When I was a preteen, I consumed music fan magazines like a hungry dog: Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, Smash Hits, Star Hits, and my favorite, Bop. I absorbed every detail about the men of my dreams (first and foremost Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran), memorized their birth dates and favorite colors, their parents’ and siblings’ names, and childhood pets. I read every interview I could get my hands on, desperate to know these guys inside and out. To truly understand them.*
As a teenager, I grew out of these school girl crushes and learned that the more I knew about my favorite musicians, often the less appealing they were and in turn, the less appealing their work. This was reinforced several years ago when I saw Jack White of the White Stripes at the Nashville airport baggage claim. I watched from across the carousel as an enthusiastic fan approached him, CD and pen in hand. I couldn’t hear their exchange but the body language was clear: the fan was asking for an autograph and Jack White was totally blowing him off. Sure, it must get tiring to have people come up to you all the time, and Jack White was probably not in the mood to chat. But if he had just signed the damn CD, the whole exchange could have been over in about thirty seconds. Instead, he spent several minutes rebuffing the fan, who ultimately gave up and walked away, clearly dejected. And I thought, You arrogant bastard, Jack White. Without your fans, you wouldn’t even be Jack White.
When it comes to literature, learning more about an author’s life can shed light on his or her work, open you up to a whole new understanding and appreciation. For instance, this past weekend I watched the documentary Salinger, and it was eye opening to learn how much Salinger had been affected by the atrocities he witnessed in World War II. A bell went off in my head when one of the interviewees spoke of how he had channeled this trauma into the character of Seymour Glass, who first appears in the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. Spoiler alert: After spending what appears to be a pleasant afternoon at the beach, Seymour quite suddenly commits suicide, an event that both intrigued and confused my teenage mind when I first read the story. But of course it makes sense now—Seymour was suffering from PTSD.
The Salinger documentary also revealed some less than wholesome facts about the famous literary recluse. He liked his women (err, girls really) young. At the age of thirty, he befriended a fourteen year old girl on a beach and for reasons completely beyond my comprehension, her parents allowed them not only to correspond but to actually travel together. The girl in question (now a woman in her seventies) avows that he never laid a hand on her, but come on. That’s creepy, right? Apparently Salinger stuck to eighteen-year-olds from then on. In fact, there was a series of eighteen-year-olds, whom he dated and unceremoniously dumped, until he was in his sixties. Um, ew.
Salinger was also purportedly a moody, self-absorbed narcissist. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly rare when it comes to artists. But how many artists lock themselves in their writing bunkers and forbid their spouses and children from disturbing them no matter the reason, for days on end?
As scores of former friends and lovers recounted his temperamental nature, antisocial behavior, and neglect and sometimes abuse of the people who loved him, I was starting to wish that I hadn’t hit play on the documentary. As a teenager, The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite book. I related to Holden Caufield’s jaded view of the world, his inability to fit in, and his yearning for something genuine. Holden was flawed, but there was innocence in him, loneliness. Salinger is said to have channeled a lot of his own nature into Holden, so maybe he too struggled to fit in with society, to live a genuine life. But I don’t like to think that Holden—or his creator—grew up to be a talented yet temperamental jerk.
* I cringe at the memory of my idealistic/delusional youth.