Revisiting ‘At Home in the World’, a Chilling Memoir of Innocence Lost

[10 March 2014]

By Jose Solis

In 1971, 18-year-old Joyce Maynard had her very first article published in The New York Times Magazine. Grandiosely titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”, the piece has the young girl discussing what her life had consisted of up to that point. She talks about the advantages and curses of belonging to the first generation to grow up with television and space travel (she had her first beer the day Armstrong walked on the moon) and also expresses her distaste for the version of The Beatles they got (“a bad joke—aged, bearded, discordant”).

If she always sounds older than she was, she never does so more than in the closing lines in which she expresses “now my goal is simpler. I want to be happy. And I want comfort—nice clothes, a nice house, good music and good food, and the feeling that I’m doing some little thing that matters. I’ll vote and I’ll give to charity, but I won’t give myself. I feel a sudden desire to buy land—not a lot, not as a business investment, but just a small plot of earth so that whatever they do to the country I’ll have a place where I can go—a kind of fallout shelter, I guess. As some people prepare for their old age, so I prepare for my 20’s. A little house, a comfortable chair, peace and quiet—retirement sounds tempting”.

Those lines about living in a place of quiet and talks of retiring, might’ve been what caught the attention of the very reclusive J.D. Salinger who sent her a letter two days after the publication of her article. In her memoir At Home in the World (originally published in 1998) Maynard looks back on this specific episode of her life by putting us into the mindset of a college student. She details how she remembers her Janis Joplin poster hanging from the wall and her Bob Dylan records near her typewriter as she devoured the letter of this man who had been so fascinated by her piece. “This stranger with the extraordinary voice seems to know me” she writes. Her writing in the present tense, specifically as she traverses between youthful candor and her more mature outlook on life as she wrote the memoirs, sometimes makes for a somewhat confusing, quite manipulative, narrative that has us wondering which “version” of her we should believe.

She goes into detail of how little she knew about who Salinger was, going as far as to say that she was sure that she was literally the only person in her school who had never read any of his work. Yet she grew fascinated with him. Soon, she dropped out of school and moved in with the author who abruptly ended their relationship and sent her away (“I don’t think I can live without you anymore” she begged to no avail). Maynard would go on to become a very successful writer and novelist (her first mainstream success To Die For was turned into a film that first brought serious critical attention to Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix) but through the years it’s her relationship with Salinger that remains her most “significant” achievement.

If this book in particular doesn’t seem like her finest work, it does function as a fascinating document that exposes a woman’s deepest secrets and fears. Back when it was first published, her memoirs were ridiculed for their exploitative nature, 1998 after all was the year of Monica Lewinsky, and more than ever, the media and the public were becoming crueler and harsher in their depiction of women who didn’t act according to moral standards. The press depicted the arrival of the novel as a tool to peek into the life of a writer who had stopped publishing new work years before and whose prestige had never been really marred by scandal. This “tell all” piece was mostly consumed for its gossipy value, other than for its meditative, ultimately shattering prose.

Because the truth is that beyond Maynard’s obsession with self-promotion (in 2013 as a documentary on Salinger was released, she found yet another chance to turn attention towards her own story) and her tendency to be overly dramatic and theatrical, there is a heartbreaking sincerity in her work that seems to suggest that by first sharing her story more than 15 years ago, she was merely trying to make sense of something that remained somewhat of an enigma to her, as well. At Home in the World gives us a woman who would go on to become a mother and wife, but whose entire existence seemed to revolve around ten months she lived with one of the world’s most famous men.

“Reading the article twenty five years later makes me uncomfortable” she says about the piece that first led Salinger to her, “what strikes me now is that there is a nearly insufferable tone of presumptuousness running through the article” she continues. Maynard chillingly closes her memoir with the same paragraph she used to conclude the original article, almost denying herself a chance to close that cycle of pain for once and all.

“Who gave me permission to speak for all young people?” writes the 45-year-old wondering how did her 18-year-old self come up with the guts to speak with such confidence. The truth is that the closer we think we’re looking at Maynard, the further she distances herself from us.

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