Salinger Explores Mystery of Self and Grief

Jerome David Salinger. 1945. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Black, and Company—Back Bay Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

An adage among those who listen carefully to people states that one cannot help but tell their own story. For example, Savage (77) writes:

“Everyone tells stories—children, youth, and adults of all ages. Hidden inside those stories, like diamonds in the rough, are the deep truths of the unconscious. Storytelling is a form of self-disclosure.”

 Especially obvious are stories that begin—I know a man who—which almost always are stories about the one telling the story (Savage 95). Fiction stories are, of course, no different.[1]

In his book, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger introduced us to a moody young man, Holden Caulfield, who is about to be kicked out of a boarding school, Pencey Preparatory, not too far from New York City. When we drop in on Holden, it is the last weekend before school lets out in December and he narrates his interactions with roommates and professors, but something is not right. His roommate pressures him into writing a composition for him, arguing that he is too busy with his love interest to write the report, which makes no sense if Holden is flunking out because of a lack of academic ability. His professor feels guilty for flunking him, which makes no sense if Holden is flunking out because he just doesn’t fit in. When we learn that Holden is a junior and has flunked out of three other schools, we begin to wonder why exactly Holden just cannot make a go of it at Pencey.

Holden is due to return home for the holidays on Wednesday, but gets bored and anxious saying goodbye to friends and faculty at Pencey so he takes the train into New York City and, rather than good home, rents a room in a cheap flop house. Riding the elevator up to his room, the elevator operator offers to hook him up with a prostitute. He agrees, checks into his room, and waits for his date. As he is waiting, he notices that the hotel across the street is a source of immediate entertainment, as people have left their blinds up and are engaging in all sorts of mischief. In particular, he witnesses a man dressing up in women’s clothes and a couple having fun squirting their drinks all over each other.

Meanwhile, his date shows up and begins undressing only to find Holden not in the mood for sex, but quite willing to pay for her company. The prostitute gets bored and asks for her money, at which point Holden learns that the price he was quoted was not the price now being asked. He refuses to pay the additional cost and, when the girl leaves only to come back with her pimp, he ends up getting beat up in an odd display of principle, because he has repeatedly shared with us as readers that he lacks courage. Even odder is that in the middle of his beating he never tells the pimp that the prostitute did not earn her wages.

In telling the story about his experience with the prostitute, we learn that Holden cannot stand the idea of making love to anyone without actually being in love with them—Holden is not as loose and wild as we are led to believe. But it is like we as the readers learn this important insight before Holden himself becomes aware of it. In fact, in his brooding and wandering around New York visiting bars, calling up friends, and dropping in on former professors we learn that Holden is fixated on a friend, Jane Gallagher, who he never quite gets the courage to call. Yet, he calls an old flame, Sally Hayes, and even meets with her. Holden is a young man seriously out of touch with himself.

Being out of touch with himself, Holden does not process grief well. Early in the book, we learn that Holden is still grieving the death of his brother, Allie, who died of leukemia. Late in the book we learn of the death also of a friend, James Castle, at one of the previous schools who, after being bullied by classmates, jumped out of a window to his death. The reason for the bullying is never stated, but the professor, Mr. Antolini, who retrieved the boy’s body remained a close friend of Holden even after he left that school and Holden later suspects him of being a pervert. Furthermore, Castle’s death appears to have been the source of Holden’s inability to concentrate and to complete his education. Just like the reason for the bullying remains a mystery, so does their relationship. Was Castle more than a casual friend?

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye proved to be a good read and is now, in spite of a lot of foul language and exploration of sexual themes, a book which is frequently required reading for young adults. In my case, it was a father’s day gift from my son and, as a novel, a diversion from my usual nonfiction fare. The origin of the title and the allusion posed by the cover are both revealed at the appropriate time in the narration which you might enjoy learning for yourself. I certainly did.

[1] Salinger admitted as much in an interview in 1953 (


Savage, John. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Continue Reading

Savage Teaches Listening; Hears Unheard Stories

John Savage: Listening and Caring SkillsJohn Savage.  1996.  Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being fully present when listening to someone is tough.  It requires setting aside our own egos to hear not only what the person is saying but what is not being said—the backstory.  The backstory is important because language is laconic; tone of voice and body language provide the context. John Savage’s book, Listening and Caring Skills, helps to start down the road of being fully present in listening to your family, friends, and colleagues.


