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From Into the Wild to The Wild Truth - An Interview with Carine McCandless

Carine McCandless

Carine McCandless

Interview

Author: TrailMob
Date: 06.29.16

In April 1992 Christopher McCandless walked "Into the Wild."  He was immortalized by Jon Krakauer's 1996 book of the same title.  Since then, he has become a literary icon.  The book is required reading on many high school and college campuses across the country.  More than twenty years after his death, Chris's story continues to inspire generations.  Millions of people have read the book and if you’re reading this right now…  you likely have as well.  Hundreds of people have made the arduous hike back to the abandoned Fairbanks 142 Bus just outside of Denali National Park.  Motivations vary from person to person.  I can tell you from personal experience when myself and a friend made the trek, we were enamored by the story and simply hell bent on making it there.  Having read Into the Wild, several times it played a heavy factor in our choice to go work in Denali for the summer.  What we discovered upon our arrival is Chris McCandless was not a well-liked individual in the interior of the last frontier.  The Park Rangers and locals alike called him 'an idiot from the lower 48' who was not ready for the harsh environments of the bush country.  I remember to this day, thinking as everyone bashed his character, his planning etc.…  You are missing the point… he paid the price for his mistakes….  What makes his story appealing was his willingness to forego the comforts of society and the shackles of a paycheck for the silence and solitude that only wilderness adventure can provide.

When we got wind that his sister, best friend and confidant, Carine was penning a book that promised more information about Chris' story I could not wait to read it.  The allegations in "The Wild Truth” paints a picture of Carine and Chris's childhood filled with domestic and verbal abuse, denial, deceit and an inability of their parents to comprehend why Chris would "divorce them out of his life…"  (as he wrote in a letter to Carine).  Initially I was worried this would alter my opinion of Chris McCandless.  I didn't want his journey to be fueled by a broken family; I wanted it to be about his thirst for adventure.  We reached out to Carine and she happily agreed to sit down and chat with us for a while.  We talked at length over the course of two days. While it was indeed Chris' unhappy home life that drove him into the wild, perhaps what is more important about this story is the pofound impact it has had on myself and countless others.

The following is a candid interview with Carine McCandless, sister of Chris McCandless.  If you would like to read Carine's new book "The Wild Truth"… Or if you haven't read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, both are well worth your time.  However to truly appreciate Carine's book,  Into the Wild is required reading prior. 

Twenty years after Chris's death you decide to tell the underbelly of his story. Why now?

You know I wrote this book because I wanted to honor Chris and to share my story and that of my surviving siblings. To empower others that face tough circumstances and specifically domestic violence.  I've noticed over the years how empowering Chris's story is and I've seen incredible reactions.  I've been fortunate enough to witness some pretty powerful reactions from countless numbers of people I've been able to offer a new perspective to and these experiences really made me appreciate that I had something important to share and I truly believe this can help a lot of people find their voice throughout difficult circumstances they are working to overcome. I just felt like it was time; my perspective changed a lot over the past twenty years and especially after becoming a mother. I work with students where Into the Wild is required reading and I’ve seen the importance in having the rest of the story.  So many people are inspired by Chris's story and Chris taught me the greatest inspiration can only come from truth.  So I thought it was important that people where able to fill in the blanks with the truth.   Answer all of those lingering why questions.

In your book you write about some pretty terrible home life situations…  What advice do you have for people in similar situations?

To talk about it and get help.  Really it's not so much about giving advice to those that are going through it because I understand why people suffer in silence.  It's very hard and it's very scary especially when you are being threatened on a daily basis.  So my advice is to everyone else out there within our communities to be very aware and the more we talk about it and the more we open those closed doors, the more it's something we are willing to discuss, I mean it's an uncomfortable thing.   The more people who are suffering through it talk about it, the more other people feel that they can be open about it and get help.  Chris's story is powerful symbol of the devastating effects domestic violence can have on children and families.

What are the differences between your book, The Wild Truth and Into the Wild?

This book does not take away anything from Jon's book. (Into the Wild) Jon's book was beautifully written and it absolutely tells a very real story about my brother.  He shared a side of Chris I honestly couldn't.  Jon related to him as a young male, he was an extreme adventurer just like Chris that took on great risks and he was someone who had a charged relationship with his father.   And it's a bit different from a male perspective than the daughter perspective.  Now I think I've been able to share that personal insight that fills in the rest of the story and tells who Chris was beyond the literary icon he has become.

Tell our readers about your intentions behind writing The Wild Truth.

My intent was to be honest and open about this and in no way shape or form wish to villainize my parent, they are human and they made mistakes.   I want people to read this book and understand the importance of truth in all things and that means being honest with yourself as well as others and accepting responsibility for poor choices you make and the consequences of those mistakes.  We are all going to make them, we are all human and my parents aren't any different but the pain that resides from those mistakes when the blame is put on to others and is not accepted from oneself is very damaging and that happened to us as children.  That's a lot of pressure to put on a kid.  We were told all the problems and violence that existed in our household were because we were born.  My mother would tell us she got stuck with my father when she got pregnant with Chris and when you are a little boy all of that translates to everything is your fault and he grew up that way. 

You get older and you start understanding how children are born ... and what that means and that it's not your fault and when you go to your parents that you love and want to trust… and you want to feel safe with them… but you don't.  When you go to them and you want to talk about these issues and the blame is never rescinded it's only ignored and then denied, it has a very powerful lasting effect.  We certainly didn't have the toughest childhood out there but the devastating things and the abusive behaviors that were present in our house, those things are very real and the good things that existed did not make the bad things any less detrimental.  I just want this book to add to Chris' story and it's not in defense of him. I know there are lots of people with a lot of false misconceptions about him… That he was just foolish or that he was on a death-wish.  I acknowledge he was a young male that pushed himself to the edge and certainly made some mistakes but there a lot of people out there that do that but with the benefit of age they can look back and realize how fortunate they were to make it out alive… Chris didn't get to that point in his life.

I think a lot of people don't realize he had identification and money in his backpack; it’s pretty obvious he didn't have a death wish or a mental illness.  He was aware and was planning on going back to society at some point...

Exactly, Chris had a goal and you can tell from his journal his goal was to be out there 100 days.  And it doesn't matter how hard something was going to be or how hard it got Chris had incredible discipline and willpower he was going to make it to that goal… he died not long after that.   It's not just in defense of his character that I say he didn't have a death wish, if I felt he did then that would be something sad and I would acknowledge it.  But Chris did everything 100%, if his goal was to go out there and die in the wilderness he would not have died in such a painful and slow manner.  He would have gone out there and you know…  I don't know… But he loved life more than anyone I know and the fact that he did have his birth certificate folded and tucked very neatly into his wallet and his social security card and his ID's and $300 cash.  

He had these things zipped inside an inner panel inside his backpack from what Will Forsberg says, and, to me, I don't want to speak for Chris, but to me that was like the safe deposit box, it wasn't really there.   You know he stuck it under the lining… we all have that in our packs, he stuck it in there just so he had it.  He wasn't going to pay attention to that and everyday when he was getting stuff out of his pack he could use that discipline to put that aside.  I mean Chris could have had money on him and have been starving, but if he had decided there was a certain amount of money he wasn't going to touch he would have found another way to eat.

No one can argue he lived by a set of high moral standards and was driven to succeed… and did succeed at basically everything he attempted.

[Carine]  That was all the more reason he had to continue to keep pushing himself cause he was good at everything and it was easy for him to do anything he tried, so he had to make it harder every time.

His Character. He is a man of incredible discipline and courage.  He had audacity and a spine that a lot of people can only dream of.  Obviously your parents weren’t the best. But what part of Chris's character and his drive can be attributed to your parents?

One thing is our parents are the ones who introduced us to nature and took us hiking and took us camping and that was an incredible gift.  That’s were our household was peaceful, when we were out camping and hiking trails having to look for the paint marks on the trees.  When my parents had to focus on where was the best place to pitch a tent before night and showing us how to purify water… that was where it was peaceful and happy.  I think that made a huge impression on Chris.  Chris and I are both very driven, I think we get that drive from both Walt and Billie, they both are very hard working people.  But I think we are driven for different reasons…  I know we are driven for different reasons.  I work so hard right now because in the long run I want to have more time for my children. It's a lifestyle where I don't have to live for my job. I can live for my kids and do work I am passionate about and be happy to do everyday and still take care of them.  

The measure of my success is my children… The measure of Chris's success. To me I'm not speaking for him…  was his love of life and getting the most out of life as he could.  And when he was around them… as you saw in the book (The Wild Truth)… he said himself in his letters, when he was around them… when they were a part of his life he felt it was toxic and he felt the only way he could truly be happy was to get away from that and he did that 100%.   When Chris made a decision it was bam, change your name, divorce your parents and you don't have a family any more.  People sometimes can't understand why I am not angry with Chris because of that…  It's because I get him, I completely understood why he had to do it that way.  It makes sense to me. Would I do it that way? Probably not, but look at twenty years later I’ve completely severed ties with my parents after making so many attempts to maintain some resemblance of a relationship with them.  Once I knew it was the only thing I could do to keep my family happy, my children safe, that was it. It was done.  

You've said you don't blame your parents for Chris's death, but you've also said you hold them accountable for his disappearance.  Holding them accountable for his disappearance, do you think you'll ever be able to forgive them?

No...  But the difference between forgiving and not forgetting is honesty.  I certainly could maintain a relationship with them if they were open to a truthful discussion of mistakes that were made that made Chris feel like he had to leave the he way he did. People make mistakes, but if they can't see them, honestly there is no place for closure; there is not a place for recovery and coming back together.  You can reach out but you can only reach so far.  If the other person has their back turned and is reaching in the other direction you are never going to meet up.

