Great reads

A vi­o­lent child­hood and the tragic loss of a sib­ling; Carine McCand­less re­veals all in her new mem­oir.

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

Carine McCand­less still re­mem­bers the look “of sadis­tic plea­sure” in her fa­ther’s eyes as he would send her and her older brother Chris to fetch their choice of belts from his closet. Although she was only about 10 years old at the time, the mem­o­ries are seared in her mind. She still re­mem­bers trem­bling at the thought of what would come next.

Her fa­ther, Walt McCand­less, who worked in the US aero­space in­dus­try, had a short tem­per. He’d re­turn home from work and the slight­est thing – a for­got­ten chore or an ill-timed quar­rel – would trig­ger his rage, says 43-year-old Carine, an en­tre­pre­neur, ac­tivist and teacher, in her mem­oir

The Wild Truth.

A typ­i­cally vi­o­lent episode “...would be­gin with a bar­rage of in­sults, then es­ca­late to Dad chas­ing Mom up the stairs… where it ap­peared he planned to choke her to death,” she writes in the pow­er­ful, and at times disturbing book. OnceWalt was done with their mother, Bil­lie, he would turn on his chil­dren. After they re­turned with a belt each – “re­mem­ber­ing to choose the ones that hurt the least” – he would lay the chil­dren across his lap, and strike them sev­eral times, Carine

writes. Later, the fam­ily would sit down for din­ner as though noth­ing had hap­pened.

The Wild Truth, Carine’s first book, is in a sense a follow-up to au­thor/ jour­nal­ist Jon Krakauer’s best­selling iconic 1996 non-fic­tion book Into The

Wild, which told the story of Carine’s brother Chris McCand­less, a smart, in­tel­li­gent and ath­letic young man with a thirst for ad­ven­ture who set out on a two-year odyssey across the US, in a seem­ingly re­bel­lious act of turn­ing his back on his wealthy fam­ily and civil­i­sa­tion. It cul­mi­nated in his death – due to star­va­tion – after he trekked into the Alaskan wilder­ness in April 1992. He was 24.

The book, which was made into a movie by Sean Penn in 2007, spent two years on the The New York Times best­seller list and proved to be so pow­er­ful it is now a pre­scribed text in schools and col­leges across the US and trig­gered an on­go­ing cult fol­low­ing among young­sters keen to re­trace Chris’s foot­steps.

“While Krakauer’s book told the story of my brother, Chris, and his amaz­ing ad­ven­ture, there were some cru­cial ques­tions – like why he was de­ter­mined to leave home and cer­tain fam­ily de­tails – that re­mained unan­swered in it,” says Carine, in a phone in­ter­view from the US. “Jon shared the side of Chris that I hon­estly couldn’t. He re­lated to him as a young male, an ex­treme ad­ven­turer who took great risks, a young man who had a charged re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther... I wanted to tell the rest of the story – who Chris was beyond the lit­er­ary icon he has be­come. I wanted to tell all those peo­ple who were in­spired by Chris why he did what he did.”

Apleas­ant-faced, his­tory and anthropology ma­jor from Emory Univer­sity, Ge­or­gia, Chris had, even as a kid, al­ways nursed a de­sire for ad­ven­ture and sports, says Carine, who shared an ex­tremely pro­tec­tive and car­ing re­la­tion­ship with her brother. Ex­celling in ath­let­ics in school and col­lege, he had a pas­sion for na­ture and was drawn to the out­doors by the books he read.

While Amer­i­can au­thor Jack London’s works in­stilled a pas­sion for dis­cov­er­ing Alaska, Rus­sian nov­el­ist Leo Tol­stoy’s works shaped Chris’s de­sire to aban­don the com­forts of his well-to-do fam­ily home and live by his own ideals.

The Chris in Into the Wild, was en­am­oured by the writ­ing of Tol­stoy, “and ad­mired how the great nov­el­ist had for­saken a life of wealth and

‘My brother be­lieved that if you knew how an ad­ven­ture would turn out it wasn’t an ad­ven­ture’

priv­i­lege to wan­der among the des­ti­tute”, said Krakauer.