Listening and Caring Skills focuses on preparing pastors for ministry, but the principles apply more generally.  The book starts with an introduction defining the problem and follows with three major sections:  Basic listening skills; hearing the story, and advanced listening skills.

Communication Gap

Savage starts by defining the listening problem as closing the gap between what is said and what is heard (17).  This gap can be huge because the speaker desires to communicate feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts.  This internal desire is actually communicated with words, tone of voice, and body language.  Words communicate about 7 percent of the message; tone of voice communicates 38 percent; and the remaining 55 percent is communicated through body language (16).  Focusing on just the words used in written communication leaves out important information needed in making decisions.

Consider the potential for conflict just because of weak communication.  Skyping can communicate words, tone of voice, and some body language.  Telephone conversation can communicate words and tone voice but no body language.  Email communicates only the words—unless you are really good with emoticons!  Clearly, if I use a form of communication that is incomplete, the potential to be misunderstood grows in proportion to what is left out.  Face-to-face communication at least allows a complete set of details to be communicated.

Five Styles of Communication

Once we are face to face, communication is technically feasible, but we do not normally engage everyone at the same level.  Savage lists five styles of communication:  direct and open, open but partial, distorted full information, distort and delete information, and only non-verbal communication (15-16).  At best communication is an art:  people lie; people don’t listen’; people run off.  Being fully present is a gift that we give to those who we really care about.  In my experience, people notice immediately when you are really listening.


A lesson worth the price of the book is a technique called fogging which is often used by politicians and lawyers.  In fogging one only answers the part of the question that one agrees with.  The most famous example of fogging occurred in Matthew 22:15-22 when Jesus was baited with the question:  is it lawful to pay taxes…?  If he answers yes, then the Jews will be offended;  if he answers no, then the Romans will be offended.  Instead of answering, Jesus asks to see a coin–everyone agrees on the coin used to pay the tax.  When one fogs, one does not answer the whole question and does not become defensive—even when the question is hostile.  Fogging allows the conversation to continue without becoming emotionally charged.

Listening for the Five Types of Stories

Savage observes that in order for people to feel like they have been heard, you need to identify the emotional content of what they are saying. Oftentimes, this emotional content takes the form of one of five story types that he outlines (95), including.

  1. Anniversary.  An anniversary is a story connected to a date on the calendar. Perhaps someone important died or had an serious accident on a particular date. In the story of the patient, the date was a birthday. The most famous date at the time of Jesus was the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt which they celebrated as Passover each year.
  2.  A “I know a man who” story. In this case, the person under discussion is normally the person speaking because the subject matter is too sensitive. In the Bible, we read: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.”(2 Cor 12:2)2.
  3. A transition story has three parts—the past, the present, and the future. A hospital visit is normally a transition story. University studies are also a transition with three parts. A transition obvious in the Bible is the story of the Exodus when the people of Israel left the land of Egypt, went into the desert for forty years, and afterwards entered the Promised Land (Bridge 2003, 43). It is interesting that the people of Israel learned to depend on God during their time in the desert.
  4. A story from the past with current meaning. This is the typical story from the Bible, but this type of story gets special mention in the context of the Lord’s Supper where we read: “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”(Luke 22:19)
  5. A reinvestment story. This is a story like economist becomes pastor. That was then; this is now. In the Bible we see this type of story in the conversion of Paul from a persecutor of the church into an evangelist for Christ.

If you can identify the story that a person is telling, chances are good that you will connect with them at a deeper, emotional level.


Savage’s Listening & Caring Skills is a book that I have recommended, given away, taught, and preached about.  Active listening skills are of value in dealing with your children, difficult co-workers, and demanding supervisors.  In the church, pastors can benefit from periodically reviewing Savages principles and teaching them to those in leadership.  It is simply a great book.


William Bridge.  2003.  Managing Transitions:  Making the Most of Change.  Cambridge:  Da Capo Press. (Review)

Savage Teaches Listening; Hears Unheard Stories

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading