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Private Parts, Public Women By Chris Kraus The Nation Magazine, November 16, 1998 At Home in the World

by Joyce Maynard A year or so ago while studying the history of atrocity in Guatemala for a book called I Love Dick, I read a monograph by Henry Frundt about the eighties Coca Cola strike in Guatemala City. How does evil happen? The book used this single incident to describe not just how things were but how they came to be, recording every phone call, memo, meeting, private conversation. Frund's book was a classic "case study." I wondered if the "case study" could be used to understand not only politics but people's lives. I was writing letters to a fairly well known art and cultural critic, "Dick." When "Dick" started flirting, coming on to me in the presence of my husband, I was confused, excited and took it as the opening of a conversation, one I needed desperately. Why had my work and the work of other female artists I admired received so little recognition? "Dick" had written a great deal about contemporary art and culture but not once about a female artist, writer, thinker. So I thought if I could write into his blind spots , I could write into the blind spots of the culture. If women have failed to make "universal" art because we're trapped within the personal, why not universalize the "personal" and make it the subject of our art? I'd turn myself into a case study, play Artaud to "Dick'"s Jacques Riviere. While I wrote a great deal about my own experience,and the experience of other female artists, there was very little in the book about my addressee. He was an imaginary listener, not a speaker. Nevertheless, six months

before the book came out, I got a Cease and Disist letter from his lawyer. To publish it would violate "Dick'"s right to privacy. Now, this was highly ironic, because the main contention of the book had been that whenever women write, make art that describes the circumstances of their lives, they will (1) be accused of violating men's "privacy"; (2) be charged with narcissism; and (3) see their intentions trivialized. "I have just realized the stakes are myself" is the way the poet Diane di Prima put it in 1973. Another example: After making sculpture, drawings and ceramics for eleven years, the artist Hannah Wilke began, in 1974, inserting photos of herself into her work. She used her gorgeous female presence as a provocation, inviting viewers to project what they project onto sexualized women onto her, life. It was a dadaist intervention. Critics bit. "Every time I see her work I think of pussy," James Collins wrote in Artforum; Wilke was a "narcissist" (New York Times); she had "no theory" (Screen). Even Wilke's final work, a set of photos of her naked, cancer-ridden body, was described as "a deeply thrilling venture into narcissism" (Ralph Rugoff, Los Angeles Times). In 1985 Claes Oldenburg threatened an injunction against the University of Missouri Press forbidding them to publish images and text from two of Wilke's major pieces in a survey of her work. The two had lived together and collaborated for seven years. Not just a snapshot or the notes between them but in fact the mere mention of his name, Oldenburg's lawyers said, would violate his "privacy." Wilke got the point. "Eraser...Erase her!" she wrote in a later work. As Wilke's sister, Marsie Scharlatt, says,

"While men invoke the right to privacy, women are erased from history. Could "privacy" be to contemporary female art what "obscenity" was to male writing of the sixties? How can anyone describe a life without mention of the others who pass through it? The right of "privacy" is opposed to the right of someone to possess her own experience, make it something universal through her work. So I was very interested in the press around Joyce Maynard's new book, At Home in the World, a memoir chronicling a life that was greatly shaped by the year she spent with J.D. Salinger. The privacy issue was invoked--how could she?--and the characters are epic: Maynard, whose greatest crime is, according to the relatively sympathetic Irene Lachner (LA Times ), her "small talent," against the formidable Salinger, best known these days for his pursuit of privacy in Cornish, New Hampshire. Queasy and uncomfortable, deceptively simple and well written, At Home in the World reads like a case study of straight-girl ambition in the seventies. If we can admit that straight women failed, at least until the last two decades, to make much impact on the culture, shouldn't we try to find the reasons? When Joyce Maynard was 18, in 1972, there were very few models of powerful and loved achieving women. The daughter of two bitter, underrecognized intellectuals, precocious Joyce was trained to be a talking dog, parlaying all her experience into bright and pleasing copy. And yet she was curiously unprotected as a person or a girl. When 53-year-old Salinger comes on to her, following the publication of her grandiose "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life" in the New York Times Magazine, she's pushed by all the adults around her to enter into this liason.

