Skip to main content

Anna Freud and J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield

ISSUE:  Spring 2000

For many years I was lucky, indeed, to get to talk with Anna Freud, who almost single-handedly founded the discipline of child psychoanalysis. She lived in London during the last decades of her life, on Marsefield Gardens, where she saw patients who knew, many of them, that her father once lived there—as W.H. Auden put it in his memorial poem to Sigmund Freud, “an important Jew who died in exile,” one more beneficiary of that capital city’s cosmopolitan generosity. But she often came to “the States”—so she called the country she visited, thereby speaking as the Englishwoman she’d become. While on the American side of the Atlantic, she taught college students at Yale, medical students there, also; and of course, she worked with psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, an effort she had pursued, for many years in Austria, then England.

Once, in 1975, she looked back a half a century (my tape-recorder whirling), and she recalled, really, the origins of child psychoanalysis, not to mention the consequences such a development had for parents and for teachers, for film-makers and writers: “Those were exciting days, during the first quarter of this century (and now we are headed for the last quarter!). In Vienna we began to take my father’s ideas so seriously [that] we tried to apply them not only with the adults who came to see us, but with children. That was the heart of what Freud [so she sometimes called him] contributed to our thinking—he looked back in a [patient’s] life in order to understand where it is going, and why, and in order to help change its direction. I had worked with children as a teacher, but in the 1920s I began seeing them in an office, and training or enlisting others to do so. Today the world knows of the work done by August Aicchorn with delinquents [described in Wayward Youth], or Erik Erikson, through his books [Childhood and Society, Young Man Luther] but back then we were not as (how shall I say it?) ‘reputable’ as we seem to have become for so many.”

She went on to give an extended account of the techniques of child psychoanalysis developed in those bold, break-through years—and then, abruptly, unexpectedly, made mention of a book she’d recently been reading, after hearing so much of it, over and over, from her colleagues; and very important, from her students and patients, or analysands, as she often called them: “I’ve been told for years about this Catcher in the Rye, the book, the novel with that title—I think of it, of course, as a story being told: a person is ready to catch people, save them, rescue them from some trouble they’ve gotten themselves into. The ‘catcher’ is named Holden Caulfield, we all know—but I wonder whether the story doesn’t tell us about the story-teller [J.D. Salinger], though I don’t like it when we in psychoanalysis do this, make guesses that turn out to be wild guesses! This young man, Holden Caulfield, is so vividly brought to the attention of the reader that it’s hard not to connect him with his creator—more so, for me at least, than [is the case with] other characters, in fiction.

“I got to know this Holden Caulfield by hearsay before I met him as a reader. My analytic patients spoke of him sometimes as if they’d actually met him; they used his words, his way of speaking. They laughed as if he had made them laugh, because of what he’d said, and how he looked at things. I began to realize that they had taken him into their minds, and hugged him—they spoke, now, not only his words in the book (quotations from it) but his words become their own words (deeply felt, urgently and emphatically expressed). There were moments when I had to be the perennially and predictably pedantic listener, ever anxious, to pin down what has been spoken, call it by a [psychoanalytic] name, fit it into my ‘interpretative scheme, ’ you could call it. I would ask a young man or a young woman who it was just speaking—him, or her, or Holden! Well, I’d hear ‘me, ’ but it didn’t take long for the young one, the youth, the teenager, to have some second thoughts! They’d be silent; they’d mull the matter over—and I wasn’t surprised, again and again, to hear a quite sensible person, not out of his mind, or her mind (not ‘psychotic, ’ as we put it in staff conferences) speaking of this Holden Caulfield as though they’d spent a lot of time with him, and now had taken up, as their very own, his favorite words, his likes and dislikes, his ‘attitude, ’ one college student, just starting out, once termed it.

