by BJW Nashe

A Comeback. J.D. Salinger, who died in January of 2010, is now poised to make a posthumous literary comeback. A probing biography released earlier this year sheds new light on the enigmatic author, whose life has been largely shrouded in mystery. After catapulting to fame in the 1950s, Salinger famously decided to retreat from public life. For nearly five decades, he lived as a New England recluse, closely guarding his privacy, shunning the spotlight of fame, and publishing no new material after 1965. His fans wondered whether he had given up on writing altogether. Now we know that he never gave up; he was writing new material all the time during his long silence. As many as five new books will be published during the next few years. For personal reasons, Salinger stipulated that none of this work be published until after his death.

A Strange Career. Salinger’s life as a great American writer was eccentric in many ways. By far the strangest aspect of his career is the way in which his most successful work, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), was linked to several notorious crimes in the SDHS_JDSalinger-0021980s: the murder of John Lennon, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, and the slaying of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. In each case, news reports informed us that the perpetrator had been somehow inspired by Salinger’s masterpiece. The crimes were so highly publicized, and Salinger’s link to them was so widely reported, that his classic novel became tainted by psychosis and murder. Caught up in a desperate whirl of mass media frenzy, The Catcher in the Rye — a book which is wholly unconcerned with criminal activity — came to be seen as a dangerous, malevolent work. It was even described as an “assassination manual” or “murderer’s handbook.” Salinger had not written a crime story, per se. Rather, he had written a book which inspired people to commit crimes. As ridiculous as this seems, the insinuation has stuck. Google the book now, and the murders inevitably pop up along with all the thousands of hits, tagging along like a cluster of nasty footnotes that won’t go away. In the new biography, an entire chapter — called “Assassins” — is devoted to the murder connection. This is now simply part of the Salinger mystique, stubbornly attached to the legacy of his best novel.

Biography. The reality and the mystique are both explored in the biography Salinger, compiled by David Shields and Shane Salerno. A fascinating read, this volume should keep fans and critics and armchair psychologists busy for quite some time. As the bio takes us through Salinger’s upbringing in New York City, his prep school education, early adulthood, and subsequent rise to fame, the biography provides us with a number of tantalizing details. We learn, for instance, that Salinger only had one testicle, a “deformity” which caused him considerable embarrassment in his extensive love life. Nevertheless, when Salinger heads off to attend the Valley Forge Military Academy, he is by all accounts a tall, handsome, and charismatic young man, cat5eager to participate in the Glee Club, Aviation Club, French Club, and the Non-Commissioned Officers Club. We learn that his development as a writer was a painstaking process, aided in part by a creative writing class at Columbia, with only gradual acceptance from the editors at The New Yorker. We discover that throughout much of his life he was drawn to the company of younger women, often teenage girls not yet on the cusp of adulthood. He befriended them, mentored them, and even romanced them in his own way. There are no accusations of statutory rape — he apparently waited until the girls were 18 before he seduced any of them — but still the tendency is notable. Most important of all is the extent of Salinger’s gut-wrenching, mind-altering experiences as a soldier in World War Two. We are led to conclude that he most likely suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the war. We understand that one way he coped was to withdraw from public life, taking up the study and practice of Vedanta Buddhism, rather than pursuing further wealth and fame and adulation. We learn that the reason he stopped publishing was to forgo the ego gratification involved.

A Controversial Classic. Well before it became tainted by murder, The Catcher is the Rye was viewed as a controversial classic of post-war American fiction, a quintessential portrait of adolescent angst. Since it was first published in 1951, millions cat3have read it and debated its merits. School boards have tried to ban it. Moral proselytizers have attacked it. In hindsight, one struggles to understand what all the fuss was about. How could this compelling novel, filled with so much emotional insight and self-deprecating humor, ever be considered subversive or dangerous? No one denies it is an edgy work, conveyed in razor-sharp language. Yet compared to other books from roughly the same time period — the fever dreams of William Faulkner, the sociopolitical outrage of Richard Wright, or the ruthless amorality depicted by noir writers such as James M. Cain and David Goodis — Salinger’s tale of an alienated outsider is far from incendiary. No doubt Holden Caulfield is a troubled young man, and Salinger skillfully takes us deep inside Holden’s agitated mind as the story unfolds. But Holden never comes close to killing anybody. He never even harms anyone. We might argue that the novel could use a bit of crime, just to liven up the action. Who knows? Perhaps one of the yet-to-be-published Salinger books will be a sequel, in which Holden returns as a truly dangerous psycho. I seriously doubt it, though.

