How the Catcher in the Rye Ruined My Life
When I checked out The Catcher in the Rye at the library I was looking foreward to stirring up the thick sediment of adolescence. Though I recalled the details of Holden Caufield’s misadventures only imperfectly, the story had left a residue of innocent melancholy over a series of events in my life. Not sure why, I read it again after 21 years intent on some nostaligic self-examination, one of my favorite pastimes lately, I wanted to understand the nature of J. D. Salinger’s hold on the teenager who lives on in my middle-aged heart. I wasn’t disappointed. I was able to conjure up all the ghosts I’d hoped to engage in moody communion. But I did more than that. I discovered, while rereading it, that The Catcher in the Rye had ruined my life.
In 1965 I was a skinny kid who saw a dermatologist on Tuesdays and a psychologist on Thursdays. Holden’s complexion may have been better than mine, but we did share, with teenagers in every time and place, a pronounced emotional delicacy. Kids grow into it, are amazed and appalled, and grow out of it. Most keep drawing lines on graph paper, looking forward to drivers-ed, and paying some attention to morn and dad’s rules right through the chemical horror show playing in their pituitary glands. But some become enthralled with the murkier aspects of the drama. That’s what happened to Holden. The Catcher in the Rye details his peculiar narcism: a narcism that enjoys primping in front of fun house mirrors. The image may be warped, but at least it’s distinct from what are thought, by the befuddled owner of the face in the glass, to be the defining features of adults. I was more than ready to receive the good news: it’s kind of wonderful to be confused, depressed, and sensitive. Until then, when I looked in the mirror I only saw pimples.
In 1965 I was living in San Francisco. You would think in that particular time and place that cutout Holden Caufields would be as common as fog. They probably were. But you didn’t find them wandering around in groups wearing their red, long billed caps backwards and speculating about where the ducks went when the pond froze across the Rockies in Central Park South. The adolescent we’re talking about lives on the fringe. He’s no more at home with hippies than jocks, with punks than preppies.
He resembles a discontent young antelope. A sense of community would interfere with the gloomy pleasure he takes in grazing at the edge of the herd. He watches the other beasts, busy at the phony rituals that make group life possible, with disapproval. He’s too fastidious to nuzzle among their warm, smelly bodies, but he sympathizes with the painful knocks the weaker ones suffer, and lusts after the slender does whose cute butts bump coyly against the ruttish, pushy stags. If’ he ever gets in the right mood, he might visit the one with the bushy tail and sad eyes. He’s not a geekish creature, he hasn’t been ostracized, and when he chooses he can mix playfully with his peers; but most of the time he remains uncomfortably aloof. He cherishes his siblings and occasionally associates with the animals he finds least attractive. He broods.
I was standing at the edge of the crowd brooding when an English teacher brought me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Though certainly not a manual of instruction, and harmless enough in the hands of the relatively sane, I came away from my first reading with the liberating impression that the blues excuse almost any irresponsibility. Of course, in 1965 there was a rising chorus of persuasive voices encouraging youngsters to wonder if the adult world wasn’t pointless and dehumanizing; however, I’m not talking about my g-g-generation. In fact, I don’t buy the rigmarole about the sixties being a watershed decade. But in contrast to the late forties when Holden was misplacing fencing foils, it was a time of rude social activity. That might explain some of the difference in our styles. Anyway, I suddenly realized it was o.k. for me to scribble obscene verse while Mr. Wilcox rambled on about trigonometry, There was no chance of my understanding what the hell he was talking about, and writing poetry (in absolutely the loosest sense of the word) was the best antidote for the ennui that was killing me, In biology I expressed myself by putting Ajax in the fish tank. That year I flunked my first class.
The next year the family moved to South America. Lima was really depressing. I was enrolled at a school where I had to wear a phony blue blazer and a phony red tie, I can remember standing in the Principals office at Colegio Franklin D. Roosevelt, screaming about the injustice of having to wear phony gray socks. What right did they have to tell me what color socks to wear? I was more aggressive than Holden. Actually, I could be a violent little bastard. I liked drinking and fighting as much as hiding away with a book.
Though we were both actors of a sort, I was more theatrical than Holden. The dramatic high point of my confused, depressed and sensitive adolescence came when a janitor caught me breaking into Roosevelt with my brother and a friend. At the time I had the lead in the term play, and. my suspension from school inconvenienced a lot of people. I loved the notoriety. I felt like a gangster stumbling around with a bullet in his guts. Fortunately, my English teacher was directing the play. Holden and I had a knack for writing compositions that endeared us to English teachers. I was allowed to do my star turn.
Life became a succession of similar incidents, drugs and alcohol playing their part. Like Holden, I eventually ended up in a psychiatric hospital. But I wasn’t allowed to languish eternally on page 214 missing people and wondering if I would ever apply myself. What happens to men and women who think the blues are an excuse for treating the rest of the world with consistent disrespect? No doubt most have a change of heart as they mature. But not all of us, and we don’t grow up to be yuppies. I graduated from a private to a public hospital (private psychiatric hospitals are very expensive) before deciding that that type of insanity didn’t appeal to me. For a few years I got my act together while tending bar at a hotel in New Mexico; but I was never able to overcome my resentment at having to cater to a bunch of phonies every night.. I didn’t hate them; I was just so involved in my own misery that I had a hard time getting a hold on anyone else’s humanity. Untreated, it’s a fault that gets worse as you get older. And even if I didn’t hate anyone, I became increasingly angry.
When I was 28, I was arrested for the first time. That wasn’t an easy phone call to mom and dad. I had been caught robbing a theater and was given six months in the county jail. Once I’d been convicted of a felony I tried to focus my attention on avoiding further contact with the law. I was successful for awhile, but five years later I was arrested for a second robbery and spent two years in the penitentiary. I was a confused, depressed, and sensitive recidivist. Not a pretty sight, and a dangerous annoyance to the society whose laws I was casually breaking.
I think people go back to prison again and again because they find out how easy it is to live behind walls. If you mind your own business, and fight just enough to establish your own space, people don’t bother you much. There’s plenty of time to read and brood; all in all, not a bad place for ducks to spend the winter. Right now I’m sitting in a cell on the Eastham Unit, a prison for low bottom types in the Texas Department of Corrections., A year ago I managed to pick up my third felony conviction. They’ve got a good library here. While browsing in it I found an old book that inspired this diverting conceit–how The Catcher in the Rye ruined my life. Indeed.