The Cost of Being Joyce Maynard: Twenty Years After At Home in the WorldCelebrities
After I texted Joyce Maynard on a Saturday morning in late July, to make plans to meet for coffee, I realized that she has her read receipts on. I suggested that we meet at a nearby farmers market; she reads my text at 11:59 a.m. and responds right away. Eleven minutes later, she texts to tell me that she beat me there on her bike.
For a second, I feel bad that I don’t have my read receipts on. It’s a commitment to immediacy and transparency—designed, perhaps, with accountability in mind. It’s remarkably on-brand for the 64-year-old Maynard. Twenty years after publishing her memoir At Home in the World, which details how she left Yale University in 1973 to live with J.D. Salinger, Maynard still wants to disclose everything. Her inclination to tell all has earned her a reputation for being an oversharer and has drawn the ire of many since she published At Home in 1998.
When I meet Maynard in Fort Greene, she’s dressed like a J.Crew model, wearing jeans and a striped blue-and-white shirt. Coming from brunch with her son, she is warm and energetic; she insists we sit on the grass to chat. Maynard is going to see Taylor Swift in concert later that night at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, although she admits that she isn’t a huge fan. (A friend, who happens to be friends with Swift’s family, has tickets.) Maynard found Swift’s latest album, Reputation, which tells about the battle that Swift fought and largely lost in the public eye, to be a little one-note. She wasn’t the only one.
To many, Maynard will always be the woman who moved in with J.D. Salinger and had the gall to write a book about it. “If I live another 40 years, I know that my obituary will start out with, you know, ‘When she was young, she slept with Salinger,’” Maynard says in the park.
Salinger and Maynard’s cohabitation lasted less than a year, and it is often mischaracterized as an affair, a label Maynard rejects. “Oh, I had a love affair? No, I did not. I did not have an affair,” she says. “Later, I found out what an affair was, that wasn’t it.” It hardly matters, though, as the label stuck. Publishing At Home in the World has had an outsized effect on Maynard’s reputation. It largely destroyed it, transforming her into a cartoon villain of the publishing world, a caricature of the gabby woman who thoughtlessly wields her pen.
The backlash that Maynard endured since publishing the memoir points to conflicting ideas about what women should say, in what spaces, and at what cost.
It had little, if any, effect on Salinger’s reputation. The backlash that Maynard endured since publishing the memoir—as well as columns and books since then—points to conflicting ideas about what women should say, in what spaces, and at what cost. The reception of her work seems particularly relevant now, especially as women feel increasingly emboldened to speak about the abuses of powerful and respected men. Perhaps if Maynard’s memoir had been published today, the reception would have been different, less caustic or perhaps more cautious. And yet, as early as last year, Maynard’s work still inspires criticism that reflected these anxieties.
What is it about Maynard that makes her such a flashpoint? Her harshest critics bend over backward to declare her self-serving, while her advocates argue that her stories have value. No one seems to suggest it could be a bit of both.
Maynard has always been an ambitious and resourceful writer. As a freshman at Yale, she covered the Miss Teenage New Hampshire for Seventeen magazine, which wanted an “insider’s view,” by convincing the network that aired the pageant to make her a teenage judge. When Seventeen ran a heavily edited and shorter version of her story, Maynard wrote to Lester Markel, an editor at the New York Times in a rage (she had picked his name at random from the masthead).
Would Markel “like me to write an article about what young people are thinking about on college campuses these days?” she recounted in At Home. Attached was a photocopy of her original, unedited story, as well as a pitch: “In which case, I would be uniquely well equipped to tell the readers of the Times what that might be.”
A different editor, Harvey Shapiro from the New York Times Magazine, responded and offered Maynard an assignment: to write at length about the experiences of herself and her generation, growing up and transitioning into adulthood in the ’70s. As he put in his letter to Maynard: “Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or what?”
“I wanted to be an all-American girl […] I never supposed, in 1972, that anybody would have cared to hear the voice of the girl I really was.”
Maynard seized the opportunity. The Times Magazine ran her story in 1972 with a large picture of her on the front cover; the headline: “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” The essay is pithy and filled with the plural “we” and reveals almost nothing about Maynard’s own lived experience as an 18-year-old: that her father was an alcoholic, that she suffered from an eating disorder, or that she was a virgin while her peers partook in the sexual revolution.
That essay catapulted her into the spotlight, opening the door to a book deal and a summer job at the Times. Decades later, she described the process of writing it as lying through her teeth.
“I realize that the fundamental dishonesty of the voice speaking in this early article of mine is a function of my own deep sense of shame and secrecy,” she wrote in At Home. “I wanted so much to be, on paper, a person readers could like and identify with and trust. I wanted to be an all-American girl […] I never supposed, in 1972, that anybody would have cared to hear the voice of the girl I really was.”