A Troubled Outsider. The story opens as Holden, a 16 year-old student, has just been expelled from prep school. We accompany him as he dons a red hunting cap and leaves his dorm room to spend a “lost weekend” in New York City. He ducks into bars, dances with girls, checks into a seedy hotel, pays for a prostitute with whom he just wants to talk. He gets very drunk. He visits former teachers and hangs out with his younger sister, Phoebe. Through all of this, he delivers a stunning informal commentary — a profanity-laced monologue that is closer to Lenny Bruce than to Charles Dickens. Holden is preoccupied with his personal problems, his sexual hang-ups, his powerlessness, and his inability to deal with life in the “adult world.” A juvenile existentialist, he broods over the meaninglessness of it all, and bitches about the “phonies” he sees all around him. Holden may be frustrated and angry and sarcastic, and he may be having a nervous breakdown, but he is keenly perceptive and quite cat6compassionate. He wonders where the ducks in Central Park go during the winter. He agonizes over the death of his brother Allie from leukemia. He looks out for 10 year-old Phoebe. He daydreams about becoming a savior figure — a “catcher in the rye” — who will be able to rescue children from harm, protecting their innocence from the danger and corruption of the big bad world. The novel closes on what might be seen as a positive note, all things considered. Comforted by the memory of his sister riding a merry-go-round, Holden tells us he has spent some time in a mental institution, and that he now plans to go back to school, where he hopes things will work out better this time. Who knows how he will end up? His psychological problems, his sexual confusion, and his messianic complex are traits shared by many homicidal maniacs. Yet these traits are also shared by many people who never become violent at all. Holden’s compassion, however, probably sets him apart from most dangerous sociopaths. Plus he has a sense of humor. In any case, The Catcher in Rye is a virtuoso performance that succeeds in establishing a heightened sense of intimacy with readers. We feel like we know Holden Caulfield on a deep personal level.  For this reason, the book has struck a deep chord with millions of fans. A small number of these turned out to be seriously deranged.

“I am Going Nuts.” Mark David Chapman was a tormented young man who grew up in an abusive home, dropped out of high school, became a Jesus-freak, and developed mental problems that resulted in hallucinations and suicide attempts. By the cat7end of the 1970s, as he was nearing the end of his tether, Chapman grew obsessed with two things: reading about Holden Caulfield, a character he strongly identified with, and killing John Lennon, whom he fixated on alternately as a hero and a villain. The crazier Chapman became, the more villainous Lennon seemed to be. Chapman evidently considered Lennon to be a “phony” because he was a millionaire rock star who claimed to be opposed to the evils of crass materialism. He was also dismayed by Lennon’s atheism. As Chapman’s mental state deteriorated, the warning signs were on full display. In a letter sent to a friend three months before his final break with reality, he wrote, “I am going nuts,” then signed the letter, “the Catcher in the cat4Rye.” On the night of December 8, 1980, Chapman waited for Lennon outside of The Dakota apartment building in Manhattan. As the ex-Beatle emerged from a limousine and walked toward the building’s entrance, Chapman dropped into a crouch and fired four shots into Lennon’s back. Chapman remained at the scene of the crime, sitting on the sidewalk reading his dog-eared copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Inside the front cover, he had penned the following inscription: “This is my statement. [signed] Holden Caulfield.” As Lennon was rushed to the hospital, where he would soon be pronounced dead,  Chapman allowed police to arrest him without incident. In the days and weeks to come, he repeatedly told authorities that Salinger’s novel had been his primary inspiration for killing Lennon. He explained that he had been living and breathing inside Holden’s story for years, even re-enacting scenes from the book in his real life. As the whole world mourned the tragic loss of a beloved icon and world class talent, Mark David Chapman elicited nothing but revulsion and horror. During the avalanche of media coverage, Holden Caulfield, and his creator J.D. Salinger, were caught up in the undertow of suspicion and confusion.

