In 1972, Joyce Maynard became instantly famous with the publication of theNew York Times Magazine essay "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life." This led to her infamous relationship with J.D. Salinger. Now she's written a "Modern Love."
Maybe it was inevitable that Joyce Maynard should end up penning a "Modern Love." Probably. This is, after all, one of the progenitors of the confessional essay, famous for her youthful affair with J.D. Salinger and equally well-known for writing in detail about that same affair thirty-some years later. When that essay came out (besides wondering at the good fortune of finding the entire Salinger part excerpted in Vanity Fair) many of else felt a little funny about her spilling. Even as we marveled at his creepiness, weirdness, at his arrested coldness, at the predatory emotional stranglehold he placed on a young and vulnerable girl wholly in his power, it was hard not to think, how he must hate this. For the most famous recluse since Howard Hughes, such a tell-all must have seemed (were he aware of it) both incomprehensible and vulgar. And as a writer of emotional restraint - even as he mined his own troubled psyche - the baldness of it must have grated. Maynard's essay engendered no sympathy for the great man: I know I for one was disappointed, fascinated, appalled. And yet, looking back I find it doesn't especially impact on my feelings about Salinger's work. There is a power in total silence that no amount of words can equal. That's something we forget now, that level of control being in short supply. And of course, ironically, it's worth remembering that it was Maynard's first-person Times magazine essay, "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life" that first attracted Salinger's attention - back when such confessions felt fresh and bold.
In yesterday's essay, Maynard writes about breaches of trust. Specifically, reading her daughter's email when the latter falls out of touch - and, in the way of such things, finding things she doesn't want to know.
Slowly, then, in messages she had written to friends, the story unfolded. She and Johnny had gone for their H.I.V. test that December. Two weeks later: A clean bill of health for Audrey. But the man my daughter believed to be the love of her life was H.I.V. positive. Back then, for an undocumented Haitian living in the Dominican Republic, the medical services necessary to keep him alive would be available only at a cost beyond his means...It got worse. They had mostly been careful, but not 100 percent. And the test results Audrey got could not be viewed as accurate until three months had passed.
Now, Maynard finds herself in the painful position of the successful snoop: how to deal with the reality of what she's not supposed to know. In the end, Audrey is OK - she reads, clandestinely - and one can only assume that had Maynard not found "the story," she might have saved herself a great deal of vicarious pain. But that, of course, is her point: this is not an option for a mother - and a child cannot, in fact, expect months of silence and anxiety to go unchecked. Even as Maynard acknowledges the betrayal of the act, we know she would do it again. She's talking about the pain of being a parent, yes, and the overweening panic it breeds. But also the pain of being cut out of her children's life: by her own account, at this point, her three children have all left home and she is left behind. Her daughter does not confide in her, but in, presumably, friends. "You don't need to try and fix my life any more, Mama," she tells me. "I can handle that part on my own," says her daughter - but what we see is not "fixing" but the inability to do so, the impotence of someone who wishes she'd been asked to.
It is a lesson long in the learning, though the first intimations of this came to me that summer day seven years ago, when I stood on the deck of the ferry to catch a last glimpse of my daughter waving to me from the shore, with her pink hat and long braid and her wide, bright smile. We stood that way, waving, for a long time, as the boat moved steadily away from land - she in one country, I heading toward another, until she was just a dot on the horizon, same as I must have been to her. We were off to live our lives.
But this strikes me as ironic - and more than a touch bittersweet. The essay that follows this hopeful parting is not about Maynard's life, a life so famed for its burdensome promise of precocity, so much as her daughter's. And ironically, it's not the daughter, she who lived it, who chooses to share it. Maynard is a very fine writer and always has been. With novels - including To Die For to her credit, it is strange that her name should always be twinned with an episode of her youth. And yet, it's hard to know whether she fights it. And the dynamic of this essay, back where she first started, does little to challenge that perception. Rather, Audrey is characterized by her reticence, her unwillingness to confide. Although, as Maynard says, it is she who "allows me to tell this story," at the end of the day it is her mother sharing something that is not fundamentally hers to share.
My Secret Left Me Unable to Help [New York Times]