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Angst or PTSD, Holden Caulfield Was Barely "Holdin' On."
Holden Caulfield

As an undergraduate in the '60s I could barely get through CATCHER. I didn't care about some crude spoiled preppy kid who couldn't get his act together. In a word, I was clueless.

I reread the book last fall and discovered something profound, that Holden was suffering from PTSD stemming from the death of his brother and from witnessing the suicide of a schoolmate who bailed out of a dorm window wearing the sweater Holden had loaned him. I began noticing the symptoms Holden was exhibiting: depression, poor concentration, attention deficit, crying, uncontrollable rage, lack of motivation, self-isolation, sleeplessness, etc. I'm intimately familiar with these symptoms because my own PTSD diagnosis stemming from childhood trauma. I get Holden's struggle. I live with that same feeling that I need to save kids from danger. I had to watch boys get horrific beatings in the orphanage where I spent the last nine years of my childhood. It's this compulsion to protect children that drives my writing. 

To me CATCHER is less about teenaged coming-of-age angst and more about a kid struggling against the downward spiral of mental illness. Without professional help he was doomed to submerge and did, ending up in a "rest home."

Holden was barely "holdin' on."

A greater sense of Holden Caufield/JD Salinger can be found in the film FINDING FORESTER, which is purported to be based on Salinger. In a 1953 interview with a high-school newspaper, Salinger said that the novel was "sort of" autobiographical: "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book ...it was a great relief telling people about it."

Salinger, when writing CATCHER wouldn't have had a clue about PTSD, as it wasn't even in the diagnostic manual (DSM) for psychologists until decades later. He was just writing what he felt, blasting his feelings onto paper and letting the chips fall. 

Many people see Salinger as a sort of literary genius because he sold 70 million copies of one book. I'm not saying he wasn't talented and educated; he had plenty of both going for him. I'm saying he leveraged his talent on top of some inner need to get this desperate crisis part of his life onto paper and kept going until it was done.

A great segment of the literary world has, quite understandably, interpreted Holden's PTSD symptoms as mere teenage angst. This is a gross oversimplification. It's his masterfully presented array of extreme symptoms that's largely responsible for the success of the book. It's too complicated, or too sensitive, for English teachers to talk about mental illness; so they focus on the simple and more obvious interpretation. Such teachers are missing a phenomenal opportunity to reach kids who are in crisis or know someone who is.

We'd have fewer cases of teenagers going postal if CATCHER were used to teach about mental illness.