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.


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?


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.

  • 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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