And, understandably enough, she's hooked. Salinger says seductively that her writing "arouses affection." As she recalls, Salinger uses words to talk about her writing in the way "another person might about more physical, sexual experiences." And that is perfect for her. Salinger's particular attraction sexualizes 18-year-old Joyce Maynard's mind, the only thing she'd ever been recognized or praised for. "Nobody," she writes, "suggests this is a bad idea or questions what might be going on in the mind of a fifty-three year old man who invites an eighteen year old to spend the weekend. (But then, my parents never seem to recognize the oddness or danger in my hitchhiking , either.)" Like a great many serious young women of her generation, Maynard had to raise herself. No one helped her reconcile ambition ("male") with the alien state of "femininity." At Home in the World reads like a companion piece to Mary Pipher's penetrating Reviving Ophelia, a study of the painful and crosswired contradicitons that still plague ambitious girls. Although she avoids ever suggesting it, it could be argued that Salinger ruined Maynard's life. At any rate, her encounter with him greatly shaped it. When Salinger projects himself into her life, Maynard was living outside her troubled, claustrophobic family for the first time , and despite her annoying precocity, she was starting to make friends at Yale. Her writing receives a phenomenal success, which, however fluky, she enjoys. Salinger draws her wholly into his world. She drops out of school (and never finishes) to move in with him, loses all sense of continuity with her friends. His attraction is a stream of fantasy projections that stops without any explanation when her presence becomes demanding and too real. Discarded and adrift at 19, she finds her self utterly derailed. Confidence is the most precious asset, and the first one lost by teenage girls. In the

ensuing years she rethinks everything. It's no surprise that after her experience in Cornish, she leaps at the first promise of a "normal" life and marriage. Wich eventually entailed supporting a family of five with her "small talent." "Now (why only now?)," Hermione Lee sniffs, questioning the timing of this memoir in the New York Times. I take Joyce Maynard at her word when she states clearly in the introduction that she was moved, around her daughter's 18th birthday , to write about her own experiences as a girl. Every review of this book I've read in the avalanche of press that's surrounded it is a review of Maynard's person. A few, like Katha Pollitt's in The New York Times Book Review, approach compassion; the majority are written with astonishing contempt and even hatred. Invariably, Maynard is compared to Monica Lewinsky. But isn't there a difference between answering questions under a grand jury investigation and sitting down to write a book? "A tawdry boudouir confession...smarmy, whiny, smirky and above all else, almost indescribably stupid," Jonathan Yardly writes in the Washington Post. "Oh, that busy Maynard mouth," Gerry Hirshey sneers in Mirabella, referring to Maynard's only literal account of the painful and uneasy sex between this 53-year-old man and 18-year-old woman. "Maynard lurches out of her icky , masturbatory eroticon shrieking only Me, me, me."

Reviewers approach Maynard's work as if the purpose of autobiography were only self analysis (which invariably she's faulted for) rather than the placing of an individual's experience in a context of time. None of the dozen articles I have read fail to mention Maynard's encounter several years ago with her sister Rona, who declines to stay in the same house with Maynard's family because, "" This is evidence, reviewers find, that Maynard is lacking as a person, is "a major piece of work." Obsession with her "character" and ethics" preclude discussion of the content or quality of her book. Not all autobiography is held to the same standard. Take, for example, the junkie memoir. Can anyone be more self-absorbd than an addict? And yet reviews of Jerry Stahl's terrific Permanent Midnight and Richard Hell's Go Now were all discussions of these men's books and not their characters. As the late Kathy Acker wrote about Cain's Book, "Alexander Trocchi...taught me that writers do not make up stories but attempt to find the truth." Hermione Lee laments the "betrayal of privacy," and yet the book that Maynard wrote was about her own life, not J.D. Salinger's. Because she's naming names in the writing of this first-person memoir, she is scrupulously respectful of their autonomy as human beings. The only motivations that she probes or seeks to understand are her own. Paul Auster and Rob Bingham, both writing in the more legitimate genre of contemporary fiction, "fictionalize" past girlfriends by giving them different names. The physical descriptions of these women, their professions, verbal nuances, make them immediately recognizable to anyone who knows them. But once "transformed" into "characters" by a

narrator who seeks to "understand" them, the most intimate details of their lives enter the public domain. First-person writing must always be accountable. Fiction can be an act of psychic rage. "Women," Maynard says, "have hated me." Maynard's account of her months with Salinger, writes Elizabeth Gleick of Time, "is full of all those key details sympathetic girlfriends require...Maynard turns out not to have an introspective bone in her body." Even Katha Pollitt, well aware of the negative press that women give to other women, faults Maynard for failing to understand her own story. "If she seems like a 44 year old woman who is still 18," she writes, "maybe that goes to show how deep the damage went."

After finishing the book and discovering that she was by no means the only girl who passed through Salinger's life, Maynard makes a final trip to Cornish. She wants to talk to him, and asks what Gleick calls "a typically Maynardian question": what was my purpose in your life?" No one picks up on a quote I find more telling and disturbing, this time Salinger to Maynard about a woman he doesn't like: She has "a mouth like a cunt." "I can't stop thinking about it," Maynard writes. "Is my mouth like that...? What does that mean? What kind of mouth is that?" People do affect each other. I can't think of anything more legitimate to ask.