Do we have the right to tell a person’s story, even when we are sure that he or she would hate our doing so?
That's the question that pops into my mind when I think about the new documentary Salinger, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Monday. We all have a story to tell, and many people would love to have a documentary made about their lives. When it comes to the people who don’t — those who have worked hard to keep their interesting lives private and unknown — does anyone have the right to go ahead and tell their stories?
Theirs are stories that were never meant to be told, but we often attempt to tell them anyway. For the past 10 years, writer and director Shane Salerno has been working tirelessly to uncover a life that was very consciously made private. In an interview with NPR, Salerno reiterated the fact that J.D. Salinger was a man of deep seclusion, but emphasized the compelling story behind the author's work.
Salinger's is a story that must be told, right?
Salinger spent his life running away from the success he found with The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Two years after the book was published, he retreated from his native New York City to Cornish, New Hampshire, far away from anyone who would recognize him. He continued writing in a shed behind his house that he called The Bunker.
Earlier, during World War II, Salinger had stormed the beaches of Normandy with the first six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket for personal protection. When he came back to America, he checked into a mental institution, before signing up to return to Europe in order to, as Salerno puts it, participate in the “de-Nazification of Germany.”
Salinger's story is one that should be told, right?
Salerno's Salinger spends its two hours playing out the story of the man using very few photographs, no audio recordings, and Salinger's slim archive. But as Marlow Stern illustrates in The Daily Beast, Salerno went to great lengths to develop a full picture of Salinger's life. Salerno spent a decade waiting for people close to Salinger to come forward with their stories and to open up about his various love interests, his private life in New Hampshire, and the time he spent at war.
The story of a writer so universally known and read must be told, right? We can’t be kept in the dark about someone who just about every American middle and high schooler feels they know on a deeply personal level. We are all Holden Caulfield at some point, so we should get to know the man who created him, right?
Salinger died three years ago. Taking into account the fact that he spent his life avoiding the public eye and running away from his most enduring work, it seems that the best way to honor isn't telling his life story, but leaving him alone. But who are we to tell a documentarian what stories can and can’t be told? And who are we to speculate about what a reclusive man would really want?
Ultimately, we should be free to share and curate each other’s stories. In making his film, Salerno spent 10 years getting to know Salinger in a way that most of us never will. We should be judging his documentary on its own merits, and not whether we think it's exploitative. After all, Salerno probably knows better than anyone whether Salinger would have approved.