It all began, as do so many things, in the bed of a devouring mother. Fredelle Maynard was an artistically frustrated housewife with a doctorate in English who was stuck in a small New Hampshire town with an alcoholic husband (failed painter, English professor at the state university) and two smart daughters. She had an intense, intrusive, and sexualized relationship with the younger girl, Joyce. “Can you imagine what she’ll be like with men?” she would announce after a morning “snuggling” with her in the marriage bed, teaching her various kisses: “Suction,” “Movie star,” “Cutie.” (It’s a fact that constitutes one of the few underexplored topics in her daughter’s oeuvre.) She also had the desire that both girls would become magazine writers, an area in which she had achieved some modest success. She and her husband would sit with the girls in the living room and auto-tune their submissions until they fit seamlessly into the pages of a big-circulation publication: the rising action of a girls’-magazine problem (no dates; too many dates; breasts too small; breasts too big) leading to the falling action of its solution (a talk with Mother; a sudden epiphany; a call to character) and an adorable, girl-tastic kicker.
In 1971, Maynard arrived at Yale, which was then a kind of Cape Canaveral for the Boomer revolution, sending one brilliant rocket into the sky and then another. Garry Trudeau was in her film-animation class; Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were students at the law school. Everyone on campus was emotionally engaged with the draft. But Maynard was listening to different music, the soundscape of the Seven Sisters magazines—McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, etc.—magazines that were deeply, intentionally square, and that were always a decade or two behind the popular culture. During her first year of college, Seventeen sent Maynard to Texas to write about the Miss Teenage America pageant and to Washington, D.C., to interview Julie Nixon Eisenhower. She could not have been more out of step—intellectually, politically, or culturally—with her peers if she’d invited them to a Tupperware party. But when she sent a pitch to The New York Times, she got an assignment that changed her life.
“Please go ahead with a 3,500-word personal essay about what it is like to be eighteen years old in this country,” wrote The Times Magazine’s editor. The resulting essay describes sweeping trends, self-consciously positions its young author as the voice of her generation, and locates almost nothing fresh about the nature of youth. It didn’t matter. Her photograph—a sprite of a girl, with huge brown eyes, sitting on the floor of the Yale library—ran on the cover of The Times Magazine under the career-making headline “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.”
Famously, the essay and photo attracted the attentions of J. D. Salinger, for whom she dropped out of Yale at the start of her sophomore year. Their 11-month love affair, conducted in his isolated New Hampshire house and apparently a gulag experience for both of them, was the subject of her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World. The book inflamed an easily inflamed demographic: people who have an intense, almost irrational hatred of Joyce Maynard’s literary output and by extension of the writer herself. It’s not the prose they dislike; Maynard’s writing is clean and engaging. She’s written more than a dozen popular books and a very good true-crime novel. What drives the critics wild is her personal writing and its nonstop examination of self, one damn hair ball at a time.