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In chapter 24, Holden goes to Mr. Antolini's place to stay for the night. He crashes on the couch, and suddenly is woken up by Mr. Antolini stroking his (Holden's) hair while he sleeps. There are, then, two passages that caught my eye:

I know more damn perverts, at schools and all, than anybody you ever met, and they're always being perverty when I'm around.

and

When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff's happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can't stand it.

Now, throughout the whole book, I'd been getting the impression that Holden was a depressed individual — as in, actually clinically depressed, not just that "that kind of stuff makes me depressed" kinda talk he's always having — but was attributing it to his little brother Allie's death.

Then this happens, right near the end of the book, and it seems like it connects a few more things: his apparent depression, why he's sexually awkward (see the scene with the prostitute, and how he describes how "something always happens" when he's about to lose his virginity), why he seems to hate adults a lot more than children and younger folks... and why he wants to protect the children as "the catcher in the rye," as he describes to Phoebe in chapter 22.

Furthermore, Holden seems to actually get physically sick after the interaction with Mr. Antolini, mentioning he passed out, and almost vomited several times when he felt like laughing. This bit would suggest, I believe, a physical reaction to what might be, to some degree, repressed memories of past abuse.

Was Holden in fact molested as a child? Is there any other sort of evidence that I'm overlooking here? Perhaps from the book itself, or an earlier draft, or a note from the author? Or, given the many similarities between the narrative in The Catcher in the Rye and Salinger's early life (see here), is it possible that Salinger himself was molested as a child?

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There are strong hints that Mr Antolini expresses sexual interest in Holden in this scene. Consider his verbal reaction when Holden wakes up from his touch:

"What the hellya doing?" I said.

"Nothing! I'm simply sitting here, admiring--"

The whole scene happens in a dark room, with Antolini drinking heavily, and conveys an aura that some molestation could have happened, and perhaps was already beginning:

It was dark and all and I couldn't see him so hot, but I knew he was watching me, all right. He was still boozing, too.

Then Antolini refuses to acknowledge Holden's reasonable discomfort at being woken up in a dark room by a drunk adult man touching him non-consensually. Instead, Antolini casts the blame for the awkward result on Holden, repeatedly calling him "a very, very strange boy". This is an abusive deceitful tactic, as Holden is well-aware ("Strange, my ass").

However, I would caution strongly against concluding that "Holden was sexually molested as a child" and especially against seeing that as some sort of fundamental explanation for all the events, themes, and ideas presented in the novel.

Catcher in the Rye is not a mystery genre work and there's no single answer to be uncovered by unearthing subtle clues and thus resolving all the fundamental questions the novel raises.

"Holden is clinically depressed" is likewise not an adequate answer.

Holden tells us quite elaborately, throughout the novel, about things that depress him, and very often why they do.

Trying to understand Holden is key to gaining value from the novel.

Dismissing practically the entire narrative as "Holden was depressed", "Holden was sexually molested", or "Holden was crazy" only serves to shut down any fruitful discussion before it even begun.

Moreover, if the only problem is that Holden was depressed / molested / crazy, then this novel is mostly relevant for people who suffered from these conditions. Instead, a very large portion of readers find meaning and relevance in the novel, including those who never suffered any of these conditions.

Rather than dismissing or otherwise limiting the novel's relevance, it is far more challenging and rewarding to try to understand why a fairly normal person could think, feel, act, and react as Holden did.

Holden's reaction to Antolini's behavior in that scene is very reasonable when you recall that Holden knew, trusted, and even admired Antolini for quite some time before that evening. A major theme in the novel is how sexual desire affects various characters and their humanity, including Holden himself. For instance, consider his explanation of his relation to Sally Hayes as a function of his attraction to her. The encounter with the prostitute has some of that too, though there are other interesting themes there.

To avoid straying too much, and get back to your question, there's no particular reason to suspect that Holden was molested as a child. Holden was an upper-middle-class (possibly even upper-class) child growing up in an upscale part of New York. It is unlikely that he was exposed to molestation by strangers, and there's absolutely no hint that any family member molested him either.

By many accounts, Holden was a handsome boy, and that can certainly attract unwanted attention, as Holden himself mentions in the bit you quoted ("they're always being perverty when I'm around"). Arguably, that scene is an example of someone "being perverty" around Holden.

However, he is able to protect himself quite well. He identifies, and promptly exits the compromising situation.

It's worth pointing out that he is able to do so despite difficult present conditions: he is effectively without shelter and asleep when Antolini tries to molest him. In fact, that's a common circumstance to many of the events in the novel: Holden exits the normal, sheltered life of a boy of his age and class, and enters a series of unusual and sometimes vulnerable alternative circumstances. This is how Antolini is able to touch him, and how Maurice is able to assault him earlier in the novel. In fact, the Maurice incident also carries undertones of sexual assault:

Then what he did, he snapped his finger very hard on my pajamas. I won't tell you where he snapped it, but it hurt like hell.

Holden never exhibits any special reaction to the sexual undertone of this part of the assault.

To conclude, Holden enters a vulnerable state when he leaves his proper upper-middle-class at the boarding school, and in that vulnerable state he encounters some unsavory happenings, including assaults of a violent nature, sexual nature, or both. However, there's no evidence that these sexual assaults echo some significant earlier trauma. In any case, it is inadvisable to dismiss the huge wealth of ideas and themes present in the novel as simply a mechanical consequence of any particular psychopathology, such as past sexual trauma.