I Did it for Jodie.” John Hinckley grew up in the Dallas, Texas area. The son of a successful corporate executive who had ties to the Bush family, Hinckley was a bright student who played multiple sports in high school, excelled at piano lessons, and cat9was twice elected class president. As a young man, however, he exhibited signs of psychological turmoil. He developed a fascination with firearms, and became consumed with various obsessions. Soon he was relying on anti-depressants and tranquilizers. Hinckley devoured The Catcher in the Rye, or rather, The Catcher in the Rye devoured Hinckley. Holden seemed to be reading his mind. The main trigger for Hinckley’s unraveling was not a book, however. He went hog wild over Martin Scorcese’s disturbing 1976 film Taxi Driver, about a social misfit named Travis Bickle who drives a cab in New York City. Brilliantly played by Robert DeNiro (“Are you talkin’ ta me?”), Travis the cab driver gradually becomes more and more unhinged, until he finally snaps, shaves his head into a mohawk, and goes on a murderous rampage. Hinckley saw the film at least 15 times, and grew dangerously infatuated with Jodie Foster, who portrayed an underage prostitute in the film. He went on to stalk the cat10actress while she was a student at Yale University, repeatedly phoning her and slipping notes and poems under her front door. The plan to assassinate President Reagan was hatched in order to somehow impress Foster, and thus “catch her in the rye.” On March 30, 1981, Hinckley fired six shots at President Reagan outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., seriously wounding the president as well as three members of his entourage. Hinckley was quickly subdued by police before he could do any more damage. A copy of The Catcher in the Rye was found in his hotel room. He reportedly told authorities that if they wanted to hear his defense, they should just read Salinger’s novel. When Hinckley’s trial resulted in a verdict of “not guilty verdict by reason of insanity,” public outrage led many states to rewrite the laws pertaining to criminal insanity. After his trial, Hinckley wrote that the shooting was “the greatest love offering in the history of the world.” Jodie Foster did not agree. Neither did anyone else. Even people who loathed Reagan’s politics were appalled by Hinckley’s actions.

No Exit. Robert John Bardo endured a troubled, abusive upbringing in Tucson, Arizona. After an adolescent suicide attempt, he was placed in foster care. At the age of 15, he was institutionalized for a month due to emotional problems. Bardo dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, and took a job as a janitor at the local Jack in the Box. As a young adult, he was arrested Bardothree times on charges such as domestic violence and disorderly conduct. He repeatedly alarmed his neighbors with strange and threatening behavior. In 1986, he began stalking a well-known American film and television actress named Rebecca Schaeffer. He wrote letters to her, attempted to gain access to her on the set of a TV show, and eventually tracked down her home address. He decided to bring a copy of The Catcher in the Rye along with him as he set out to pay her a surprise visit. When Bardo showed up at Schaeffer’s apartment, he told her he was a huge fan, obtained her autograph, and left. Fifteen minutes later, he suddenly returned. When Schaeffer asked him to leave, he grew agitated and claimed he had come to “rescue her.” He pulled a gun out of a paper bag, pointed it at her chest, and pulled the trigger. He then raced away, leaving her to die on the floor. Schaeffer was taken to the hospital by the paramedics, only to be pronounced dead on arrival. Bardo was later arrested when he was found walking around aimlessly in traffic. Police soon found Bardo’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye lying on a rooftop where he had tossed it as he fled the crime scene. Bardo insisted that bringing the book with him to the murder was purely coincidental, and that he was not emulating Mark David Chapman in any way. Oddly enough, Bardo claimed it was a song by U2 called “Exit” that had inspired him to kill Rebecca Schaeffer. At his trial, when the song was played in the court room as evidence, Bardo was seen lip-synching the lyrics.

The Paranoia-Critical Method. Reading Holden Caulfield’s narrative in The Catcher in the Rye as a call to murder is a ridiculous misinterpretation, reminiscent of Charles Manson’s bizarre take on the Beatles’ White Album, in particular the song “Helter Skelter.” I am reminded of Salvador Dali’s “paranoia-critical method,” which involved making random associations cat12among various materials — the more shocking the better — as a way of generating outlandish content for surreal texts, paintings, and films. Dali was just seeking ways to shock the art world, though. Chapman, Hinckley, and Bardo, on the other hand, were deadly serious. They were not surrealists playing with dream-logic; they were bona fide paranoid schizophrenics. Their mental illness was so severe that they probably could have gleaned homicidal messages from a phone book or an automotive manual. Like Taxi Driver and U2, Salinger’s book just happened to be there waiting for them, as it has been waiting for millions of other readers who never committed any crimes. One shudders to think what would have happened if Mark David Chapman had grown obsessed with a truly violent book, such as Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. But then, does it even matter? Surely it makes no sense to blame books — fiction or nonfiction — for real world events. To do so is to lapse into a cause-and-effect fallacy. Influences and inspirations and triggers are not causes. They might form part of the backdrop or scenery of a crime, but they cannot be said to cause that crime. Strip away the faulty reasoning underlying paranoid associations, and we have to agree that murderers are at fault because of their own thoughts and actions, not because of anything that allegedly inspired them. Likewise, people are mentally ill because of faulty brain chemistry or traumatic experiences, not because of the books, films, and music they have been exposed to. The paranoia-critical method is fascinating when it comes to aesthetics. In the context of legality or morality, however, it serves no logical purpose, and only adds confusion to events that are already quite complex.

A Little Misreading. Oddly enough, the title Salinger chose for his masterpiece is based on an act of misinterpretation. In the novel, Holden overhears a small boy singing a popular lyric from Robert Burns. He may be hearing the lyric incorrectly, cat13however. He thinks the boy is singing, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” The actual lyric, a piece of folksy Scottish doggerel, reads as follows: “Gin a body meet a body/Comin thro’ the rye/Gin a body kiss a body/Need a body cry?” Either the boy is singing incorrectly, or Holden is hearing it wrong. In any case, Holden goes on to concoct an entire scenario based on this scrap of lyric:

 “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

This is eons away from the original Burns lyric, with its raw energy and earthy sexual overtones. Holden has seized upon a faulty or misinterpreted lyric, and then developed his own conception of its meaning in order to satisfy a deeply personal yearning. Salinger is showing us that the paranoia-critical method is utilized more often than we might like to admit — sometimes in useful, creative ways, but often resulting in no more than delusion.

Corporate Media Follies. The fact that the press would latch on to the literary angle of Chapman, Hinckley, and Bardo’s crimes, thus implicating The Catcher in the Rye in the mayhem, is not all that surprising. Media frenzies thrive on this sort of confusion. Television personalities and talk show hosts enjoy their own version of the paranoia-critical method. Anything related to celebrity scandal and murder gets ratings, which makes a lot of money, which is all the establishment media really cares about. And corporate America, which is inherently conservative, tends to view most literary fiction, and most art in general, with deep suspicion. Whenever a work of art can be blamed for a specific atrocity or a certain social problem, the media is happy to jump on the bandwagon, fan the flames of outrage, and hopefully see a spike in ratings. That’s what happened with The Catcher in the Rye. Meanwhile, all around the country, people who should have known better began wondering if there was something evil about Salinger’s masterpiece.

Bad Intelligence. The simple fact of the matter is that regardless of any “psychic violence” that might lurk within Holden Caulfield’s narrative, a few remarks about “killing phonies,” tossed off here and there merely as a way of blowing off steam, do not constitute a “murderer’s handbook.” The stench of crime that follows The Catcher in the Rye is a gross example of guilt by association, which is a travesty. The novel can be discussed in various ways, in regard to numerous topics (mental illness, urban alienation, sexual confusion, dark humor, empathy and compassion, etc.). The text itself, however, has nothing to do with murder or crime, no matter what the schizophrenics say.

Cruel Irony. In the most compelling sections of the new biography, Salinger emerges as our foremost poet of PTSD, and The Catcher in the Rye starts to look more and more like a creative response to wartime trauma. In this light, Holden is best understood as a vehicle the author uses to grapple with his own PTSD symptoms. The PTSD angle then becomes emblematic of a more universal human frailty. Based on what we now know about Salinger’s war experiences, it is difficult to conceive of The Catcher outside of the context of PTSD. Like all great literature, The Catcher is a multi-faceted work, and there is no need to oversimplify. If the text can be likened to an organism, then Salinger’s PTSD might be working on just one organ, rather than controlling the entire being. It may be at the very heart (not the brain) of the novel, pumping lifeblood into all of its various outbursts and digressions and lamentations. All of which makes the “murderer’s handbook” tag line even more cruel and ironic. Despite its sour expression, Holden Caulfield’s story is not a nihilistic descent into madness and death. It is a desperate struggle to maintain hope and compassion in the face of such catastrophes.

Life During Wartime. Salinger was drafted into the army in the spring of 1942. Serving with the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, Salinger was involved in the D-Day invasion at Utah Beach, and then spent nearly 300 days in active service. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. Primarily working with intelligence cat15personnel, Salinger’s main task was interrogating prisoners. Still, he was in the thick of the deadly winter fighting, surrounded by death and destruction. Then, as the war concluded, Salinger was among the first soldiers to liberate one of the satellite sites of the Dachau concentration camp. The reality of the camp was too much to take for even the most battle-hardened solders: mass graves and barbed wire enclosures, piles of starved corpses, charred and smoldering remains, with a few straggling survivors weighing as little as sixty pounds. Many troops broke down weeping, never to fully recover from the shock and horror. For Salinger, who happened to be half-Jewish, seeing firsthand evidence of the holocaust was overwhelming. People say that he walked into that concentration camp in 1945, and never really managed to walk out. Years later, Salinger would tell friends that he could not rid his senses of the smell of burning flesh. How could such an experience not leave psychological scars? How could it not have a profound affect on one’s writing? The philosopher Theodor Adorno once remarked, “After the camps, there can be no more poetry.” New kinds of writing would be necessary now, in the traumatized postwar setting, and Salinger, shaken as he was by PTSD, proved that he was ready and able to rise to the occasion. And he would do so without even mentioning the war.

