Now, I’m not the world’s greatest expert on the works of J.D. Salinger. I’m probably the only guy who read “The Catcher in the Rye” only once (it seems you either never read it—or read it 40 times), and the descriptions I saw of his insufferable Glass family just about guaranteed I’d never pick up “Franny & Zooey” or “Nine Stories.”
But I did find myself fascinated with J.D. Salinger the man—a recluse, a rejecter of fame, and, up till his death on Wednesday at the age of 91, a classic Bad Dad, the kind we at Dadwagon love to love.
The evidence (all of it second- or thirdhand, of course) is overwhelming: As a young man stationed in Europe after World War II, he had a brief marriage to a German doctor—about which almost nothing is known. His second marriage, to Claire Douglas, ended in divorce, with Douglas claiming “a continuation of the marriage would seriously injure her health and endanger her reason.” Within a few years, he started dating much younger women, like Yale freshman Joyce Maynard and, a decade or so later, Colleen O’Neill, whom the New York Times calls “considerably younger” than him.
None of which pleased his daughter, Margaret, very much. She wound up writing a memoir in which she portrayed him as narcissistic, abusive and enamored of, as the Times puts it, “exotic enthusiasms” ranging from Zen Buddhism to Scientology. Also, he drank his own urine. It probably didn’t help family harmony that Margaret’s brother, Matthew, later described her as having “a troubled mind.” J.D., that’s one family you messed up, big time!
(Not to mention, of course, how you devastated the Lennons by writing a book that another crazy person would use as justification for murder. How awful!)
But you know what? I have a weird kind of respect for Salinger’s poor parenting. The guy was honest enough with himself to know that he shouldn’t be around other people. He dumped Joyce Maynard when she wanted kids and he didn’t. He retreated from the world because he couldn’t stand the attention of fans and the press—which is exactly the kind of absolute, uncritical attention that young children pay to their parents. If you’d told Salinger he was a bad dad, he’d probably say, “So what?” Your love didn’t matter to him, and the more you tried, the faster he’d probably turn you away.
In other words, it was likely no fun to be his children—to demand engagement and normalcy from a singular, if insular, genius—but for him to play the proud papa, well, he would’ve seemed like a phony.