In addition to professional offers, Maynard also started to receive letters—lots of them. Both fan and hate mail showed up at her dorm room at Yale; one of those fan letters was from Salinger. She and Salinger corresponded for months, eventually moving to phone calls, and finally met in person. (Maynard was not allowed to quote any of Salinger’s letters in At Home, which she’d kept for years after, because of U.S. copyright law.)
At Home is a disarming and up-close recollection of how Salinger, then 53, poised himself as an intellectual ally and confidante to an 18-year-old girl who felt excluded from her peers. (According to Maynard, her essay only furthered her alienation from her classmates, who began to see her as a hack.) She recounts how she cut almost everyone out of her life to be with him; how he won her trust and wooed her parents. When Salinger invited Maynard to spend the weekend with him in Cornish, New Hampshire a former English teacher from Exeter Academy agreed to drive her. On the way, “he says nothing to indicate that there might be something worrisome about this visit I’m making,” Maynard wrote 40 years later in At Home.
Salinger eventually stuck two $50 bills in Maynard’s hand and told her to go home.
The fall after her freshman year, Maynard dropped out of Yale and moved in with Salinger. (She has re-enrolled and is returning to Yale this fall as a college sophomore, 45 years after she left.) As their relationship turned sexual, Maynard discovered she has difficulty having intercourse. “Then I am lying flat on the bed, his body looming over me, pushing my legs apart,” she wrote. “When we attempt intercourse, the muscles of my vagina simply clamp shut and will not release. After a few minutes, we have to stop. I am weeping, less from the pain in my genitals than the pain in my head, which feels ready to burst.”
In At Home, Salinger does a number of cringe-worthy things. He instructs Maynard to make herself throw up after meals out and introduces her to his regimented diet of mostly “raw fruits and vegetables and nuts.” (He believed cooking food robbed it of essential nutrients, so they ate frozen peas and unleavened bread for breakfast and when he cooked lamb, Salinger only cooked it at 150 degrees.) But Maynard’s inability to have sex was the wedge that drove their relationship apart. Maynard saw a naturopathic practitioner during a trip to Florida with Salinger and his children, but left feeling the same. Salinger eventually stuck two $50 bills in Maynard’s hand and told her to go home.
Maynard says that, for years, she did not speak of those months when she lived under Salinger’s rules, because the threat of his disapproval loomed large well into her adult life.
“It was part of the landscape of my world that I would never speak of Salinger,” Maynard says. “He didn’t have to ever say that to me, it was just so clear that that was what was required and demanded. And I lived by that, I knew that I couldn’t even speak of him to a therapist.”
Once she did tell the story, the language critics used to characterize their relationship showed a deep investment in maintaining Salinger’s reputation. Rather than consider why Maynard chose to abide by a code of silence, they focused on how her decision to break that silence violated an age-old understanding: Great men, no matter what they’ve done, are a protected class.
“Let me understand,” Charlie Rose asked Maynard on his show in September 1998, shortly after At Home came out. “The reason you did not tell this story is not so much because of the pain you felt from the rejection in the end. It was more a real respect for him and his passion for privacy.”
Maynard’s brow crinkles as Rose talked over her. Yes, she said, it was about playing by Salinger’s rules, which she described as “very powerful.”
In her book, Maynard never described her relationship with Salinger as abusive. But reading the book 2018, it struck me as abusive. If nothing else, the lasting effects of that time in Cornish speaks to the grip Salinger maintained on a young woman’s psyche. “J.D. Salinger was the closest thing I had to a religion,” she told Rose in ’98.
“A religion?” Rose asked. “What are you talking about?”
Rose, who was fired from both PBS and CBS in 2017 after numerous sexual harassment allegations, was not alone. There were many influential women who also reacted to Maynard’s book with contempt and derision.
In a May 19, 1999 column, Maureen Dowd called Maynard a “leech,” and compared her to Monica Lewinsky. “If they were microscopic organisms, we would call them parasites,” Dowd wrote, casting them as women who knowingly entered relationships with men and then played the victim. In an article that same year about Maynard selling her letters from Salinger at Sotheby’s, writer Cynthia Ozick told the New York Times: “What we have is two celebrities, one who was once upon a time a real writer of substance and an artist, and one who has never been an artist and has no real substance and has attached herself to the real artist in order to suck out his celebrity.”
The criticisms of Maynard were staked on two opposing claims: that she was both unaware and also shameless and selfish.
Dowd and Ozick both made personal attacks, something Maynard says is the norm. But reviews of her book are largely negative too, and even the even-handed ones are steeped with doubt. Katha Pollitt, writing for the New York Times in 1998, admits that aspects of Maynard’s life are compelling, but “the whole story is related in a tone that wobbles between wanness and gush, confession and denial, girlishness and weariness. I often found myself wondering how much of her own story Maynard understands.”
