Sunday, January 11, 2015

Salinger, Caulfield, and Depression in Teenagers

Long before JD Salinger stormed the beaches of Normandy during WWII, engaged in the interrogation of prisoners, and subsequently checked himself into a mental health clinic in Nuremberg, one thing is clear, he had been kicked out of boarding school many years prior to the PTSD he is believed to have been afflicted with during his wartime experiences.  I would say it is certain that he had PTSD after the war. Most of us would too if we had been in the landing crafts at Normandy.   But most of us, perhaps, were not kicked out of boarding school.   It’s clear that Holden Caulfield was kicked out of school, several times.  I get it, if JD Salinger had PTSD, then Holden Caulfield must have PTSD...he’s attributing his symptoms to Holden, after the fact.  All true, except Salinger truly was kicked out of boarding school long before the war.  I believe Salinger was not attributing his post WWII symptoms to Holden, he was, in fact, attributing his prewar symptoms, the symptoms of depression and possibly bipolar disorder, which would, quicken the effects of anxiety and PTSD upon him when exposed to the trauma of war.

I just picked up the NY Times best selling biography on Salinger.  It’s a long book and it will take me awhile to get through it...if I decide I want to finish it...I probably will not.  As with everything Salinger, it’s an unauthorized biography.  It’s  based on the public record of interviews with the man, and interviews with friends of the man.  How reliable can it be?  The book is close to 600 pages long and there isn’t  a single mention of the word “depression” in the whole of JD Salinger’s life.  In fact, depression is a hard word to find in any detailed decomposition of either Salinger or writings about his works. 

After I read “The Catcher in the Rye” for the very first time, in the summer of 2013, I wrote the a book review and posted in on Amazon. I just finished reading the book cover to cover for a second time and I stand by my original assessment.  Holden Caulfield isn't crazy...he’s depressed.  Do you know how I know?  He says he’s depressed, sad, blue, or feels alone no less than 70 times in the scant 200 pages that comprise the novel.  Are we, as a society, over the last 60 years in complete denial about the existence of clinical depression?  This is a bitter pill that is difficult for me to swallow.  So I keep searching.    

Last year I uncovered a book within the Social Issues in Literature series.  This book called, “Depression in JD Salinger's, The Catcher in the Rye” was a beacon of hope for me that, whereas society didn't notice Holden’s condition, the mental health professionals in our society have.  Wrong again.  Of the many essays contained within this compilation of professional writings, the contributors seemed more preoccupied with things such as;  he (Holden) is searching for love, he is searching for a father, he is depressed by his own failings, he suffers from unresolved sexual conflict, he is unable to cope with an adult world, he is dealing with angst of adolescence, and his problems are because he is a communist.  No wonder JD Salinger dropped out of society.  Society was not ready to handle what he brilliantly captured within the psyche of his beloved character. Holden is a kid who, quite like Salinger himself, must be clinically depressed.  65 million readers  have missed this over the past 60 years. Now, in 2015, this is an unforgivable oversight.  We are talking about teenage depression and the subsequent risk of teenage suicide.

OK, back the the 600 page tome on Salinger's life.  There’s a chapter in his biography where Salinger visits a publisher and then went storming out of the office because, in his words, “They think Holden is crazy”.  Well, mental illness means many things to many people, but I can tell you for sure, depression, is not viewed by the depressed as crazy. They know they are viewed as crazy at times, but they don’t think they are.   For them depression is real, it is all encompassing, it is terrifying, but it is not crazy.  To call them crazy is to deepen their depression.  Holden Caulfield was not crazy.  He was depressed.  His depression scared him and contributed to his high level of anxiety and his further descent into despair.  And the entire situation leads to his suicidal ideations during the story, including his desire to disappear, and more importantly, to catch children as they unwittingly flirt with death alongside a cliff as they play in the rye grass.  Just in case there is continued doubt in what I am saying, the words reflecting anxiety appear no less than 40 times in Catcher. Further, terms like die and disappear, terms that should not be mistaken for suicidal references these days, appear over 20 times.

Society has missed the forest for the trees. And, as I mentioned in my book review, we have missed an opportunity to fully understand adolescent depression in order to have more meaningful conversations with our kids.  Not only is it our job to catch the symptoms of depression and the potential for suicide, so clearly delivered by Salinger, we must also acknowledge that there is even a darker side to individuals suffering from these mental illnesses.

The three most high profile acts of violence with a direct link to “The Catcher in the Rye” were, Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon.  John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan, and Robert Bardo, who shot and killed the actress, Samantha Smith.  It’s documented that they all struggled with depression.  Hmmm... that’s no surprise.  But do we honestly believe they fell under the charismatic spell of Holden Caulfied’s rebellious side?  Or is in more believable that they saw in Holden, their own tortured mind’s as they themselves struggled with same demons of depression?

The stigma of mental illness and depression continue to make this conversation difficult.  WIth regard to teenagers, without a doubt, students who suffer more with these illnesses are more likely to slip through the cracks.  Some may just disappear from the campus, some may tragically disappear from life. Some could reappear more violently.

Near the end of “The Catcher in the Rye” Salinger gives us a quote by Wilhelm Stekel a Freudian Psychoanalyst. The quote, which is given to Holden by one of his teachers, Mr. Antolini says “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one…” Most of society believes that the first part of that quote is the one that applies to Holden. In reality, in the context of where Holden and Salinger both cross paths in their psychology, Salinger is the one who want’s to live humbly for a cause, through Holden. Salinger is compelling all of us to become catchers in the rye and to save kids, like him, from the scourge of depression as he personally experienced it. In 1951, society wasn't ready for his message. I hope, in 2015, we finally can open our eyes to what he is saying.