“That kind of stuff’s happened to me twenty times since I was a kid.”
Like most people, I encountered JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye early in high school. Often the target of do-gooders who try to get it banned from classrooms and libraries, it is the story of a sixteen year-old misfit. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that his therapist suggested that he try “scriptotherapy” to express his feelings. This writing becomes the novel’s narration. Holden Caulfield is at times an unreliable narrator—one whose world experience is heavily colored by his internal condition.
Holden is a miscreant. He is cynical and obviously disturbed at the world he encounters as he roams Manhattan after being kicked out of yet another prep school. He obviously is the product of the upper-middle class. He has certain knowledge and experience that extend beyond his years---but despite all of this, the reader senses that all is not right. This knowledge is not the sort of sage advice handed down from parents. Instead, it is rife with the coarse language and concepts taken up in train stations, locker rooms, and night clubs. Conversely, his thought and speech are also sprinkled with shining bits of innocence lost and innocence retained.
He is a complicated kid. He mourns his own loss of innocence. He hints at darker times—that his current dark night of the soul is just slightly darker than what he mentions tangentially. He has seen things. He has possibly done things; things have possibly been done to him.
Adolescence is full of turmoil in the best of circumstances, so teenagers generally can identify with a large portion of what Holden says. When I read it, I certainly “got it.” While my parents didn’t pack me away to be “rid of the kid,” I did go to boarding school. I know that inner world with the push to succeed even when the reasons given seemed so…”phony.”
We were regaled with distinguished visitors who were captains of industry, politics, medicine…and who also happened to be school alumni. We were exhorted to succeed in life and then to share the bounty of that hard work. Not a bad notion, but what if you just wanted to build the best damn wooden cabinets or craft glass figurines and sell them at the beach? Polite nods and smiles were offered-the kind that meant, “He’ll come around.”
What if you just wanted to “be”? I did. I just wanted to enjoy the present. Some adults understood the cabinet makers and the glassblowers. Fewer understood what it meant to just be.
------The amazing patterns of verdant leaves on the old oak tree fell in November and revealed another startling fractal beneath. Its rough bark of varying shades of gray stood outside the window of my dorm room. While others ostensibly were plotting their future grandeur, I was studying a tree. Quercus alba. I imagined it as an acorn, a new sprout, a sapling and a mature tree large enough to garner respect from the squirrels—and generations of people charged with its care.
The Ritalin’s effect became noticeable-as did the pressing weight of AP History, chemistry and a paper for my British literature class. What to do?
Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
I’ll compare Milton’s Paradise Lost with the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Done. Then, I’ll read ahead and get past the Teapot Dome Scandal and finish the worksheet on acid-base reactions. Done. In the morning, after early swim practice, I’ll proof my Milton paper and turn it in just in time.
-----As the oak tree swayed in the night breeze, one of its limbs tapped on the window. It wasn’t angry or scary. It was more of a friendly reminder—an earnest Labrador retriever puppy pawing at my leg for attention. My roommate remained in a deep sleep over in his alcove. I got up and walked toward the window, careful to miss the place in the floor that squeaked. I looked out at Quercus. The wind was really picking up out of the southwest. A cold front was approaching. I expected a cold walk to swim practice in the morning. The remaining leaves shuddered. I thought of that book. Not Milton, the one about that disaffected prep school kid. Everybody seemed to love that book.
Holden Caulfield was sticking it to the man.
We all live under the heel of somebody’s boot.
Give it back, Holden. Do your own thing!
To hell with your parents or any of those schools!
----I sat on the window sill, looking out. The sidewalk lights shone on branches and leaves, throwing energetic shadows in every direction. The air infiltrating underneath the heavy window was warm and humid. I thought back to Holden Caulfield. Though there were similarities, I was hardly that disaffected. I didn’t “smoke like a madman.” I loved my parents, I enjoyed the school. I got along with everybody. Why did Caulfield have such a hold on me?
I pulled the book from the alcove bookcase and started reading it all over again by the light of my Petzl headlamp. I first read it as a freshman. Now that I was sixteen, I wanted to look through it again. Would the connection still be there?
I started reading…the clock read 11:45 PM. I could read a bit and get to sleep by midnight. By 12:20, I was on a roll. I turned page after page and then it hit me in Chapter 24.
Holden is wandering around the city and looks up an old teacher—Mr. Antolini. The teacher and his wife live in a really nice "razz" in Sutton Place. They are a younger couple and Holden catches them trying to clean up after a dinner party. Antolini is obviously drunk. The wife goes to bed and Antolini and Holden have a deep conversation about life and Holden’s recklessness---that he is headed for a fall. Despite the friendly conversation, Holden is never quite comfortable in the apartment. Anotlini lets Holden sleep on the couple’s sofa and heads to bed himself.
Later, Holden wakes up and finds Antolini stoking his head and looking at him. Holden jumps up and makes a quick excuse and runs out of the apartment. He is alarmed at what just happened to him. At one point he admits to the reader,
“That kind of stuff’s happened to me twenty times since I was a kid.”
Does this possibly mean that Holden has been sexually abused? His narration is unreliable, but he is so adamant about this. Could this be another reason for his downward spiral? He has already told us he never recovered from the death of his younger brother. That’s understandable, but was there more to his angst?
I skipped over this the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye. I guess my mind wasn’t ready to go there. My analysis of the Antolini encounter was not insightful on first reading. Oh, I felt something was amiss. I just didn’t acknowledge it in class—and barely to myself at the time. The later reading introduced all sorts of possibilities:
Was Holden sexually abused?
Was he struggling with his sexual identity?
Was he gay?
Was it SSA?
The internet is full of half-baked critiques. Most follow the straight-gay theme. I see a kid struggling with something not as obvious and far more complex. It now makes sense to this adult. I certainly know how a kid can start down that path after a traumatic event like CSA. I took those first few steps before my parents interceded. They didn’t know why I did what I did…fighting at school, gulping liquor and getting alcohol poisoning, cliff diving, riding my bike down the side of a mountain (that’s an extreme sport now; back then it was just called stupid). I could go on and on. My parents knew I was struggling. They were pretty tuned in even when I believed my thoughts were cloaked and unreadable. They knew.
Thankfully, thankfully, thankfully, they knew. They just didn't know what. I could have told, but I did not.
After the Antolini revelation, I finished the last two chapters as Holden finally collapsed under the weight he carried with him. At long last, his parents sought treatment for him. Judging by his therapeutic writing, he still has a ways to go.
----The wind that lashed Quercus most of the night abated. Distinctly colder tendrils of air slithered under the window and touched my arms, legs and feet. Looking back toward my bed, the clock read 4:58 AM. My self-imposed midnight curfew was shot. I climbed back into bed for just a bit. My alarm was set for 5:45 AM so I could get to swim practice.
In what seemed like an instant, the alarm went off in my ear. I quickly hit the OFF button so it wouldn’t wake my roommate. He stirred once and turned over. I stumbled out of bed again and pulled my swimsuit, goggles, and cap out. I threw on a fleece jacket and sweatpants plus a fleece beanie cap for my recently buzzed hair. I ate a banana and a handful of almonds from my grocery box and guzzled some water. I pulled my backpack on with a change of clothes and headed out of my room and down the empty corridor. I had many laps to swim, many projects to finish and very little sleep to my name.
I walked out of the dormitory and into the now cold morning air. I headed down the sidewalk, stopped by Quercus and looked up to the third floor window where I sat just an hour and a half ago. I touched the rough gray bark and said, “Thanks for listening.” before heading to the warmth of the poolhouse.