A few years ago, I taught Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild in a college freshman writing class. I thought the story of Chris McCandless, who turned his back on civilization to hike into the Alaskan wilderness, would resonate with undergraduates. Chris’ tragic journey may have ended with his death, but his quest for purity and adventure was inspirational. Or so I thought.
Apart from one lone hippie idealist, the other students condemned Chris for his selfishness: How could he turn his back on his parents after all they had done for him? As it turns out, many other readers felt the same way. But they didn’t know the whole story of the violent dysfunction that Chris was escaping in his bid for freedom. Now his sister, Carine McCandless, has written a brave and sensitive memoir that fills in the gaps.
In The Wild Truth, Carine depicts their father, Walt, as a violent, controlling abuser. While still married to his first wife, Marcia, he began an affair with Chris and Carine’s mother, Billie. Marcia had six children, and Billie had two—Chris and Carine were technically illegitimate. None of this was explained to Chris and Carine as children, though they spent time with their half-siblings.
But their father’s violence and their mother’s denial of it were perfectly clear. Although Chris tried to protect his little sister, there was no denying the level of physical, emotional and verbal abuse and manipulation in the house. Carine’s description of this dynamic is even-handed and the more horrific for it. And the manipulation continued after Chris’ death in the way Billie and Walt handled his revenue-generating afterlife.
Carine, writing with the full support of her siblings and Krakauer, has succeeded in bringing grace and truth back to her brother’s story.