“When I asked the student, a very bright one (as he expected I would) what he meant by the word, ‘attitude, ’ I was given a lecture that took up virtually the entire [analytic] hour, to the point that I was reprimanding myself afterwards for giving the young fellow all he needed to avoid [discussing] the important reasons he’d come to see me! But then, I smiled to myself—I realized that what I’d learned about Holden, his ‘attitude, ’ was what this young man wanted to understand about himself: why he was so ‘skeptical’ (his chosen word), why he didn’t give people the benefit of the doubt, why he kept to himself, because he was inclined to ‘look for trouble’ when he met people, was with them (his room-mates, those sitting near him in the cafeteria or in a lecture hall or seminar room). I asked him, naturally, what ‘trouble’ he was expecting; and he hesitated for a long time, and told me he couldn’t easily ‘come up with any, ’ not to mention do so then and there on my analytic couch! He knew I’d press for examples—and then a plaintive excuse: he wanted to swear, as Holden would, but he was worried that I’d be offended, so his tongue was tied!”

In fact, sitting there with Miss Freud, I knew well what Holden had prompted that young man to want to say, to think about, remember, as he spoke his mind, gave his comments, or his “free associations,” as they came to him: all the “crap” in this life, all the “goddamn” acts we observe, the statements we hear.(Now I’m using quotation marks to distance myself from those words, even as I didn’t choose to mention them in front of the august, illustrious older woman with whom I was talking, and even as she was not about to get specific, speak those words as belonging to a patient, to his favorite novelist.) A moment of awkward silence—whereupon, Miss Freud, true to form, hastened to remind both of us that “there is something to be learned from this book and what it says to those who bring it into their mental life.” I am quick to nod, but not all that taken with the phrase “mental life.” What I feel like saying is that Salinger’s slurs and swear words are not original, but are shocking, because worked so vigorously, adroitly into his lively, arresting, thoroughly enticing, embracing narration—his constant interest in addressing his reader as a “you,” and his constant desire, as well, to invoke a moral (yes!) “attitude,” to provoke thereby our complacent, maybe to some extent compromised, sense of who we are, what we have done (or left undone).

There is a lot of “crap” in this “phony” world, a “goddamn” lot, so I wanted to say, linking arms thereby with Holden, and with any number of young analysands seen in this century by the likes of Miss Freud, and me and my shrink-buddies, so I hear my thoughts aver, their mode of expression deteriorating and becoming unavailable to my vocal chords. As if she saw my lips shut tight, and figured out the give-away reason, Miss Freud observed tersely: “Holden Caulfield says what is forbidden us to say.” I both agree enthusiastically (another obliging nod) and feel uneasy—well, more irritated than I want to reveal with words or bodily gestures. But I do hear myself thinking, “What the hell!”—and then I try to speak by making a critic’s summary: “Salinger has Holden cut through a lot of cant—the ‘phoniness’ he spots all the time.” I’m being heard, but myself hear nothing. I see those eyes concentrating on mine, the face that holds them as impassive as ever, the figure so imposing. I hear my voice treasuring, nourishing that word “phoniness”—as if I had myself become Holden. I want to run down the field with that word, as he did, raise that voice of mine, refer to all the “phonies” in the world, escalate to the “frauds”; but I feel my hands holding the arms of the chair that is holding me, and quickly my reflexes deliver the goods: in a carefully modulated voice I comment on a novelist’s distinctive capability, his repeated intention—”he cuts through a lot of cant, Salinger does.” Then, as if there is any doubt, I summon a story’s protagonist as the important moral witness: “Holden has a sharp eye for the hypocrisy and duplicity of everyday life.”

Now I am gulping, feeling nervous. Those two tell-tale words, “everyday life,” which in Miss Freud’s mind, in mine, in just about anyone’s who has read Sigmund Freud’s writing, have a familiar ring—I’m tempted to summon them as a part of a derivative five-word aside: “the Phoniness of Everyday Life.” In my mind I had played with a celebrated book’s title, come up with a precis of sorts for a celebrated novel—Freud and Salinger’s Holden become joined as the observers of their fellow human beings.

Miss Freud moves us on, moves by my tongue-tied restiveness and her own struggles with Salinger’s created youth, whom she now wants to approach in an appreciative manner, responsive strictly on her terms: “I think this Holden Caulfield is very much with us, because he is very much—well, he is the one who wrote of him.” She is evidently aware that she has made in that sentence a rather sweeping interpretation—her pause in the middle of the assertion signaled as much, the “well” a cautionary indication that she was going to take a leap. Then, inevitably for a psychoanalyst who had distinguished herself by her reluctance to be yet another reductionist interpreter, ever prepared (gladly, triumphantly) to explain away people and events through recourse to psychological paradigms, theories, the time had come for a proper acknowledgment of uncertainty’s prevalent importance: “We can never know where a writer’s life has been set aside, in the pursuit of a talent’s expression.”

