The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, was required reading for my tenth grade English class. I remembered it as a story about the struggles of adolescence, the yearning for independence, and the reluctance to let go of youth. My son is now about the same age as I was when I read the book and we are living through his own nudge for independence, which sparked my interest to give the story another read. Before I began, I wondered what my take on the book would be at this point in life having survived adolescence and received training and experience in child development in addition to having a teen in the house. This reading accentuated the unresolved grief, family dysfunction, mental illness, and lack of social connectedness of the main character, Holden Caulfield, and how these difficulties exacerbate the issues experienced during the typical maturational process. As the country still debates gun control laws in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, and as we try to recover from the Boston Marathon bombing, The Catcher in the Rye reminds us about the importance of developing meaningful and genuine connections with our children and the need to address their mental health issues.
The Catcher in the Rye begins as a flashback story about Holden Caulfield’s experiences leading up to his nervous breakdown prior to Christmas. Holden narrates the story while receiving inpatient psychological treatment on the west coast. The events begin at Pencey Prep in Pennsylvania, where Holden has been expelled due to poor academic performance, and conclude in New York City as Holden attempts to return home. During the course of his journey, Holden attempts to make connections with a number of people however, he fails miserably due to his social ineptitude, lack of appropriate treatment for what may possibly be bipolar disorder, and inability to believe that other people are capable of being genuine. Holden eventually makes it home and connects with his younger sister. By that time he has decompensated to the point that, even though he is no longer experiencing suicidal ideations, he feels disconnected, misunderstood, and alone. Holden decides that he is going to go away, to escape from society and the rejection, the loneliness, and the pain that he feels. However, Holden makes one last trip to see his sister Phoebe before he disappears. Phoebe’s caring, anger, and innocence provide Holden with the connection he is looking for; she is both a peer and dependent to him. Through Phoebe, Holden is able to cling to his childhood and put off making the leap to young adulthood and independence.
One theme that I was more attuned to during this reading was the unspoken dysfunction of the Caulfield family. Holden frequently compares himself to his younger, deceased brother, whom he describes as brilliant and athletic, as well as his older brother, who has become a successful author. It is suggested that Holden is a challenging child, and somewhat of a disappointment to his parents as he has been unable to live up to their expectations. He has been expelled from at least four preparatory schools due to poor academic performance, he has difficulty socially connecting with others, and he has frequent mood swings. It is possible that Holden’s parents were drained from watching their youngest son battle with leukemia which left them with little strength to effectively deal with Holden’s grief and potential disability. In Holden’s eyes, they appear to have emotionally and physically divested themselves from him. He has little to no emotional family support and what appears to be very little communication with them. Holden is left adrift to navigate this tumultuous time in his life without support, understanding, and treatment. His efforts to reach out and communicate, including failing out of schools and getting into fights, are not understood as cries for help but are seen as personal shortcomings.
Holden perceives most people as being phony, superficial, and hypercritical. This may in part be due to his social awkwardness, lack of maturity, and feeling of being abandoned by his parents. He is continuously let down by everyone that he reaches out to for help as they either don’t live up to what Holden has built up in his mind, or they try to take advantage of him. Therefore, Holden comes to believe that everyone is phony who doesn’t or is incapable of meeting his preconceived expectations. In addition, Holden clearly experiences moments of mania during the story, which are often followed by feelings of sadness to the point where he does express some suicidal thoughts. It seems that the lack of communication with his parents, the unresolved grief and guilt over the death of his brother, and the inability to effectively and appropriately connect with others result in Holden being unable to interact with others on anything but a superficial level. The exception to this is Phoebe. Her reluctance to let her brother leave provides Holden with the strength to go home and ask for help. However, in the end, Holden continues to suffer from a lack of love and feelings of loneliness. He states, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” At this point, Holden continues to find it difficult to have genuine, meaningful relationships believing that when you open up to people that they will turn away from you in order to keep the relationship on a superficial level. Holden continues to be plagued by this emotional void and, while there is a hunger for social connectedness, he will continue to experience emptiness and rejection due to his quirkiness.
For me, reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school highlighted the struggle for independence and Holden’s war on hypocrisy. On this reading, I was able to obtain a better understanding of the tragedy that occurs as a result of Holden’s parents being unable to provide him the emotional support that he needs to overcome his brother’s death and deal with his mental health needs. Holden’s repeated failure to socially connect and develop a meaningful relationship with anyone other than his sister and the lack of treatment for his mental health issues made me think of the recent tragedies in Colorado, Sandy Hook, and Boston. It reinforced the need to take mental health needs and services seriously; just because these conditions are unseen doesn’t mean that they aren’t debilitating. Feeling cared for and connected to others reduces the stress, stigma, and isolation that are associated with these conditions. It made me wonder whether these tragedies could have been avoided if the people involved had received appropriate therapy and treatment. They may have felt connected and accepted, and these tragedies may have been avoided. The message of being accepted and cared for from The Catcher in the Rye continues to be relevant to young people today as we all strive for acceptance.