Trauma in Fiction and Real Life: In Defense of “The Catcher in the Rye”

holden caulfield ask

[Anonymous Tumblr ask reading: “Holden Caulfield was a whiny self-centered teenager and he didn’t deserve an entire book”]

The above ask was sent to a Tumblr user, who responded with thoughts similar to my own. Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a traumatized teenager. Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like. It is the story of what it looks like when adults fail youth.

Holden was a vulnerable teenager experiencing so much trauma. He had so much grief of losing his brother, one of the only caring people in his life. He had to survive a toxic school environment where his peers killed themselves and he was implied to be enduring sexual abuse. He narrates his story from an institution in California following the breakdown.

Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like. The book wasn’t the story of “lol angst.” To dismiss that? Means letting adults and parents and educators off the hook to do good. To do right. To maybe support youth in working through trauma and edging closer to adulthood. Catcher is the story of a traumatized teenager. Some adults actively contributed to his trauma. And all of them let him fall through the cracks until the breaking point.

Stop letting traumatized teenagers just fall through the cracks. Stop assuming teenagers are just supposed to be miserable. Remember that just because trauma isn’t immediately visible doesn’t mean it is not serious. Treat pain, whether trauma-related or not, with respect – not as bothersome angst. Talking about counseling options can be helpful, but forcing them into it is not a solution. Training teachers to be better mentors and making sure guidance counselors remain in schools (and improving upon guidance counseling) are useful as well.

.  .  .

I read Catcher in high school, the same time I started dealing with fallout from trauma. I could see in Holden myself. I read and glimpsed what could have happened to me if things had been a little different. I read as the adults in his life failed him, as some in mine didn’t. I was a frightened and hurting teenager. Who didn’t know that it was trauma to even talk about. Who didn’t have any coping mechanisms. Who thus did not remotely know how to cope. Who did not know how to react, to process, to keep my pain at bay from myself and others. I had a support network of sorts. Holden Caulfield did not.

Is that how you want to view traumatized teenagers? Are you going to even recognize the possibility of trauma? Is that how you’re going to react to teenagers’ pain? Even if they aren’t strictly experiencing the effects of trauma? Is it? If you think he is just a whiny self-centered teenager and other iterations of that ilk, I know that this is what you would have thought of me in high school.

If this is how you view traumatized teenagers and teenagers in general – no, they’re probably not going to trust you. If your response to teenagers’ pain is “lol angst,” – especially if you work with teenagers – you are contributing to the problem. If you think Holden Caulfield’s pain is “lol angst,” you are contributing to the problem. The book is not just Holden’s story.

Catcher was once my story. Catcher is the story of so many people who are traumatized and trying to reach adulthood. Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like.

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