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  • Great answer! I should clarify, though, that I'm not looking to justify (or dismiss) the whole narrative due to any possible past encounters with sexual assault. I'm rather trying to assess whether it has happened in the past, given the choice of words I quoted in the question :)
    – JNat
    Mar 12 '20 at 15:48
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Child abuse, intimate partner abuse, all abuse, occurs in every strata of society, including the upper-middle-class and the upper-classes. The character Holden - if not a survivor himself - is adjacent to the affects of sexual abuse in many instances in the novel:

  1. Stradlater's refusal to listen to "no" on dates with women (rape);

    "What he’d do was, he’d start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice—like as if he wasn’t only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. I damn near puked, listening to him. His date kept saying, ‘No—please. Please, don’t. Please.’ But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice, and finally there’d be this terrific silence in the back of the car.”

    Holden doesn't really know what to do about the behavior, but he knows it makes him uncomfortable. This is as emblematic of toxic masculinity culture today as was in post-WWII; and his response is to "fawn" Stradlater - seeking to inspire his empathy for Jane as a person, working very hard to humanize her for Stradlater, a girl Holden cares for deeply.

  2. Jane's frozen reaction and silent tears when near her step-father who walks around naked (sexual abuse),

    "She didn't even look up from the game. Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn't even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares--boy, I can still see it. She just rubbed it into the board with her finger. I don't know why, but it bothered hell out of me."

    When is comes to abuse, it is more often not spoken aloud, but felt. Holden does not fully understand why he is so disturbed by what he is witnessing, or why Jane has frozen still, but his body knows, as does hers, and the layers of powerlessness and trauma aggregate for him.

  3. The "disgusting act" upon James Castle (rape and possibly murder),

    "So Stabile, with about six other dirty bastards, went down to James Castle's room and went in and locked the goddam door and tried to make him take back what he said, but he wouldn't do it. So they started in on him. I won't even tell you what they did to him--it's too repulsive--but he still wouldn't take it back, old James Castle. And you should've seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. I was in the shower and all, and even I could hear him land outside. But I just thought something fell out the window, a radio or a desk or something, not a boy or anything. Then I heard everybody running through the corridor and down the stairs, so I put on my bathrobe and I ran downstairs too, and there was old James Castle laying right on the stone steps and all. He was dead, and his teeth, and blood, were all over the place,"

    Here again, the abuse can not be spoken about directly - it is too horrifying, too complex and layered, but Holden tells us he has witnessed something unspeakable; he also tells graphically about seeing the child's body bloodied. All of this is traumatic for a young person to experience, the possible cover-up and lie of the suicide not-withstanding. The fact that James' response is to fight back and not acquiesce to bullies - it is hard to believe that he would also jump to his own death.

  4. Holden's interaction with Antolini, which is where Holden tells us this has happened to him before. He reaction is justified; stroking anyone while they sleep is an act without consent (sexual assault).

    "Then something happened. I don't even like to talk about it. I woke up all of a sudden. I don't know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy's hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini's hand. What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. Boy, I'll bet I jumped about a thousand feet. "What the hellya doing?" I said. "Nothing! I'm simply sitting here, admiring--" "What're ya doing, anyway?" I said over again. I didn't know what the hell to say--I mean I was embarrassed as hell. "How 'bout keeping your voice down? I'm simply sitting here--" "I have to go, anyway," I said--boy, was I nervous! I started putting on my damn pants in the dark. I could hardly get them on I was so damn nervous. I know more damn perverts, at schools and all, than anybody you ever met, and they're always being perverty when I'm around."

    As Holden flees from obvious danger, we finally hear from him in the briefest of reveals, that this is nothing new to him.

It is very common to use other's stories before we can fully tell our own. Holden's reactions to all of these instances is appropriate in its physical revulsion as well as the Salinger's illustration of the classic trauma responses in each occurrence; fawn, freeze, fight, flight. At minimum he is struggling with survivor's guilt and the inability to save or "catch" his innocent friends (and himself) before they fall.

Holden's narrative is very likely trying to illuminate, understand, and reveal his experiences with trauma. He does this in the very way a survivor would: by never naming it outright, but by identifying it in the stories of others, in the fringes of what he reveals, through words and behavior, in his truths and his lies, in his prejudices and discomforts.

Child sexual abuse is much more common than most realize, and we like to imagine it is rare and only happens to "others", who don't have stable lives, nice cars, good schools. This is very likely the "worse than phony" type of behavior Holden is railing against. It is the weight that many survivors of abuse rail against.

Throughout the novel, the character Holden, is displaying many of the classic signs of a child who has been betrayed - abused - by the adults in his life in the most damaging way. First from abuse, and then by the gaslighting that often comes with abuse, inclusive of the notion that having an upper-middle class life is somehow safe. We can also witness Holden's own self-gaslighting acts of struggling to self-validate his direct experiences, and why he is so disaffected. Like it does with Holden in the end, these factors can result in survivors experiences mental health impacts.

I would go further to add, that the core misuderstanding by Holden in the novel - the misquoting of the Burns poem;

"Gin a body meet a body, comin thro' the rye"

As

"If a body catch a body coming through the rye"

Is symbolic of the way an abuse survivor can unconsciously transform healthy, if secretive, explorations of sex into a black and white perspective on innocence and falling from innocence.

If you interpret this novel to be about the impact of abuse, you are in good and brilliant company, and it is far from a dismissal of the book, but an enrichment of the meaning and importance of the Catcher in the Rye and why it is a relevant text for everyone to read and discuss with compassion.

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  • Thank you @GarethRees, and bobble, for helping to improve my first post. Much appreciation! Sep 5 at 21:33
  • Feel free to look at our other Catcher questions, or really any of our Unanswered questions, and please do take our tour! Glad to have you here.
    – bobble
    Sep 5 at 23:09
  • Thank you very much for responding to feedback and editing your answer :-) Much improved!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 7 at 12:39

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