The criticisms of Maynard were staked on two opposing claims: that she was both unaware and also shameless and selfish. Critics also billed her as an oversharer—an irreparably gendered term. These attacks subsequently followed Maynard for most of her career. And it’s true that Maynard does share quite a bit; she has built her reputation in large part from writing about her life’s experiences. Before At Home, from 1984-1990, Maynard wrote a long-running syndicated column about her home life called “Domestic Affairs.” Separately, she wrote about having an abortion for Redbook, and getting breast implants and having them taken out for Self Magazine.
In 2017, Maynard published another memoir, The Best of Us. In a review, The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan wrote that Maynard “withstood market corrections to the personal-essay economy for 50 years.” She continues: “Her subject is herself, and although she has but one life to live, she is never short of material, because she reads and rereads her own story according to market demands.”
It is not just Maynard’s decision to publicize the innermost details of her life, but the details themselves that bothered critics like Flanagan. In The Best of Us, Maynard tells another story that makes her an unlikeable figure: about how, in her 50s, she chose to adopt two Ethiopian girls, and about a year later, decided to give them up to another family. “Always, Maynard wants our sympathies,” Flanagan wrote.
Maynard, already a mother of three, brought two girls from a foreign country and moved them into her affluent white neighborhood because she missed having the role of a caretaker. Later, she realized that she could not fulfill that role. The story is not particularly unusual but it should have prompted a reflection on race, economic privilege, the blind spots of the international adoption market, and motherhood. Maynard opens that door, but never really goes there. She admits she feels bad about how her Ethiopian daughters were essentially collateral damage to her whim, but the failed adoption only takes up one chapter (the book focuses on her relationship with her late second husband, who died of pancreatic cancer). She does not wrestle with her whiteness nor any of the hard questions that her choices raised.
Maynard admits that her decision to adopt the girls was a mistake but stands by her decision to write about it. “I can’t regret telling it although, of course, my life would be easier if I only recounted my moments of heroic behavior, but that’s not real writing,” she tells me.
Sitting on the grass in Fort Greene, Maynard says, “I always considered myself like a beat reporter, but my beat was my home.” But she disagrees that her writing is too personal or too confessional. “Most every story that any writer tells about me and some awful thing that I’ve done, they’ve learned from me!” she laughs. “It’s not like they’re reporters, digging up the dirt on me. They don’t have to! I say it myself.”
For her, disclosure is her greatest tool; to her critics, it’s her downfall. The tension has, in many ways defined Maynard’s career, perhaps more so than her writing itself. Maynard says she would like to be remembered in the canon of great memoirists, but she won’t be. “I am not ever going to be one of those people,” she says. “I was an unfashionable writer.”
Fashionable or not, Maynard has always been in the business of selling herself and her story and she’s shown that she knows how to play her cards well. That makes sense, of course, because the stakes are high. There’s a whole industry devoted to protecting Salinger’s reputation (or perhaps, just a living generation of historians and high school English teachers and publishers and teenage fanboys who are simply uninterested in challenging it). Because of that, Maynard is always hard at work, gatekeeping hers.
While writing this piece, I got an email from an editor from the New York Times’s book section. Was I the young woman who had reached out to Maynard after reading At Home in the World to discuss it, she wanted to know? Maynard was writing an essay for the paper on the reception of her book and re-examining it in a #MeToo context, and it mentioned me.
I wrote back saying that no, I had not written Maynard a letter but sent an email to request an interview to her PR address. But was it true, she wrote back, that I bought Maynard’s book at a used bookstore in Paris and read it on my flight home? Was that the spark of my interest in Maynard? I wrote back, “My professional interest in Joyce began when I pitched an interview with her to my editor.” I told her (as I told Maynard when we spoke) I had bought her book in Paris and read most of it on the plane. But I did not think it mattered. Then I remembered how Maynard said that her memoir is much more popular and well-received in France. (A representative from the book’s publisher, Picador, could not comment on its sales numbers, in the U.S. or abroad.) At that point, I had done two interviews with Maynard, who knew I was writing a piece on that very same subject. I wonder if I should have assumed she would write something about our interactions too.
After a few more questions, we were done. The Times editor reiterated that all factual claims would be corroborated for accuracy and thanked me for my time. I thanked her for trying to get the story right. In the end, Maynard’s essay, published earlier this week, identified me as a “young journalist.”
A few days after we met, I texted Maynard to ask what she thought of Taylor Swift.
“I hated her,” she texts back.
She goes on, saying she’s going to write something about the show and publish it on her Facebook page, and she does. “Taylor’s themes—no, singular: her theme—is bad relationships. And all the ways men have hurt her.”
I’m reminded of something Maynard said earlier when we spoke about how she handles criticism: “I still operate the same way I always did. I tend to be a trusting person. I’m a rather naïve person in some ways—I just go and do what I intend to do.”
Maynard intends to continue documenting her life, truthfully—or, at least, the furthest extent that she can. “I have not written about everything in my life,” she says. “I have a very clear code.”