Older Men, (Much) Younger Women

Is this kind of relationship really all about sex? In the wake of a new book and film about J.D. Salinger, who had several intense relationships with much younger women, Patti Davis looks back at the teacher who seduced her decades ago—and left indelible scars

by Patti Davis
patti davis image
Patti Davis

The night air was chilly and the moon was only a thin sliver when I climbed onto the back of his motorcycle. We sped off into the dark desert, nothing but blackness for miles. I wondered how far we would go. I wondered if we would end up making love on the raw ground, stars blinking above us.

He stopped and, with the bike idling, told me he needed to check something and I had to get off. When I did, he sped away, sand and dust blowing over me, the sound of his laughter echoing in the cold air.

I was 17. He was my English teacher. This happened at the Arizona boarding school where I spent my high school years.  I was a virgin.  He had seduced me by praising my writing, my poetry, my images and descriptions. We snuck off to spend time together. Soon, all my poems were about him. I still have most of them, and they’re surprisingly good.

I walked back through the dark desert to the cluster of lights that was my school, wondering what I had done wrong to make him leave me out there. Our involvement lasted for several years—past high school. I went to Northwestern University and he began teaching in Ohio. He was supposed to come to Evanston one weekend to see me, but he never showed up and never called. That was when I finally ended it.  I was broken inside, and felt more tired and spent than a 19 year old girl should.

People hear about older men preying on young girls and they think immediately about sex. Sometimes it is about that. Often it’s not. Seduction has many faces, many facets; it’s about power, control, manipulation. It’s about holding another person hostage by keeping a grip on their heart and their self-confidence on an elastic tether.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because Joyce Maynard’s relationship with J.D. Salinger when she was 18 is now (again) in the spotlight due to the documentary and companion book on Salinger.  In her recent New York Times piece, Joyce wrote:   “His was a seduction played out with words and ideas, not lovemaking . . . .”

For the years of our involvement, every part of my being was focused on a man nearly 20 years older, who was married with children. He could make my soul soar or crush it into the dust. In the end, I had to reconcile myself to the reality that he had scored my soul in ways that would never completely vanish.

That’s the ultimate cruelty inflicted by men like this—they leave behind hidden wounds that scar over with time but still remain. Your ability to trust, to stand confidently in the world, to open yourself wide to love and friendship and adventures of the spirit . . . all have to take a detour around ribbons of scar that long ago separated your life into before and after. No matter how old I get, there will always be inside me a 17-year-old girl walking through a black desert on a moonless night, cold and crying and wondering what she’d done wrong to make him punish her like that.

I once dated a man who called me out on my reluctance to trust him, to just open up to him. Clearly frustrated, he asked, “Who did this to you?” 

I didn’t have to look very hard for an answer.

Patti Davis is an author and journalist. Her most recent books are Till Human Voices Wake Us and The Blue Hour.

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