Jon Krakauer's haunting biography Into the Wild tells the story of Chris McCandless, a young man who severed his ties with his family and ventured into the Alaskan wilderness, where he died. The book has become a modern-day classic, widely read in college classrooms and hotly debated by some who see McCandless as fundamentally selfish and ill-prepared for his journey and others who laud him as a contemporary hero, a romantic wanderer killed in pursuit of solitude and enlightenment.
In her recent memoir The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless argues that there is little mystery as to why her brother severed ties with his family: Their mother and father were verbally and physically abusive, and he fled that trauma. She wrote about it, hoping her story would fill in the gaps in Krakauer's book and be a useful tool for other people dealing with domestic violence. In advance of her reading tomorrow at the Tattered Cover, Westword spoke with McCandless about her book and her brother.
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Westword: This is quite a remarkable story you tell. Talk about what this book is about to you. Carine McCandless: I wrote this book to honor my brother Chris, to share my story and that of my siblings in order to empower others that face tough circumstances that deal with domestic violence and family dysfunction. I think that is a good summation of this book. It is not so much a retelling of Chris's story. You don't follow up Jon Krakauer; it's like going on stage after Ella Fitzgerald. That was not my intent, of course. Jon wrote the forward. He was very supportive of this book, and it was just simply time to tell the rest of the story. Over the years, I've come to understand how important it is that people around the world who've been inspired by Chris's story have the rest of the details that have previously remained unknown, including answers to the "Why?" questions that have been lingering. Talk about your work with students.
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I've been working with college students for years where Jon's book is required reading, and now they're looking into making my book required reading. I've just seen with that audience that understanding Chris better and why he made the decisions he made and why he felt the need to push himself to such extremes, with students in particular, I've witnessed it become something that's no longer just an assignment for them, but it becomes a real lesson and something that they identify with and can take with them outside the classroom. I think that's what Chris would want.
Talk about what the lessons are from Chris's life.
I think that the lessons are present in Into the Wild, but there are still a lot of people who are searching for why they have such a strong connection with Chris. They were often searching for a greater understanding of why they were connecting with him acutely. I recognized early on that I was viewed as a spokesperson for Chris's story. Over the years, I've become more and more comfortable with that and have understood the importance of truth and how important that was to Chris and how that was the best way to honor him.
I think it's important for people to understand how important honesty is in everything you do in life, how it affects your children, your family, how it makes you the best person you can possibly be in order to help others.
How do you hope this book impacts Chris's legacy?
Something I will tell you that gets discussed a lot, and not just in the colleges I go to but just in general conversations that people have, is that the topic of selfishness always comes up. People don't have an understanding of all that Chris endured as a child and the things that led him, ultimately, to Alaska. I think that they are looking for those blanks to be filled in, because they can tell there is more to the story, but they're trying to get past what can appear as selfish acts on his part.
Chris wasn't concerned about what other people thought about him, but I wrote this to honor him so people could learn from our story. This is not so much a book that focuses on Chris's death as it focuses on the survival of his remaining siblings, myself and six others, and that story, which I think is so important.
Our situation isn't so far out of the norm that people won't relate to that. I think that our level of family dysfunction, the violence that we dealt with, the turmoil that we went through, I think is relatable for people. It allows a lot of people to identify with this and to learn from it.
Back to what I was talking about with selfishness: It's selfishness versus self-awareness. That's something that I think people will really understand about Chris from reading my book. It wasn't that he was selfish. He was very self-aware and understood what he needed to do in order to be the best person he could be in the situations he encountered in his life. Unfortunately, he didn't survive to live out those lessons that he was teaching himself in adulthood and as a parent.
I felt, in so many ways, with Chris's life being half the length of my life -- I'm 43 now, 42 when I finished the book -- that I've always felt that I'm living for both of us. I want to honor that. I want to earn it. I'm not trying to compare myself to Chris in any way or to defend him. I think by opening up about myself, in ways that -- I'm sure you can tell from reading the book -- are very honest and sometimes self-deprecating, I'm analyzing the experiences and the lessons that I've learned from Chris in my life and how I've applied those things to my adulthood and to being a parent and the things that Chris didn't have the opportunity to do. I think that people will learn from that. I really do. I feel that this book has the ability to help a lot of people.
Read on for more from Carine McCandless.
How have your siblings responded to the book?
I support my siblings. I'm grateful to my siblings for being supportive of that. They weren't all -- a lot of my brothers and sisters live there in Denver -- and they were all very respectful of my need to do this. They were understanding and respectful and supported my need to do this. We're very open and honest with each other, and I love that.