Poo-Tee-Weet. Salinger carried a draft of the first six chapters of The Catcher in his rucksack throughout his WWII service. Maybe the manuscript’s presence helped him persevere. The work certainly helped him forge ahead once he was back home. Perhaps writing was the best form of therapy. He never wrote directly about his firsthand experience of the war or the holocaust. Not everyone came back from the conflict ready to write an epic war novel such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Many struggled to communicate at all about what they had witnessed. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a WWII veteran who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a POW, was open and honest about his own reticence. In the remarkable opening of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut explains that he has been trying unsuccessfully for years to write his big Dresden novel, and that he is now forced to admit that he finds it impossible to do so. There will be no big Dresden novel. The best he can do is serve up a “jumbled and jangled” absurdist fable featuring Billy Pilgrim, a fatalistic optometrist who serves in the war, and is cat14present at the Dresden inferno, just like Vonnegut was. Rather than attempt to realistically capture the firebombing, Vonnegut merely evokes it in a few brief scenes, then uses it as a springboard for Billy’s odd cosmic adventures. After Dresden, Billy becomes “unstuck in time,” skipping randomly through scenes in his life, even traveling to a distant planet called Tralfamador, where he is held captive by aliens, and forced to mate with a movie star. Whenever something terrible happens around Billy, such as the execution of a man in Dresden for petty theft, Vonnegut sums up the action with either the singing of birds – “Poo-tee-weet” – or the simple phrase, “So it goes.” Slaughterhouse Five is no less of a tragicomic masterpiece than The Catcher in the Rye, and Vonnegut’s book was similarly attacked and criticized for being “controversial.” Both novels spring from the same source of pain — namely, the madness and tragedy of war. Unlike Vonnegut, Salinger wrote no introduction explaining his novel in terms of his war experience. Holden Caulfield is not a WWII veteran; yet his psyche seems haunted by the PTSD associated with the war. We do not need a paranoia-critical method to understand how Holden Caulfield and Billy Pilgrim serve similar purposes for each author. Through these fictional characters, Salinger and Vonnegut were able to articulate a deep source of pain that they could not otherwise find the words for. By exploring these characters fearlessly, dispensing with any obligations to “literary propriety,” each author was able to transcend the original source of pain, and create lasting art. Far from being immoral or depraved or insane, these books served to advance the cause of humanism. In the aftermath of a terrible crisis, they offered the consolation of simple truths in a spirit of wisdom, humor, compassion, and peace. That is ultimately how these books will be remembered.

cat2So it Goes. J.D. Salinger never made any public statement about his three worst fans — Chapman, Hinckley, and Bardo. People who knew the author say he was devastated by the way his novel’s reputation was being tarnished by such horrifying crimes. Salinger was a pacifist who disliked violence and controversy. He didn’t want to be a celebrity, yet he hadn’t withdrawn from the world completely. Like anyone else, he went out shopping, or to dinner and a movie. He liked to read the daily newspapers and watch the evening news in order to keep up with current events. One can only imagine what he was thinking and feeling as his best work became engulfed in a media frenzy and smeared on the basis of insane misunderstandings. No doubt this caused him a great deal of pain. Poo-tee-weet.


6 Responses to Chapman, Hinckley, Bardo, and the Murderer’s Handbook — The Catcher in the Rye

  1. Pam Harper-Smith says:

    I still have my copies of the books by Salinger & Vonnegut! Looking forward to his biography. Interesting, on my comment re the cops on your other post, I started to type, “and so it goes”!
    Thank you.

  2. Pam Harper-Smith says:

    Oh, never mind, you originally wrote “and so it goes”. I did return to gasoline lady, you quoted a line from Deadeye Dick. another great quote, and book. I may just have to revisit his books, will be interesting to read them again in 2014.

  3. Garrett says:

    The catcher in the rye did inspire some murders but that was not the intention.

  4. […] the Rye”, by J. D. Salinger. I wanted to read this book because I read that a lot of high profile murderers were found in possession of the book, and in some cases, they were carrying it on their person at […]

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