How­ever, the young Amer­i­can also had his own pe­cu­liar take on ad­ven­ture. “Chris be­lieved that if you knew ex­actly how an ad­ven­ture was go­ing to turn out, it wasn’t re­ally an ad­ven­ture,” says Carine.

And per­haps that ex­plains why he re­fused to tell any­one ex­actly where he was headed or when and if he planned to re­turn, be­fore he set off on a road trip across the US in a yel­low Dat­sun in the sum­mer of 1990.

Driv­ing through Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona and South Dakota, he took on odd jobs and sur­vived on the kind­ness of strangers be­fore his car broke down after it was caught in a flash flood. Abandoning it, he hitch­hiked across North Dakota, even­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at Fair­banks, Alaska, two years later. Equipped with a Rem­ing­ton semi-au­to­matic ri­fle, a sleep­ing bag, a 5kg bag of rice, a few books and a tat­tered map, Chris was last seen by Fair­banks res­i­dent James Gal­lien.

It was a cold snowy day on April 28, 1992, and Chris was stand­ing by the side of the road thumb­ing for a ride. When James, who was trav­el­ling home, pulled up be­side him. Chris asked for a lift to the edge of the De­nali Na­tional Park almost three hours’ drive away. The two men spoke lit­tle. But after he got out of the car, James found Chris had left be­hind his map, watch and about 85 cents – all the money he had.

“I don’t want to know what day it is, or where I am. None of that mat­ters,’’ he told James be­fore head­ing off down the Stam­pede Trail, a popular trekking route in sum­mer, dis­ap­pear­ing into the snowy woods. Sur­viv­ing on his wits, wild berries and the meat of poached squir­rels, por­cu­pines and birds, the young man ap­peared to be liv­ing his dream.

Four months later though – on Septem­ber 6, 1992 – a cou­ple of trekkers chanced upon what has now be­come the iconic yel­low rust­ing bus – once aban­doned by road work­ers – no 142, near LakeWen­ti­tika in De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve. They were too scared to look inside the bus be­cause of an ex­tremely foul odour em­a­nat­ing from it and a strange mes­sage posted on the door:

‘SOS I need your help. I am in­jured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. Please re­main to save me. I am out col­lect­ing berries close by and shall re­turn this evening. Thank you, Chris McCand­less. Au­gust?’

As the two trekkers were won­der­ing what to do, three moose hunters ar­rived at the bus. One of them peered in through a bro­ken win­dow and saw among other things, a sleep­ing bag with what ap­peared to be a man inside. The Alaskan state troop­ers ar­rived and broke into

the bus and found Chris, who had been dead for around two weeks. Star­va­tion was cited as the most likely cause of death. How­ever, there have been re­ports Chris may have eaten a poi­sonous berry.

It was four years after Chris’ death that Krakauer’s Into the Wild – pieced to­gether from Chris’s jour­nal found near his sleep­ing bag and in­ter­views with Carine and those Chris met on his trav­els – was pub­lished to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. It quickly at­tained cult sta­tus with thou­sands of ad­ven­ture lovers jour­ney­ing to the Park to pay homage to where Chris’s body was found.

Jon’s book was adapted into a film by Sean Penn and the same year, Ron Lamothe, an Amer­i­can film­maker made Chris’s story into a doc­u­men­tary: The Call of the Wild.

Carine ad­mits that while Jon Krakauer’s book bril­liantly por­trayed Chris’s adult life and his time in the wilder­ness, there was a lot more to be said. She also wanted to con­front crit­i­cism that Chris, an in­tel­li­gent and ed­u­cated man, was stupid, even sui­ci­dal, to set off into the wilder­ness with­out tak­ing ad­e­quate pre­cau­tions.

“There was a much darker re­al­ity of our fam­ily life that needed to be told to put Chris’s life and story in per­spec­tive,” she says. “Almost ev­ery time I met with a group of peo­ple I was asked why Chris left the way he did and why he felt the need to push him­self to such ex­tremes.

“I wanted to in­form those who had read or known about Chris to un­der­stand that go­ing into the wild was far from crazy. It was the san­est thing he could have done,” says the soft-spo­ken mother of two.

