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J.D. Salinger had PTSD

J.D. Salinger / PBS
J.D. Salinger / PBS
J.D. Salinger / PBS

Tuesday night’s broadcast of the documentary “Salinger” by PBS raises some interesting questions about J.D. Salinger.

Although the documentary never comes right out and says that J.D. Salinger had PTSD because of his experiences during World War II, it certainly lays out the evidence that he did.

Salinger went through a lot after he was drafted into the Army in 1942, and he certainly displayed some of the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The author of The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most influential novels of 20th Century American literature, became an almost total recluse, who struggled to maintain any king of long-term relationship with women.

The documentary never mentioned that he ever exhibited any of the violent flashes of temper associated with PTSD, so it seems that he did not.

But the curt way that he terminated his relationships with women, is another classic trait of PTSD. One second things are fine, the next second they are not.

Salinger was so reclusive that he even built a tall wooden stockade fence around his house in New Hampshire to keep admirers away.

He also built a bunker-like building on his property, where he would lock himself away for days on end while he wrote.

Withdrawal is one of the most classic symptoms of PTSD.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Salinger landed on Utah Beach. Some accounts say he landed in the first wave, other accounts say his landing craft was delayed because of the tide and didn’t land until the second wave.

Either way, that was a terrible place to be. But on that day, Salinger carried the first six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye with him, stuffed inside his fatigues.

Salinger served in the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division, which it fought its way across France and into Germany from D-Day to VE Day.

Salinger’s unit, the 12th Infantry Regiment, suffered horrendous casualties. Within three weeks of landing on Utah Beach, 1,950 of the 3,080 men in Salinger's regiment had been killed or wounded. That’s a 63.3% casualty rate. And the unit kept fighting for another ten months.

In addition to D-Day, Salinger also fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which means he fought in three of the most horrific battles of World War II.

During the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, artillery shells bursting in the tree tops caused massive casualties among American troops, and in one of the segments of the documentary, a man who served with Salinger described how that affected him for the rest of his life.

The veteran explained how the sound of a plane flying over his house would trigger a flashback to the Hürtgen Forest. During the flashback, he could see the artillery shells exploding in his back yard; he could see the artillery shells exploding in his living room.

We’ll never know for sure, but there seems to be ample evidence that Salinger had similar flashbacks.

Then in April 1945, Salinger was assigned to a counter-intelligence unit, because he spoke both French and German, and as part of his new duties entered a liberated concentration camp, where he interviewed both prisoners and guards.

In 1945, Salinger was hospitalized in Nuremberg, Germany for "battle fatigue," the term used to describe PTSD at the time. When he returned to the United States, he was hospitalized again for a nervous breakdown. Then he became a recluse.

Research done by the VA has revealed that some people develop PTSD after they have experienced certain things:

  • They were directly exposed to the trauma as a victim or a witness
  • They went through a trauma that was long-lasting or very severe
  • They believed that they were in danger

Salinger definitely met those criteria, and throughout his life he displayed some of the classic symptoms of PTSD.