I am moved, impressed—well (to use a word) brought up short by that renunciation, so poignantly declared (with a characteristic mix of simplicity, formality, and with a penetrating idiosyncrasy of affirmation). So much for all too many explanatory or interpretive essays wrought by literary critics, biographers, psychoanalysts—the constant need to explain, unravel, account for, get to a definitive bottom of a life, a work of art. In a few seconds (almost as if she is attending her own remarks, being given pleased pause, even wonder-filled pause by them) Miss Freud tactfully moves away from the person of Salinger, from his achievement as a novelist, to the safer and surer ground of her own working experience, and out of it, her memory’s sharply instructive lessons: “I’ve had young analysands speak to me [in her office] as if they were Holden Caulfield, and I needed badly to pay attention to them, to him through them! ‘Alright, ’ I say to them, ‘tell me what Holden wants me to know!’ It’s come to that, actually, a few times; I’ve joined with them indirectly or implicitly, in turning Holden into a real-life person—as if The Catcher in the Rye is a work of biography, rather than fiction. Not that fiction doesn’t get us as close to the truth as biography! My father once told me when I was teaching literature [as a young woman in Vienna] that novels are the fantasies of talented people; and he did not mean to show a lack of admiration or respect with those words—quite the contrary.”

Now a notable silence; the speaker lowers her head ever so slightly, if significantly—as if to pay proper respect to a most talented person whose remarks about “talented people” had just been put on the record. We try to affirm our high regard for Freud by continuing to take the novel we’ve been discussing seriously, with no lapse into a dismissive discussion of psychopathology. “All of us have our extended spells of fantasy,” Miss Freud observes, as if we’d best keep in mind a context, of sorts, for both Holden and his creator. I fear I then slipped, pointed out how often the word “depressed” got used when Holden felt the need to characterize his state of mind, I tell Miss Freud (as if to disown any inclination on my part to call Holden “sick,” an all too obvious reflexic posture for me and my kind) about the critics who have not only noted Holden’s way of describing himself, but counted the number of times he uses the word “depressed,” more than a dozen instances. Her response was lengthy and animated: “Of course this man was ‘depressed’ at times and said so to himself—though I bet if anyone had called him that, spoke the very words he’d used in his thinking about himself at certain moments, then we’d hear quite something else: an angry refutation, or a surly dismissal conveyed in an angry facial grimace! As I read the novel, I stopped a few times when I came to the word ‘depressed, ’ and I had to think that here was another adolescent who reserved the right to call himself what he wanted—but wouldn’t tolerate you or me taking such a liberty, or a critic who was observing him!”

With that remark, Miss Freud showed a second’s grimace on her own face, as if she was thinking back through years of difficult, demanding clinical work—so I thought as I wondered what she would say next, and wondered, too, what I might add to her words, which had, actually, in their sum, given me considerably more to consider than I’d guessed would be the case when they first began to be given voice by the one who wanted me to hear them. Suddenly, a sigh, and then a speaker’s stiffened resolve: “We have to be sympathetic to our Holdens, but I’m not sure they want that from us—I mean, they are suspicious of just about every adult they know (starting with their parents, of course, and then their teachers!) and so they’re ready for all grownups who come their way, certainly including us, whose offices they enter with several chips on their shoulders! I recall a young lad I saw (he had just turned fourteen) and every exchange we had was—oh, I felt we were both working ourselves through a mine-field: he was always prepared to be doubtful, even scornful, and certainly, mistrustful.I wrote those three words down for myself—they echoed through my mind as we tried to converse, session after session, and I tried to understand what was causing his quite evident (and loudly declared) annoyance with people he met at school. I thought of him (of those words!) as I read of Holden—read his remarks about himself and his schoolmates and teachers. Finally, after one especially tense discussion with that lad, I let go of myself, I think it fair to say: I guess I gave him a piece of my mind! I said that I believe we hurt ourselves, bring ourselves down, when we strike out at others all the time, dismiss them with our sharp words or not very friendly judgments, that go unexpressed, but give shape to our looks of contempt, disdain.(By the way, I’m not sure Holden would ever have let anyone speak that way to him!)

