The Wild Truth
Like so many readers around the world, I was spellbound by Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild which told the story of Chris McCandless’s journey of self-discovery and untimely death in the Alaskan wilderness; Sean Penn’s film by the same name was a powerful cinematic version of Chris’s story. Each year several of my students choose to read the book for an end-of-the-year book talk and they struggle, as I did, with the question–was Chris’s experience worth the price he paid?
Today pilgrims travel to bus 142 in Alaska to pay homage to a young man whose life has, perhaps, grown to mythical proporations. There are websites dedicated to Chris’s memory and others debunking the mystery of his death. Krakauer himself has returned to the story of McCandless for both Outside Magazine and The New Yorker, as well as appearing on Oprah.
A year ago I read that Chris’s sister Carine had written a book and my interest in his story was piqued again. Carine’s book The Wild Truth is a brutally honest telling of the family life he endured growing up. I almost put the book down after the first chapter as Carine revisited the house where she and Chris grew up and experienced what could only be called flashbacks of those days. For those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse, this might be a story that re-opens old wounds.
On the surface, life was picture perfect in the McCandless household. They had it all: a beautifully decorated home, a successful engineering business, nice cars, better clothes. The family’s photo graced the membership wall of the Methodist church they attended each Sunday. But in reality, Walt McCandless was a brutal authoritarian who abused his wife and children. Billie was by turns his greatest defender or his archenemy. They both drank too much. Walt was, for all intents and purposes, a bigamist who for a period of several years kept a house with his first wife Marcia and their six children, and only a few miles away, another house for his life with Billie, Chris, and Carine. The children from both relationships often visited and stayed over at the other home. Both Walt and Billie lied, manipulated the truth, and did everything in their power to invalidate their children’s understanding of their dysfunctional family life–even into adulthood.
What might make a younger child fearful and anxious often makes an adolescent or young adult rebel against or sever toxic relationships–which is exactly, Carine tells us, what Chris’s journey was meant to do. Although her heart was broken at the loss of her brother, Carine takes comfort in knowing Chris died happy and at peace–something that eluded him in life.
Much of the book is less about Chris than it is about Carine McCandless, who is herself a fascinating woman. While she relates her experience growing up with Chris, the book is largely focused on her own coming to terms with her parents’ behavior. It’s not a pretty story and there’s no fairy tale ending, at least in the traditional sense.
But Carine McCandless is a woman of indomitable spirit whose example gives hope to others that, in the end, a life of integrity and honesty will win out over deceit–and that maybe love really can conquer all.