Sometimes leadership can be simply setting the record straight, challenging the myths that oversimplify the story of a leader or celebrity. Chris McCandless was neither a hero nor a fool; he was a troubled young man trying to find peace and live his principles. But we have turned him into an icon. Correcting that myth appears to be his sister Carine’s burden.
In a recent post on a fan website devoted to the life of Chris McCandless, Carine responded to some of the myths perpetuated by the authors and her parents, reinforcing the hard truth of her family’s alcoholic and abusive childhood she discussed in The Wild Truth.
“Perhaps I cannot escape the irony that as children, throughout dad’s gin induced rages, we were reminded that he himself was God, so his actions could not be wrong. This weighed heavily on us, especially after returning home from church and the Sunday school classes our parents taught….
I respect the charitable work my parents perform in Chris’s name and hope it has had a positive effect on their lives as well as those they help. One such effort is the new “Back To The Wild” book they are publishing of his photographs…. Unfortunately my parents have released a new version of their book “Back to The Wild”, actually claiming Chris as the author in the i-books listing – a testament to itself that this is truly an “un-real” version of Chris’s life story. The first page of this book begins with the following intro…”We can only speculate why a young man, right after college graduation, would set out on the open road. Why did he choose to sever communication with his family?”….. Of course, my parents know why. How sad that this book that claims to be the life work of someone that stood for TRUTH above all else, actually begins with a lie.”
The myth of Chris McCandless as nature-loving leader grows out of the myth of heroic leadership — the lonely visionary rejecting the status quo. This could not be farther from the truth, if we think about McCandless as the complex, wounded and healing person he really was, going to the wild for many reasons, including seeking peace after a tormented childhood and adolescence.
Those of us who yearn for freedom, who hunger for an adventure, or who want to run from our own pain and struggle, look to tragedies like McCandless’ as an imaginary life path. It’s easy to look at the 24 year old’s journey with rose-colored glasses, glossing over his death, which resulted mostly from unpreparedness, ignorance of the river’s schedule, and perhaps, a mis-identification of “edible” plants. No matter how noble his vision, his end was no triumph. And his vision grew out of a troubled childhood, and the need to heal a legacy that led him past human help.
The log book at the battered, now trash-filled bus and campground, is full of testimonies to McCandless vision. “Many write that they could see why McCandless stayed. One man described his plans to call his parents for the first time in eight years, and another said he would propose to his significant other when he returned from the trail. Many say that McCandless’s story is not about a man who died but about someone who truly lived. Some express gratitude to him, “for guiding our hearts to find our own paths,” “for giving people hope,” and for having the “guts and glory and faith to carry out his dreams.” (from OutsideOnline.com.)
But this obsession with McCandless has put many would be heroes in grave danger, and even cost some their lives.
From the same article: “Each year, scores of trekkers journey down the Stampede Trail to visit it. They camp at the bus for days, sometimes weeks, write essays in the various logbooks stowed inside, and ponder the impact that McCandless’s antimaterialist ethic, free-spirited travels, and time in the Alaskan wild has had on how they perceive the world. Unfortunately, a lot of these people get into trouble, and almost always because of the Teklanika [the flooding river that stranded McCandless and many pilgrims to the bus]. In a recent story, writer Eva Holland reported that, in the summer of 2013 alone, a dozen people had been “lost, hurt or stranded by the rising river” on the Stampede Trail and had required rescue.”
Was McCandless a leader?
The obvious answer is “yes.” He has become an icon, a martyr, a saint even, for disaffected, restless and anti-establishment youth. That makes him, posthumously, a leader of sorts.
In that way, he’s not unlike the posthumous leader/hero Anne Frank, whose diaries are read as anti-Nazi, pro-joy propoganda in every school in the world. Neither McCandless or Frank had the opportunity, as Malala Yousafzai has, to rise in real-world terms as a conscious and living leader. Once dead, they become what we need them to be — and have a prism of possible identities and roles in our imaginations. They become the leaders we need to believe we might become, if we were brave enough.
But that doesn’t mean they were leaders when they lived. Optimism is a good thing; glossing over problems in order to celebrate a positive vision can be dangerous.
That’s the danger of this kind of zombie celebrity. We’re activating an undead leader, animated from outside himself. Depending on the interpreter, we see what we want to see. If we don’t like one myth, we’ll choose another.
I suppose we do this with every leader. Witness the violent debates about our current presidential candidates, democrat and republican!
But we’d best choose our myths with care, because, like the hikers who lost their lives or loved ones on the pilgrimage trail to the rusted out bus in Alaska where Chris died, we may not be prepared for the consequences of ignoring real-life details about our heroes’ real lives.