“In any event, I kept asking myself this question: why did that lad keep returning to me in my thoughts when I met Holden Caulfield, courtesy of Mr. Salinger? In time I reminded myself (I realized!) that Holden has been very much in the thoughts of many of the adolescents I’ve seen [in analysis]—he’s known in England as well as here [the United States] and when he comes up [in psychoanalytic sessions] I have thought to myself: yes, I know this Holden Caulfield very well, indeed; he’s everyone’s adolescent boy (or young man); he’s trying to figure out what’s important, who’s important (to him!) and why; he’s also trying to figure out himself, and learn what causes his moodiness, and his loneliness—a big order for anyone, even those of us who haven’t been adolescents for a few decades!”

She stops there to smile wryly—a side of her I always appreciated, very much admired: her singular willingness to align herself with her patients, narrow the psychological distance between herself and them, avoid the emotional and moral smugness that all too commonly threatens, even envelops, some of us who observe others, try to engage with them in an office at home, or under the sponsorship of a clinic. Amid a few seconds of silence, I dare pose questions about Holden Caulfield, about Miss Freud’s patients, about my own, and not least, about my students who, again and again, in courses and classrooms, have made mention of that “lad,” as I’d just heard him quaintly called. I want to know, especially, the reason for Holden’s appeal to so many different youths; but I also want to talk about some students of mine who are inattentive to him, find him uninteresting —or as I’ve heard him described, “a big bore,” or a “pain in the neck.”

Now Anna Freud noticeably perks up—and has me struck hard, stunned, by a certain forceful intensity of dislike, some of it couched, if I may use that word, in psychoanalytic speculation, theory: “I’m always being asked what I think about Holden Caulfield, once I admit I’ve read the book that tells of him—after being told of him by the young patient who has just asked me! I don’t dare say that he’s a bit bossy and impudent and brash—that he’s smitten with himself, a victim of abundant narcissism, some of it out of control, driving him to be self-indulgent, to attribute that [kind of behavior] to others, rather than see it squarely in himself. It is as if, for some young people, for a time, that character in that novel has been a talisman —he signified some elusive truth about what life means, and if you keep talking about him, you’ll heal your mind, settle your mind, with his help, because he’s been there, where you are, presently: the voice of experience who therefore is a wise advisor. So, the point is to overlook in him what you don’t want to acknowledge about yourself—a privileged vanity constantly at work. Remember, he’s seeing a psychoanalyst, in a sanitarium, and he calls himself ‘sick, ’ at the end of the book (as I had to notice and haven’t forgotten!) when he is looking ahead, but still unsure where he’s going and for what reason.Of course he’ll elicit the interest of his young readers, who have flocked to him—often at the behest of their teachers, who spend so much of their time working with young people beset by worries and confusions, and I should add, plenty of anger and bitterness: life’s disappointments that come their way, for all the means their parents possess. The more I hear about Holden, the more I think of those who have enjoyed his company—and that is where I must let the matter rest: that he and his fans belong to the same club!”

With that comment a natural break in her flow of speech, spoken with a good deal of energy, if not emotion. I wait a few seconds, wonder what to say, but want her to continue. Her use of the word “club” is intriguing, for sure. Finally, I make bold to ask her about that word—get up the courage to use it for my own purposes: “Can anyone join that club?”

I’ve tried to be suggestive, provocative—stress the theme of exclusivity implicit in that way of putting things. Miss Freud quickly turns the discussion over to me: “What do you think—I’m not sure I know; I was only thinking of the closeness some young people I’ve known feel toward this fictional hero of theirs, who lives, at least for a while, in their imagination.”

I let my mind have its say by addressing a memory: “I used Catcher in the Rye in teaching with high schoolers, down South, before I worked it into college courses up North. My wife, Jane, was a high school teacher, and we both asked a group of high school students, white and black, to read that book in Atlanta, Georgia. Soon we were sorting out the enthusiasm and interest of some, the indifference and outright annoyance of others—to the point that we were, each of us, surprised and puzzled. A black youth, memorably, told us: ‘This guy [Holden], he be sweet on himself, all the time, and he be sour on everyone else.’ Jane asked for more, and received a tart, pointed amplification: ‘He be full of himself; he drinks up everything he sees and he hears, and makes it all his property—like our minister will say, it’s grist for the mill he’s got going, this Holden.’”