You can tell that some were very involved with the book and have been involved with speaking out publicly, and there are others who take a much more quiet and personal approach to this. I completely respect that. I tried to respect that in the writing of the book. I make an effort to not speak for Chris, to not speak for any of my siblings, but to honor their comfort level as well. Whereas they were all supportive and respectful of me, there were a couple who wished I didn't feel the need to write the book. It's just tough having your family in the public eye for so long and then launched right back into it. They all do have an understanding of how important this issue of domestic violence is and hope it can help people.
Talk about that experience of being in the public eye and having two gigantic projects, Krakauer's book and Sean Penn's film, focused on your story and how you narrate your own story. What has that been like, in terms of memory and the process of remembering?
Well, when I started writing The Wild Truth, I didn't know if it would definitely turn into a book that would be published. It very well could be a very cathartic and healthy journaling exercise, and I was fine with that. I made a journal a long time ago, and it's something that I encourage students to do always when I work with them. It guess it should seem surreal to me. It's just my life. It's just what it's been. I try to take every situation that comes my way and do something positive with it. I would never want to be quoted by saying my life has had some tough circumstances without being quoted that I realize how simple my life has been compared to many. I think that's one of the reasons that makes it relatable to people.
It's just my life. I don't step outside of it and look at it from the perspective of other people. I think if I did, maybe it would be a little bit harder to slip back into it comfortably. It's like I write in the book, my legacy will have little to do with famous books or movies or my interaction with those things and everything to do with the legacy I leave behind, which is my kids and teaching them to be better people and do positive things in their lives and the world.
I do recognize and completely appreciate that Jon's book Into the Wild and Sean's film are huge platforms, and I respect and appreciate that. I guess that's kind of what I'm trying to say there. When I started writing this book, some people would say, "Oh, it's so obvious. It's going to get a publishing deal because it's such a well-known story." But on the other hand, you're following up on this incredibly well-known story. It's a double-edged sword. I didn't think about that or focus on it. I just wrote like I was writing in a journal about what I thought was important and it turned into a book and apparently a book that people are interested in reading. So I'm grateful for that because of the positive effect I feel like it can have.
One of the things you talk about in the book is how people respond to domestic violence, in terms of bearing witness to it, intervening. You film it at one point. You document your own story. I'm curious where you fall on the question of intervention with domestic violence. Is there a way to intervene? What does that look like?
I'm not an expert on the subject from a critical standpoint, if critical is the right word. I think that I clearly can respond to this in the way that I did with the book, through my own experience. Domestic violence can be incredibly devastating in all forms -- mentally, physically and emotionally. Oftentimes it manifests itself as bullying. I think that people make the mistake sometimes of analyzing the issue as if to determine whether or not the victim has a right to speak out. In my family experience, which is what I can speak to, the long-term effects vary depending on each individual who has found their own way to cope and recover. I suppose writing this book is part of my journey in recovery. I wanted my story to be able to help others.
But I think that as far as intervention, I absolutely think that it's possible. I see on social media, people jump onto the issues that they see being passed along on video. People respond to that through social media, whether that's issues of students that they find out about, young people who are being bulled at school, and they're signing petitions and passing the information along, which is of course a great resource and can help. But I want people to go beyond that. I want people to go beyond hitting "share" or hitting "like" or showing that they care.
I want people to feel that community responsibility; they're showing their care and willingness to get involved. I want them to talk to that person who lives down the street that they, in their gut, know is suffering through domestic violence. I want that teacher in school to have the resources they need to cut through the red tape and to be able to help that child that they definitely feel is going through something at home.
Of course, I'm not able to speak from a legal standpoint how that is best done. I don't want to come across as saying how exactly that happens. But I want to start discussions. I want this book to start a new discussion. I want this book to get people to open up their eyes a little more and be a little more personally involved. It doesn't matter if it's something that they grow up with. Domestic violence is so prevalent in the many forms that it exists that they're going to come across it in life. It's either going to be something that they deal with with somebody that they care about or love or that they're working with or that they're teaching. It is going to come up in their lives, and I want people to open up those doors.
I talk a lot about the house that we grew up in like it was this mask. I want people to be more aware. And I want those who are suffering from domestic violence to know what the resources are out there where they can get help and not feel shame and to know that it is something that is common. I hope that it helps. I hope it helps them feel less shame.
It's also very important that people be very honest about it and forthright. From a community level, I want people to be more open and involved in their community in trying to help people who they feel are suffering through this. And I want people in the community who are suffering from domestic violence to be able to reach out and to be more comfortable reaching out for help.
Carine McCandless will read from and sign her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 18 at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. For more information, go to tatteredcover.com or call 303-322-7727.
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