7 February 2019

The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless

I almost feel awkward reading through my review of Jon Krakauer's infamous Into the Wild when it comes to my perspective on Chris and Carine McCandless' parents. I said they didn't seem "too bad" but that the movie eludes to something more. After finally reading Carine McCandless' memoir The Wild Truth (after getting it for my birthday ~3 years ago) I feel like I now know the full truth, and more light has been shed on why her brother Chris walked into the Alaskan wild all these decades ago.

It has been made clear that Chris McCandless was very close with his younger sister Carine. Krakauer goes over and over this in his book and Sean Penn's film of the same name is narrated by an actress intended to be Carine. I always knew they shared a close bond, but she doesn't have a huge voice in Krakauer's book. I learned quite quickly (in Krakauer's foreword) that while he was researching Chris' life he conducted a lot of interviews with Carine. She was very honest about her childhood but asked that it be mostly kept out of the book. She spends the rest of her memoir giving you insight as to why she would have requested this.

I'd helped make a breakthrough; I was sure of it. People could change. Breakthroughs could happen. It would be much longer before I knew just how rarely they do."

Carine starts the book in her early childhood years. Chris was only a few years older and they spent the majority of their time together playing in the woods and trying to stay out of their parents' ways. Chris and Carine had been well-off as kids because their parents, Billie and Walt, ran a successful business from their family home. I think this financial situation was the basis for a lot of the criticism surrounding Chris because he came off like a spoiled, selfish brat. Once you learn of the emotional and physical abuse they bore witness to, and also experienced first hand, Chris becomes a lot more sympathetic.

Billie and Walt fought for as long as Carine can remember. But the tension between them started a lot earlier. Walt was married with children long before he met Billie. Once they met they began a long affair. It turns out that Walt tried for many years to bounce between both women without getting a divorce, and a lot of Carine and Chris' step siblings were born during Walt's time with Billie. One of the positive things that came out of Carine's memoir was that all of the siblings continue to be very close and formed a massive support system for one another.

Chris and Carine McCandless
This isn't a memoir I will ruminate on, but I am glad I read it because it gives the bigger picture when considering Chris' life. Learning about the constant emotional abuse this family underwent gives you an understanding of why one would try to extricate themselves. Chris found peace in the wilderness, something he had been looking for his whole life. That he died in the process only makes his life more tragic.

I want to go up to them and say Stop, don't do it - she's the wrong woman, he's the wrong man, you are going to do things you cannot imagine you would ever do, you are going to do bad things to children, you are going to suffer in ways you have never heard of, you are going to want to die. I want to go up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it, ... but I don't do it. I want to live. I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips like chips of flint as if to strike sparks from them, I say 'Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.'" - Sharon Olds excerpt from "I Go Back to May 1937", The Gold Cell

I feel weird listing all the stuff Walt and Billie did and I definitely don't think it's as effective as reading the book, but they were definitely awful parents. One of the most interesting (and heartbreaking) things to come out of Carine's memoir was how desperately children want to forgive their parents. It's almost scary to see how much humans crave parental love and I feel beyond lucky to have the great parents I do.

It's easy to read this book and think to yourself "god just cut them out of your life," but I have to believe that unless you've experienced a similar upbringing you'll never get it. I've known a few people who have had similar experiences and I am always shocked by how much they struggle with losing this parent-child relationship.

Now I had left, too. I was no longer living under Walt and Billie's roof, and Chris could tell me the truth. It was a truth that plainly still haunted him, though he'd had three years to work through it. But as mad as he was, entirely forsaking our parents was never as easy as we though it would be. I'd seen all the rest of our siblings do the back-and-forth dance of 'I'm done with them' and 'Well, maybe I'll try again.' It was never simple."

The books found with Chris McCandless in Alaska. They were returned to Carine decades later.
I also really enjoyed reading about Carine's relationship to Krakauer as he wrote Chris' story. Something I loved about Into the Wild was how Krakauer compared himself to Chris. How they were young and idealistic and often foolish in their confidence. While reading his non-fiction about Chris you can see how passionate he is for McCandless and what happened to him.

Although Jon had a reserved demeanour, I could almost see the current fervent energy flowing behind his eyes. The mystery surrounding my brother's story was one that seemed to intrigue him to a point of obsession, but in a very private way."

This is a sad story. The entire time I was reading it I kept thinking how horrible it must have been for Carine to live for so many years hearing people make comments about her brother without the full story. Her parents started doing all these speaking tours peddling bull shit about their grief, hardship, etc. My stomach actually burned up reading about their behaviour. I hope this memoir was cathartic for Carine and I hope more people read it to get the full picture of what drove Chris into solitude.

It is a pretty bleak read - after years of trying, Carine no longer has a relationship with her parents. While it's easy to leave this book feeling bummed out and worried about your own parenting style, Carine does offer some optimism in the exploration of her own growth as a person:

Even though Chris's path and my own were so different and often didn't intersect, we had shared an emotional parallel. I understood why our childhood had affected him so severely, yet he'd always been so strong in my eyes that I'd never expected it to. Perhaps, for all the abilities in which my brother had surpassed me, one I surpassed him in was resilience."

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Chris McCandless. It isn't as well crafted as Krakauer's book and there aren't any passages that will burrow into your mind, but it is very informative and I'm glad I read it.

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