My husband’s birthday is Sept. 1st, and for exactly three weeks and four days, he’s a year older than me. Which gives me ample opportunity to crack jokes about what an old geezer he is, that he’s too old for me now, and I’m going to find a younger man. Then Sept. 26 rolls around, and we’re on equal footing again. This has been happening now for 38 years now, and it still hasn’t gotten old.
When I was a very young woman, and single, it was considered quite the thing to be involved with a much older, and presumably, wiser, man. It was not only accepted by society in general, it was actually encouraged and celebrated: You’ve seen My Fair Lady and Gigi, I suppose. The old Pygmalion trope. Some literary scholar would probably point out that its roots lie in Regency novels and maybe even Jane Eyre, but the Swinging Sixties gave it a peculiar and cruel twist. One of my favorite books from that era was The Girl with the Green Eyes, by Edna O’Brien, in which a country Irish girl arrives in Dublin and takes up with an cynical old writer. The idea being that the old guy somehow helps the virginal young girl mature and grow in intelligence and wisdom, while the girl brings a fresh perspective and new lease on life to the old guy. Unfortunately I fell for this nonsense my first year in New York City, dating a wealthy, well-read but overbearing trial lawyer twice my age (I was twenty two). I could see where it was going from day one, when he started recommending books for me to read, and declared my education was full of “startling and alarming gaps.” Luckily, I met my husband-to-be about six weeks into that relationship, and that was the end of that. I immediately dumped Old Rich Guy in a very callow and immature way (I stopped answering his phone calls), but that’s not usually the way it goes with these things. Usually the man tires of the girl, and discards her. Then everyone piles on and starts slut-shaming her. No #MeToo back in those days. It was considered “life experience.” Buck up and move on.
At least that’s what happened with poor Joyce Maynard, who had the misfortune to get tied up with J.D. Salinger. I admit, I’ve never been a big Salinger fan, having been force-fed Catcher in the Rye by more than one (male) English teacher. I’m thinking about her, because in this week of infamous New York Times articles, she had one making her case as a victim of Salinger’s predation. It’s odd, because she’s about two years older than me, and I remember reading the famous New York Times magazine cover story written by the 18-year-old her—two years after it had been first published, when I was myself 18 years old. I read it, feeling both impressed and darkly envious, little realizing that by that time, she’d already had her relationship with Salinger and had been dumped by him.
I realize that many May-December relationships are not inherently destructive in an emotional way. And in some cases, they satisfy certain emotional needs for both parties involved. But it turns bad when the man—who should know better—uses his wisdom, wealth, position or whatever to manipulate a young woman still struggling to learn about life and love. It’s bad when he’s basically just using her for sex; then suddenly turns on her, and literally throws her away—disgusted, no doubt, by his own base urges. Blaming her, for being so ‘seductive,’ and willing.
And…that brings us to the clerical abuse scandal, which surely has elements of this in it, though its victims are both male and female. Still, it’s particularly sinister—and I feel I have to point this out to the unenlightened few who wonder ‘what the big deal is’—because a priest uses that ultimate power, his connection to faith and God, as a tool for manipulation. You not only wreck someone’s emotional life, but their spiritual life as well. You wreck them at the core of their being.
Why did it take us so many years to come to these conclusions?!We were victims of our times, and culture. I think some virus or poison seeped in with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and just fermented into the rest of the century, some erroneous conclusion that any kind of sex as all good, to be pursued at all costs, no matter who got hurt or victimized. Unfortunately, it still goes on. But at least we’re not romanticizing it anymore.