Much has been written about Chris McCandless’ fatal journey Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s biography made into a successful movie. Now Carine McCandless’ book shares the backstory she asked Krakauer to minimize, and what a difference it makes when we think of her brother’s early death!
Krakauer’s story turned McCandless into a modern day luddite hero, and the debates about his nobility, foolishness, and rejection of society have fueled fascinating speculations about modern life, human needs and heroism. His story has even spawned a new kind of pilgrimage, the “McCandless seekers,” who follow his trail into the wilderness.
His sister, Carine McCandless, has achieved some fame because of her brother’s tragedy. “Carine, 42, estimates that she still receives 30 messages a day from people who’ve been affected by her brother’s story. She answers each e-mail personally. She writes at the desk Chris used in high school and sometimes carries a rock she picked up on her visit to the bus in her jeans pocket. Many high schools have incorporated Into the Wild into their curricula, and she sometimes visits the schools to give talks.” (From the Outside magazine article, which calls our passion for the rusted bus and the story of his death there, an “obsession problem.)
But Carine’s book reveals the abusive childhood that drove Chris to separate from his family and the modern world. According to an interview on NPR, “The Wild Truth opens with several harrowing scenes. After vividly describing one of their father’s attacks on her mother, McCandless moves on to the double beatings she and her brother suffered, “forced down, side by side” across his lap. She writes, ‘The snap of the leather was sharp and quick between our wails. I will never forget craning my neck in search of leniency, only to see the look of sadistic pleasure that lit up my father’s eyes and his terrifying smile — like an addict in the climax of his high.’ ”
Her story continues, tracking the ways her mother became her father’s accomplice, remembering the beatings, rages and hidden pain that marked both their childhoods. Certainly, she shares some good memories as well, but the all-too-common violence that shaped her and her brother’s lives is clear, and it illuminates our efforts to stereotype him as a heroic leader, or a mentally-ill idiot, or a hapless dreamer. A man on a quest, yes, he was that — and he learned his absolutism from his parents, and chose his path out of that experience.
So what does that mean to our interpretation of his continuing cultural role? Here are three ideas that might shift because of this new story:
McCandless the fool might be humanized some in the eyes of those who believe his journey was wrong from the start.
McCandless the hero might seem less idealistic, because his choices grew out of experiences and a need to heal as much as an idealistic vision of nature.
McCandless the role model and leader might be gently removed from his pedestal, simply a human being seeking some peace, not some perfect youth on a world-transforming mission.
Of course, this book might just turn him into a hero-victim, making him even more of a celebrity and inspiring even more pilgrims who travel to the bus and imitate him by posing as he did, photographing where he died, and “friending” Carine McCandless on Facebook, as connecting them in a somewhat macabre, safe way to his story and his life.
We love and hate our fallen heroes so, don’t we? It seems impossible to see them clearly, as people, struggling, brave, human. Sometimes I think we do this because we want to make them more than we could ever be, so we don’t have to chase our own dreams. Sometimes I think it’s because we want to imagine ourselves as more, feeding our inner stories with inspiration. Sometimes I think we’re simply voyeurs, starved for stories to feed our curiosity, binging consumers obsessed with the novelty of other dramas, other lives, and calling it inspiration instead of entertainment.
In the end, all I can do is ask the necessary question raised by this book’s revelations: “What else do I need to know to really understand this young man, who perhaps died too young, and seems to have become an obsession for so many?”
I’m sure we’ll find out more, if we are only patient. After all, we are hungry for answers.
I don’t think we’ll learn much about leadership and failure from Chris McCandless, though. He never got a chance to tell us what he might have learned, since he never got a chance to rejoin the world and claim a place among all of us equally wounded, equally seeking mortals.