriated. "If people choose to live their life in a way that does not confront the more troubling aspects of their experience," she says, "that's fine, if it works for them. But it will probably make them uncomfortable if they come up against somebody like me. So they just shouldn't! They shouldn't read my work!"

A few years ago in New York, the writer Francine du Plessix Gray gave a talk about her forthcoming biography of Louise Colet ‑ a poet and a lover of Flaubert's. Flaubert did not come off well in Gray's account, and among the caddish acts of which she held him guilty was his hurtful caricaturing of Colet in the character of Emma Bovary. Upon hearing this theory, the Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch stood up in the back of the room. Writers write about people they know, he protested, and they do so in ways that are humiliating, nasty, inaccurate and unfair. That's what writers do.

Is the case of Maynard and Salinger any different? Yes ‑ but not because of Salinger's love of privacy. Many people value their privacy, and there's no reason to privilege Salinger's simply because, since he is famous, he is obliged to resort to baroque means to protect it. Nor is this case different because Maynard is writing autobiography rather than fiction: a fictional portrait can be every bit as transparent and damaging as a nonfictional one. No, the reason this case seems different from Flaubert's is simply that here, Salinger is the better writer.

Imagine the positions reversed. Maynard is the recluse, Salinger the memoirist. Offered a memoir by one of America's great writers, who would shed a tear for the violated privacy of Joyce Maynard, purveyor of minor novels and contributor to women's magazines?

Larissa MacFarquhar writes for Slate, The New Yorker and other publications. She last wrote for the magazine about Dr. Andrew Weil.

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