To that, Anna Freud nodded vigorously, smiled quite appreciatively. She responded initially with her own muted reservations about Holden, then more of her frank disapproval—to the point that I felt that I was yet again being offered a teacher’s, a moralist’s reprimand: “I believe the issue is not so much Holden’s anger and melancholy [I had been using those two words] but I repeat, the narcissism—that’s the key: what in our profession we’d call a ‘narcissistic personality disorder.’ He’s quick to turn on others, and he gives no one the benefit of the doubt, and he’s always bringing everything back to himself (‘self-referential’ as we’d say in a clinical conference). I hesitate to overdraw the case, but there is a certain self-assurance in this young man that slips over—becomes arrogance. One young man I was seeing [in analysis] told me his friends called him ‘cocky’ all the time, and then he went on to associate himself with Holden Caulfield, whose name was a commonplace of my work for a while—but as you point out, there are many young people who haven’t heard of him, and if he were brought to their attention they’d yawn, or look for someone else to consider interesting!”

We were getting near matters of class, of race, as they give shape to our likes and dislikes: Holden Caulfield and his Pencey Prep School, its fancy white world, readily embraced by certain of Miss Freud’s patients, by a few of mine, or by my students, some of them—one or two well-to-do African-Americans, by the way: class within race. In a sense, The Catcher in the Rye was a prefiguration of our contemporary psychoanalytic discussion of narcissism (as Anna Freud years ago anticipated) and of the historian Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism, which summoned theoretical ideas Sigmund Freud had in mind as he attempted to understand how individuals get on with others, summoning what anticipations or apprehensions, and why. Miss Freud, in her own way, had regarded Holden as an aspect of J.D.Salinger’s thinking, if not his preoccupations. She stressed several times the “significance of brotherhood” in Catcher, as she once or twice chose to abbreviate the novel’s title, for the sake of speaking for casual convenience—though she was never altogether at a remove from interpretive reflection both serious and formal: Holden is (or is to be) a catcher; he is Caulfield—or as she put it, “calling others in the field of his life, aiming to hold them.” Immediately, with some charming shyness, even nervousness, she pulled back, apologized for her “critical excess” (would that the rest of us who teach and write be given to such second thoughts, I once more caught myself thinking—the embarrassment of one’s boastfulness!). Still, like Holden and like his creator and like those who are entranced by them (and by their own possibilities as they get affirmed, asserted in life) Anna Freud hopes to find coherence, give it words that “catch” the attention of others, “hold” them decisively, whatever field they “call” their own, whatever product (whether “rye” or wryness as a point of view) being grown there: “Holden and his brothers and their sister Phoebe, with their ‘discontents, ’ as my father put it—they all seek and welcome our attention, our membership. I think Mr. Salinger had them in mind for us before he planned his famous novel—they catch us, as he was caught by the idea, the story!”

Years later, after Miss Freud’s death, I would stumble on a short story J.D.Salinger wrote in the middle of the Second World War, long before his first novel was published—a story that he has never allowed to appear in a book’s collection of his fiction. “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” saw the light of day in The Saturday Evening Post, way before (July 15, 1944) its author began his writing career at The New Yorker.One Vincent Caulfield, a corporal, is soon to go off and fight in battle—and tells this to a sergeant friend: “No good, Sergeant. My brother Holden is missing. The letter came while I was at home.” A few lines on, we learn this about Holden from his brother: “I used to bump into him at the old Joe College Club on Eighteenth and Third in New York. A beer joint for college kids and prep school kids. I’d go there just looking for him, Christmas and Easter vacations when he was home. I’d drag my date through the joint, looking for him, and I’d find him way in the back. The noisiest, tightest kid in the place. . . .”

Thus it was for Holden early in his literary career: exclaiming loud and clear his objections, sprinkling them, no doubt, with words such as “goddamn” and “crap,” putting the “drag” on us readers, with the result that we become like the “date” his brother Vincent had in the story—fellow seekers eager to spot “phonies,” their “phoniness,” and so doing, inch ourselves away a bit from this life’s seemingly ever-present, sometimes shady ambiguities.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading