Mothers and female writers are criticized more than enough
For those not caught up on the last forty-five years of author Joyce Maynard’s story – she’s been judged harshly for almost all of her life, first as a teenage spokesperson for her generation, then as a writer, and recently as an adoptive mother. Back in 1972, at age 18, she wrote a cover essay for the New York Times Magazine called “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” At the time, J.D. Salinger, then 53 and living alone in New Hampshire, was so moved by her innocent writing – or perhaps her innocent-looking cover photo in which she appeared younger than her age – that he sent her a series of letters. He invited her to his home and eventually lured her to drop out of Yale to live with him, where she rarely saw friends or talked to anyone outside the house. Nine months later, he sent her packing. After keeping silent about the relationship for 26 years and then finally talking about it in a 1998 memoir, Maynard was criticized for -- get this -- exploiting him.
(Incidentally, four years ago, two male biographers published a biography of Salinger that left no detail unexplored, including the revelation that he had a penchant for stringing along teenage girls via the written word. Neither of these men were excoriated for the details.)
Maynard has often been judged harshly by reviewers and essayists, perhaps because of her early success. What Baby Boomer in the 1970s wouldn’t have been at least a bit envious of her attention? In the ensuing decades, she’s been raked over the coals for so many things: writing about herself (how dare she tell difficult stories! Especially ones young women can relate to and learn from) talking about Salinger (she left a lot of intimate details out of her book, unlike the biographers of the 600-page tome), for selling off some of Salinger's old letters to pay for her children’s college, and for wanting to be in a relationship. A New York Magazine article entitled “J.D. Salinger’s Women,” published after her 1998 memoir came out, interviewed a man Maynard briefly dated. The man said anonymously, “Joyce is the most self-obsessed person I’ve ever met.” It’s unclear why the reporter probed Maynard's dating life in a piece about Salinger, and really, it’s rare for anyone’s brief exes to paint a stunning picture.
Throughout the years, Maynard has raised money for humanitarian causes, but that rarely comes up in reviewers’ zeal to put her down.
Six years ago, Maynard was subject to a new round of criticism when she adopted two older Ethiopian girls from an orphanage. With her three children grown, she thought she could provide them with a loving home in America. In the end, she had to rehome them. She rarely spoke of what happened, but that didn’t stop a new round of judgments. “In what way does life go on for two children uprooted in the course of a vanity adoption?" wrote a blogger on the site The Thinking Housewife in 2011, who criticized her for her “uncharacteristic” silence about the outcome. How did anyone know Maynard’s intentions? Considering the girls were older children up for adoption who were looking for a home, it might have made more sense to wait for details before jumping to a conclusion about what must have been a heartbreaking turn of events.
Earlier this month, Maynard’s new memoir, The Best of Us, was published. The narrative centers on her late-in-life marriage to an attorney, Jim, and his subsequent diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. He and Maynard battled the onset until he passed away 18 months later.
There is a chapter early in the memoir about the adoption. To sum it up without spoilers: As a single woman in her fifties, she figured she’d adopt one girl. Upon being sent photos of pairs of sisters, she decided to adopt two. The adoption process went more quickly than she'd expected, but taking care of the girls was more difficult than she had anticipated. (It’s easy to forget the rigors of parenting once you’ve been out of the game for a bit, and there were challenges she hadn’t realized in taking in two youngsters who’d endured a lot of pain.) When the relationship completely broke down, she found a solution that the girls were happy with. If the story went the way Maynard tells it, she did the right thing.
People only seem to criticize others’ choices, particularly parenting choices, when those choices become difficult. If women were able to keep having children biologically into their sixties, they probably wouldn’t face the same scrutiny they do when they try to adopt or endure the rigors of assisted reproduction. The desire to have children is, by its nature, at least slightly selfish, but that doesn't make it wrong, or mean that Maynard had bad intentions.
None of Maynard’s choices, as examined in her writing, have seemed opportunistic, vain, or selfish, although perhaps naïve. And what would one expect from someone who was given early stardom and lured away from a Yale scholarship to live with a hermit?
Women who write about themselves have been judged harshly lately, with critics complaining that they “overshare.” (Recent judgments of the personal essay have also been met with some eloquent defenses). Certainly, some women’s personal unburdenings have served as clickbait, but other memoir pieces contain a core of substance and provide life lessons. This is especially true of Maynard’s writing. Most of us would be reluctant to talk about the type of experiences she examines so honestly.
“I lost my love after 25 years, six years ago,” wrote one reader on Amazon in response to The Best of Us. “I wasn't sure I could read this book but I'm so thankful I did! Different kind of cancer, but many things are alike.”
Authors who write about their personal lives often broach subjects the rest of us are afraid to confront, some of which stayed taboo from far too long (infertility, poverty, mental health, to name a few). Maynard tends to invite more ruthless criticism than most, despite her graceful storytelling. Salinger was never subject to this kind of literary execution squad.
So can we stop judging Joyce Maynard? Or better yet, read her words before you decide. Women have a right to tell their stories.