Your parents also released a book about Chris and his pictures and writings.  There were a few YouTube clips I watched that I thought were pretty telling.  Your father Walt says "all those pictures he took were in a bank vault for 16 years, it took me three years to even read Jon's book" (Into the Wild) And then pertaining to looking at the picture he says "it helps me understand where he was, what he was doing, what he was thinking."  What do you believe their motives where?  Denial or perhaps a coping mechanism?

Well I think denial has always been there.  I used to give them the benefit of the doubt that it was a coping mechanism, but I have seen too much evidence with all of my siblings and myself that it is a denial to protect their own reputation.  They can't learn from that.  I don't want to say negative things about my parents, I don't want to be quoted in some cruel way, but there is just no logic in it to me.  It's hard to explain, I mean it took me twenty years to write an entire book to try and wrap my head around that and explain.  It's really hard to do in something that is short and quotable.  What I can say is they released a statement to the media saying my book is fiction and it had nothing to do with Chris and his character.  Their reaction in no way surprises me.  They never did understand their son, not the damage they were doing to him or any of us.  I've waited 20 year for two particular people to learn the lessons that can be learned from Chris's passing.  

(Long pause...)

Chris put himself in a precarious situation and lost his life, he holds responsibility for that and he accepted responsibility for that before he died.  Yet my parents cannot accept any responsibility for the way he left, for the way he disappeared.  I couldn't wait any longer; I realized what a disservice I was doing to Chris and also to my parents… Maybe if I had been open about this twenty years ago and not allowed them opportunity to let Chris be misunderstood or to allow themselves to be able to give misleading information and the wrong impressions about why he left.  I thought I was dong the right thing twenty years ago, now I realize I wasn't.   It was just time to fix that, through my life experiences I've come to understand how important it is that people inspired by Chris have the rest of the story.

I was just talking to my own father, who said he was fascinated by the story when it came out in Outside Magazine, then was excited for the book, then hadn't been to the movies in literally years and then went and saw Into the Wild in the theaters.  His point was Chris's story triggers self-reflection in generations, his courage, and his ability to forego being chained to the comforts of modern society.  Decades later the interest in his story hasn't lessoned at all.  Why do you suppose his story continues to be such an inspiration to so many…  from teenagers to 70 year olds?

It makes people think, what you just said.  It opens up that personal reflection that personal discussion; I mean it's required reading (in schools) across much of the country because it does stimulate so much discussion.  One of the biggest topics of discussion is selfishness versus self-awareness.  Which are two incredibly different things.   Where as Chris's actions may appear to many as selfish, he wasn't selfish.  He was incredibly self aware and the things he did were difficult and comfortable and he knew that's what he needed to do.  That nature and being away from society was where he needed to go through his own recovery and healing and all the things he needed to do to be the best person he could be.  Chris clearly was planning to go back into society, but that does not mean he was going to stay there very long.   I think Chris would have been an outdoor extremist for well into old age had he had the opportunity.  I don't think it would have prevented him from having a family, or meeting someone to love and share his time with, but she'd have to have been a pretty cool chick! 

Do you think exposing your family background diminishes his story by establishing the root of his journey as escaping his family situation?

Absolutely not, I simply think it adds to it.  How can more factual information and the truth take away from a man who believed there was nothing more important than truth?  How is that possible?  I can tell from working with students for many years, it does good for people to know the rest of his story.  Especially for the kids, its not just an assignment for them any more, its a lesson and they take that outside of the college walls.  These are kids that are going to become husbands and wives and parents.  The best thing we can do in this world is to teach our children and those around us that are going to continue on after us is to be good to each other and be good to the world.  How can the message of truth not improve those odds?

What are you going to tell your children about their Uncle Chris?

They already know about Chris.  My one child is 15.  She had a boy in high school last year she had a huge crush on.  They were walking down the hall one day talking about movies.  He asked her "Have you ever seen Into the Wild?  It's my absolute favorite movie I've ever seen in my whole life."   She just looked at him… she didn't tell him who she was though.  My daughter has read my book so she is very aware, I wanted to make sure she was okay with it because of the sensitive issues regarding her in it.  She was happy and proud of it.

You said your family upbringing was not all bad… that you were at peace when you were in nature.  Is there a particular area….

Shenandoah!  Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  We'd also go hiking in Colorado.  But my fondest memories are in Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What is the one thing you want everyone to get from Chris's story?

Truth in all things in life equals happiness.   It really does.  It boils down to self-awareness.  The more you understand yourself and what you need in life.  It sounds like a selfish thing, but it's really not.  The more you understand about yourself you will find that piece and balance in your own life.  It makes you the best person you can be… as a person, as a partner as a parent.

Thank you very much for taking the time to chatting with us!

Thank You!  Look forward to chatting with you guys on Twitter!