Book review: ‘The Wild Truth,’ by Carine McCandless
Special to the Daily
The story of Chris McCandless, as told by Jon Krakauer in “Into the Wild,” has become an iconic and revered modern classic. Not only is Krakauer’s writing powerful and his investigations thorough, making for a captivating read, but the details of the life and tragic death of the young McCandless have gained a cult following and a level of attention bordering on obsession. In 2007, adhering closely to the details laid out by Krakauer in his account, Sean Penn directed the movie version of the book, increasing the fascination.
For years, though, questions have swirled regarding the underlying reasons Chris turned his back on his comfortable, college-educated life and his well-off family for a life alone and on the road. His life ended prematurely and in tragic circumstances in the now famous Bus 142 deep in the Alaskan wilderness. What led him to that fateful and lonely spot has been analyzed for more than two decades.
When the story of a family’s personal tragedy becomes a cultural favorite, it is easy to forget the human toll and the real grief and anguish of the family members involved. Chris McCandless’ persona has become larger than life in the time since “Into the Wild” first captivated readers, and during that time, his sister, Carine, has had to navigate the gray area between the truth that has been locked away and guarded and the public story that has taken on a life of its own.
Over the years, though, the story has evolved beyond her comfort zone. As the world grows more mesmerized by descriptions of Chris’ unique spirit and inspiring view of the world, Carine has had to put on a smiling face and hide the ugly shadows lurking in her family’s past. And there are many, all of which Carine shines a very open and honest spotlight on in her highly anticipated book “The Wild Truth.”
Now it is her turn to set the record straight and to tell the rest of the story, and she has done so in captivating and heartrending detail. When Krakauer initially interviewed the family members after the shocking discovery of Chris’ emaciated body, Carine was only 21 and understandably overwhelmed with grief and a sense that the anchor of her world had just dropped away. Decisions were made quickly regarding what details would be included in Krakauer’s account, and at the time, though Carine shared very revealing letters from Chris, she stipulated that he could read them only for context, not for direct referencing in his book.
As Krakauer states in the foreword to Carine’s book, “I was confident I could provide enough indirect clues for readers to understand the underlying problems that contributed directly to Chris’ severe departure from his family. At the time, the main focus was a conscious decision by Carine to protect her parents, for whom the pain and shock were still fresh.”
“The Wild Truth” clearly marks a cathartic turning point for Carine, as the protective shield that has hung over her parents since their son’s death is completely obliterated in this exposing account. Her opening words reverberate with long-contained pain and anger, as after 23 years she visits her childhood home, causing a physically distressing reaction. The house is inhabited, run-down and neglected, a bit like its history. It’s here that she truly shows the depth of her loss. She describes her favorite childhood memories of time spent with Chris, when he served as her protector and constant companion as the world around them spun out of control and became violent.
As children, exploring their limited suburban “wilderness” was very important to both of them. Chris had a vivid and dreamy imagination, and he escaped into it often, taking Carine with him. And there was plenty from which to escape; Carine details it all in her book.
Before Chris and Carine were even born, their parents, Walt and Billie were buried deeply into an extremely dysfunctional relationship, one built on lies. In what started as an affair between Walt, an extremely intelligent and driven aerospace engineer, and Billie, his much younger, less educated and vulnerable secretary, the seeds of their deceptions were planted, and Billie was pulled into Walt’s charismatic and domineering orbit.
Even as their relationship deepened, Walt refused to divorce his first wife, Marcia. Every time she began the divorce proceedings, the violence toward her and their children increased, trapping her. Another child, the fifth, is born to his first wife within months from when Billie gives birth to Chris. Billie would often say to Carine and her brother in times of stress that becoming pregnant with Chris meant she had to stay with Walt, adding that it was Chris’ fault that his father was often drunk during their beatings.
As Carine’s confessional continues, the details become more painful to read. Walt sets up two households, one for each family, and he begins to play the two women against each other, talking up the other’s better qualities. After Walt breaks her back during a particularly severe beating, Marcia finally manages to escape with her children, moving them across the country and well away from his daily torments.
But as Marcia managed to escape Walt’s violence, it unfortunately shifted his unstable focus to Chris and Carine, and they bore the brunt of his unpredictable and violent behavior. The families remained surprisingly interwoven, though, and for Carine that created a puzzle of siblings who were sometimes there and sometimes not. No explanation was given to them about the reasons for the existence of these other children in their lives, but as children are wont to do, they began to lean on each other, so over the years, the half-siblings grew very close.
Carine uses her book to paint in many of the corners of Chris’ character that were left vague in Krakauer’s account. She shines a greater clarity on her brother’s motivations for the complete severing of ties with his family. At such a young and vulnerable age, she alone held the knowledge of his looming departure, and it overwhelmed her. He was her everything, but she unselfishly guarded his secret until he was well away and free of his parents’ destructive and controlling reach.
“The Wild Truth” has three distinct sections, all of which are gripping to read. The first encompasses the early years, when Carine was lucky enough to have Chris at her side to share in what little grace their lives had. The second and third sections are woven from the shredded fabric of the remnants of their family following Chris’s death. The immediate aftermath of the devastating news is a dramatically new perspective on a story that played out in headlines and in Krakauer’s account.
Carine wraps up the book with a very honest look at her own evolution into adulthood. As she fell in and out of marriages and dove deeply into motherhood, she grappled daily with the grip of her parents on her battered being and her wounded soul. She wrestles with the reality of Chris’ status as a cultural icon, and his place in her heart as her beloved brother. His life ended in Bus 142, and so, too, did some of his story, but her brave words elevate the beauty of his spirit to new heights. Visiting his final resting place was a revelation for her, she says, stating, “What draws individuals to this place is not so much about connecting with something they’ve found in Chris but rather to reconnect with something they’ve lost in themselves.”
Perhaps, through writing this powerful book, Carine McCandless has found something beautiful within herself.