“Never tell anybody anything, if you do, you start missing everybody.” To this day, I recall the classic Holden Caulfield quote that sent my adolescent hormones into a frenzy years ago. Having been an avid reader since the age of five, I spent countless summers and school vacations immersed in the fantasy world familiar to and beloved by bookworms of all ages. But once high school hit, my once thriving passion for reading hit a brick wall. As a freshman, I was handed a survival manual of stipulations for high school success by a sympathetic friend, concerned that my Aeropostale hoodie and worn Converse wouldn’t make the cut. Field hockey, track, cross-country, theater rehearsals, mock trial competitions, basement parties and water bottles full of watered down sherry swindled from unlocked liquor cabinets…high school life hit me, hard. Luckily, it was “cool” to be smart and active in school sports and clubs, and all of my friends, those in the “in-crowd,” took honors level courses, played varsity sports, and drained their brain cells during Friday night post-football game keg parties. I struggled to keep up, and my former passion for reading and gaining knowledge through self-education began to fade. Having ADHD (unmedicated) didn’t help either, and I had issues with time management throughout my high school career. My focus shifted-my thirst for knowledge was replaced by a thirst for acknowledgement. As Holden would say, I let the “phonies” get the best of me.
Eventually, I only read books that were assigned to me in my honors English courses-luckily, I had fantastic teachers who chose excellent books in their curriculums to build a solid foundation for their students pursuing a college education. During my last two years of high school, my behavior took a turn for the worse. I was so absorbed in the social scene, that my grades started slipping, and the bar of success I had envisioned for myself since I was a child began to slip lower and lower. By my senior year, I was a mess. I partied every weekend, cut classes, hung out with kids whose expectations were even lower than my own. My former friends, the smart “jocks,” even began avoiding me. I could see the disappointment in my teachers’ eyes, sense the concern in their voices, the doubt when I walked into class late with my new excuse of-the-day. And whenever I was alone with my thoughts, reflecting on this transformation, remembering the wide-eyed bookworm I had once been, the goals I had set for myself in middle school…I just felt, terrible. Deep down, I knew that my new “friends” weren’t friends at all, just people in the moment who could give me some sort of instant validation that the choices I was making weren’t that bad, and that my parents and old friends needed to “get over themselves.”
Looking back, I believe that I believed I was on an existential journey, trying to construct meaning out of a “meaningless world.” I desperately wanted to escape, to see the world, experience another way of life…there had to be more to life than the little microcosm of suburbia I had known all my life. I even thought about skipping college, saving up my Market Basket paychecks, and buying a one-way ticket to Thailand after graduation to become an “English teacher.” I realize now, that I was trying to grow up too fast-I was a headstrong eighteen year old who wanted to escape the familiar and venture off happily into a magical foreign forest of intrigue. Though I had changed a lot, I still retained the core essence of morality from my upbringing. I do not believe in stealing, cheating, hurting others and living creatures, or gain pleasure from observing the pain and misery of others. I’ve always been a righteous person and a strong believer in karma. I would observe my “friends” doing things or saying things that I had fundamental issues with, but I kept my mouth shut, and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and though I have written countless cynical poems and essays on humanity, and deemed humanity “a rip off,” I’m ever guilty of believing in the innate goodness of mankind. I put on a front around these people, lied to myself, telling myself that deep down, they shared similar sentiments in their hearts. But I was being a phony, alienating myself from myself, and this only dragged me down more, until I reached a state of hopelessness and depression, and began to think about, and even hope for, the unthinkable.
During the spring semester of my senior year, I enrolled in a literature elective course, figuring it’d be an easy blow-off class to take before graduation. Oh, how wrong I was. My professor held us, as a class of juniors and seniors, to a high standard. The course was fast paced and intense. Yet as the course progressed, my old passion for literature rekindled. I began to make excuses to avoid my “friends,” essays and reading assignments usurped my weekends, once again. Our final book was assigned to us in late May, and with graduation looming on the horizon, half of the class grumbled-why throw this at us during our final weeks ever of high school? However my teacher had intended to save this book for the end of the semester, in his words, saving the “best for last.” And with good reason, knowing full well the effect this novel would have on the graduating seniors. He chuckled while he handed the books out to a class rife with groans and eye rolls. I remember reading the title for the first time, utterly confused and irritated, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
I apologize that it’s taken me so long to get to this part of my essay, but I think the context in which I was first exposed to this novel played a major role in the lasting effect it has had on my life. When I first saw the illustration on the cover in class that day, I also rolled my eyes. “What’s the deal with the horse” a sarcastic voice cracked from the back of class. Our professor just smiled and told us to put the books away for now, open them “at home.” Later that night, after having an argument with my parents, who threatened to kick me out for about the thirtieth time, I was brooding on my bed when the cover of the novel caught my eye, peeking out from a haphazardly unzipped backpack. I bitterly wrenched it out, threw myself on my bed, and started reading it. And I didn’t stop reading until it was finished. I cried several times, during and after the reading. And the following day (a Saturday) I cried and reflected, and cried some more.
Never before, had I felt so connected to a literary character. Holden was talking directly to me. He understood me, he was in my head, in my soul. He told me to be good because good is right, to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even when nobody’s looking, which is pretty much always. His disenchantment with his world, mirrored the disenchantment of my own world. I could relate to him on this surface level. But I understood him on another level. Sure, I connected to Holden through similarities between our environment-stuffy suburban blinders, desire to escape from the norm, desire to be the opposite of what our parents want us to be. We had our differences-I’m a female, growing up in the 21st century, my family is not as wealthy, I’d never been kicked out of a school, and so on. But I wasn’t profoundly affected by our shared parental issues or desire to run away from our sheltered lives…I was affected by Holden’s mind. His inner-psyche astounded me. I felt his stream of consciousness emptying into my soul, the words on the page jumping out at me, imprinting themselves within my mind.
It’s easy to dismiss Holden as a whiny privileged kid who just wanted to rebel and get his kicks for a hot minute, then crawl back home with his tail between his legs-and I’ve patiently listened to many of these interpretations. Beneath the surface, Holden is a righteous, good natured individual at heart. He is naive, and is a true believer in the goodness of humanity, whether he like it or not. He struggles to wrap his brain around the motives of people in society-it’s all so simple to him, why does nobody else seem to see what he sees? Holden is a believer, and though he struggles with this, puts on a cynical front, he will always be a believer, with the blind faith of a child. When I first read the novel, I empathized with his struggle immediately. His struggle against his own self, his feelings of depression and self-hatred, his anger and bitterness, his intense love and desire to preserve all that’s right and good in the world, to protect the innocence of childhood-knew too well how trauma and unnecessary early exposure to “adulthood” has the power to effectively ruin a childhood. All adolescents crave a degree of autonomy and control over their own lives-I know I did. They lash out against the voices of reason, rebel, make mistakes and fall down, and some eventually come back around, like Holden. And Holden’s projection of this cycle of adolescence in the story is the key factor that today, I credit for saving the end of my childhood.
“And I’d just be, the catcher in the rye and all.” To this day, and as I’m writing this sentence, my eyes are tearing up from that quote. That line is the line which solidified my understanding of the novel and of Holden. Yes, like Holden, I had issues with my parents. Yes, like Holden, I wanted to escape from the mundane, superficial life I’d been given. Yes, I went through a rebellious stage. Yes, like Holden, I’d also gone through bouts of depression and hopelessness. And like Holden, I was a big kid who was still a child at heart-awkwardly gagging on sour shots of whiskey and engaging in mundane meaningless conversations with my peers because that’s what it is to be adult. Reading this line however, epiphany struck instantly, like something out of a corny B-level movie. Throughout high school, my id, ego, and superego had been at war for my soul. I had alienated myself from myself to please those around me, and I subconsciously hated myself for being such a phony. I had created depression for myself by forgetting myself, for trying to conform to a socially constructed idea of the “adult” that I never needed to be.
Holden writes adults off as being materialistic, empty-headed “phonies,” and yet continually seeks validation from them as well as his peers. Because don’t we all need validation from others at some point in our lives, especially during our youth? Like Holden, I too was struggling to come to terms with the end of my childhood, and put on a front to mask my fear of the unknown, sought validation from those around me, even if those people weren’t people I respected or admired. Just as Holden wanted to humanize that prostitute, to believe that she was a good hearted person deep down, I’d been doing the same, humanizing and making excuses for my so-called “friends.” And I stopped the excuses, returned to my old friends, and rejoined myself. I too, crawled back home with my tail between my legs, armed with the painful knowledge of the reality of the other side-the other side is not the right side for me.
Reading “Catcher in the Rye” was cathartic for me in many ways. But this novel empathized with my plight, and I empathized with its plight, and we empathized together. The novel renewed my long-forgotten sense of self, and reinvigorated the driving passion I’d nurtured throughout my childhood-a passion for learning. I could literally feel his struggle. I wanted to reach out and pat his hunting hat reassuringly, and let him know that he was understood-it’s okay to grow up now Holden, because I see you, and thank you, because now, I finally see me. Through this literary experience, I strongly believe in the power of the written word, the manner in which it can strengthen and empower its readers through its messages.
Before I could graduate, grow up, enter the world of adulthood, I had to reconcile my adolescent self with my preadolescent self. I realized that I’d been unhappy for so long due to an alienated sense of self, and I knew if I didn’t reconcile the two now, the other would slip away forever, and I’d become an adult version of everything my righteous childhood soul never wanted to be. Instead of falling off that cliff, I had to around, create a permanent mental image of my field, grab a strand of rye to keep, then turn around, adjust the slack of my rope, and slowly begin my descent.
Reflecting upon my former adolescent-self now, as an adult, I wonder how I will avoid becoming a phony-if my declaration against “adult phonies” will stand the test of time. If I’ll have to read The Catcher in the Rye every year to keep reminding myself of myself. I feel like this ‘phony’ challenge presents itself to us all throughout the course of our adult lifetimes. As we age and our own adolescence slips further and further away from us, becoming a distant memory, a relic of the past, people often lose sight of the people they “were,” the lessons that made them the person they “are,” the mistakes we made give way to legend, they become memories of our own “unreliable” memories, so that eventually, we’re unable to recall those memories in true form-for our memories become clouded, our memory storage drives crowded with the new and the old, the once all-important details and events deemed irrelevant storage-space in the face of “new” software upgrades, because that old date holds no real significance anyway, right? Before you know it, you’re over that cliff, and it’s been so long since you visited the other side that you barely remember the hue of the rye, recall its soft pricks rollick with the wind, and start believing that it was all fiction to begin with. Because you knew nothing of the world back then, so much less than what you know now, and you’re all the better for it-or are you simply “better for it” because you don’t know where else to begin?
I will work to remain mindful of my own self-throughout my career and my life. The irony of the literary text is that the literary text is a commentary on the human condition and thus, a commentary on life itself–so life is a book. They say everyone has a “story” to tell-but how often do we fail to read our own stories? If life is indeed “a book” and we enjoy reading the “books” of others, then why do we neglect our own book? I think Holden would agree with me, that the “phonies” of the world are those who fail to read their own books, who fail to meditate, to self-reflect, to read up on the history of their own selves. I can’t think of a better path toward self-love, self-acceptance, self-assurance, than treating one’s own life as a literary text; a text to be examined, analyzed, studied and reflected upon with due care and diligence, so that history does not repeat itself. A text to be nurtured, a text to learn from, and best of all, a text which still has pages to spare. A text which writes itself everyday-a text that one day end, but won’t ever truly end, as it will continue to write, to influence, to inspire, to pass on a legacy that transcends time. I-we-will not, cannot, shall not, let my text write me. I write the text until the text is done.
When I re-read my narrative, I realized that I ended with a cliff-hanger. The beauty about a cliff-hanger is that a cliff-hanger is a bookmark. I left myself in the midst of a descent into ‘adulthood,’ excellent, because my ‘adulthood’ unfolds with each passing day. And a few days ago, I was feeling pretty down on being an ‘adult’ doomed to ‘adult’ for the rest of my life. A part of me longed for the simpler times, my childhood, my youth, even my adolescence. And I worry about “losing” my youth-yes already, at 23, which is of course laughable-yet each day, I can’t help but feel a part of my former “youthful” self dying, slipping into the shadows of my memory. Former ideals and wide-eyed perspectives are slowly giving way, their fantasies reveal themselves as life insists on flipping the pages. So I re-read this narrative-and in doing so, re-read a part of my life I conveniently block out on a daily basis. I myself was guilty of ignoring my own book. I think it’s healthy-and necessary-to relive one’s past, to bring those “past” stories back to light. In doing so we force ourselves to remember our past mistakes and triumphs but furthermore, we validate the person we are today, we remind ourselves of the stories that have been written and that must be considered in our present writing. Validation from others is necessary to lead a successful life, but validation from one’s own soul is life.