In her mem­oir, Carine makes it clear that her brother’s sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance and the jour­ney he took was a re­sult of his de­ter­mi­na­tion to move away from their par­ents and a trau­matic child­hood. “I found heal­ing charg­ing head­strong into so­ci­ety,” she said. “He found heal­ing go­ing head­strong away from so­ci­ety.”

There were sev­eral con­fronta­tions that Chris had with his fa­ther, which Carine writes about in painstak­ing de­tail, all of which sug­gest Chris wanted to leave home as soon as he could. “He wanted to re­ally sep­a­rate him­self from a sit­u­a­tion which he felt was very toxic.” But why did it take her over two decades after his death to write this book? “I was hop­ing that my par­ents would learn from Chris’s death and come out with the truth. I wanted them to have the op­por­tu­nity,” she says. “But over the years I re­alised what a dis­ser­vice I was do­ing to the peo­ple who were in­spired by Chris be­cause they [the read­ers] did not have the whole truth and truth is so im­por­tant to Chris.” Carine says, while her book The Wild

Truth ends up paint­ing her par­ents in an ex­tremely poor light, “It was not writ­ten in any way to vil­lainise Bil­lie and Dad.”

Their mother, writes Carine, did not stop their fa­ther when he was abus­ing her and her brother and of­ten tac­itly agreed they de­served the pun­ish­ment he gave them. “They made mis­takes and I cer­tainly have made mis­takes and I think it’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant that you can learn from your mis­takes,” she says.

Walt and Bil­lie, who are still alive, have only made one pub­lic state­ment in re­sponse to a re­quest from ABC’s news pro­gramme 20/20. Last year, in a com­ment for a seg­ment about Carine’s book, they wrote: “After a brief re­view of its con­tents and in­ten­tion, we con­cluded that this fic­tion­alised writ­ing has ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do with our beloved son, Chris, or his character.”

Carine be­lieves her book high­lights the im­por­tance of ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for one’s mis­takes and not blam­ing oth­ers for choices that you make. “And that, I think, is the big les­son in this book. I wrote this book also to em­power oth­ers who face tough sit­u­a­tions, specif­i­cally do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. I’m con­fi­dent it will help oth­ers find their own voice.”

She also be­lieves this in­sight into their child­hood will sur­prise peo­ple. “I guess [read­ers] will be more aware of the choices that they make in life, es­pe­cially when they be­come par­ents. That is one of the most im­por­tant mes­sages.”

So how dif­fi­cult was it to write the book, warts and all? “Putting down my thoughts was not dif­fi­cult,’’ she says. “What was dif­fi­cult was leav­ing them on the page. I use Chris as my guide and I keep hear­ing him say noth­ing is more im­por­tant than the truth.”

Carine vis­ited the bus where her brother died three times, and al­ways car­ries a cou­ple of peb­bles she picked up from the site. “I have them with me al­ways – in my jeans pocket or in my bag. I have them with me right now while talk­ing to you.”

What does she think is the rea­son Chris’s story be­came so popular?

“It was not just about a boy who wanted to leave home,” she says. “It struck a chord among peo­ple who wanted to change their jobs, some­one who wanted to move to a dif­fer­ent level in life… The story is so re­lat­able at so many dif­fer­ent de­grees. It’s re­ally a time­less story... I like to say that it goes beyond ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries… the fact that you in Dubai are read­ing it, for in­stance.”

Her mem­oir, The Wild Truth, she says, is not a re­vis­it­ing of Into the Wild. “My book fo­cuses on a sib­ling sur­vival story. It fo­cuses on the lessons that can be learnt from Chris, and I plunged my­self into the story.

“When read­ers turn the last page of the book I want them to have hope. I want them to know that ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in life – all the pos­i­tives and nega­tives – hap­pens for a rea­son. It is not ac­ci­den­tal.

“What is im­por­tant is to learn from the mis­takes and make changes and go on in life.”

‘There was a darker re­al­ity of our fam­ily life that needed to be told to put things in per­spec­tive’

Carine be­lieves her brother’s story is re­lat­able to all of us

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