Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into the Wild immortalized Chris McCandless, the popular, affluent young man who abandoned his possessions, trekked across the country, vanished into the Alaskan wilderness for reasons apparently unknown, and was found starved to death in 1992. His story of wanderlust and reinvention struck a chord with millions of soul-searchers; Sean Penn made the book into an acclaimed film.
Now his sister, Carine McCandless, shares the troubled, violent family history behind her brother’s disappearance in her new bestseller, The Wild Truth. The book chronicles the abuse she and her siblings privately endured at the hands of their violent father. McCandless, a mother of two who is now estranged from both of her parents, talked to NO MORE about the family’s brutal past and her brother’s legacy.
What was it like to write a book that details such a painful family history?
At first I chose not to live in the past, and I felt that I couldn’t revisit it. But it was exactly what I needed to do. I understand why people suffer in silence. It took me 20 years to write this book. My mother used to talk to me throughout my teenage years about how she wanted to be a voice for battered women and children. In our situation, my mother was the primary target [by my father], but over time she became his accomplice, and she got accustomed to a certain lifestyle financially as well. My mom wasn’t able to get herself or her kids out of that situation. I have been able to do that. My brother’s story is a powerful example of the devastating consequences of domestic violence.
What did your childhood teach you?
That your DNA doesn’t define you. I am the youngest of eight siblings, some of whom are half-siblings from my father [Walt McCandless was partnered with two women at the same time and had two families]. None of us are abusive. We have all broken the cycle of violence.
This is the side that nobody knew… I couldn’t not write this book.
Why did you decide to write this book now, so many years later?
Everyone thought they knew my brother’s story. Jon Krakauer did an excellent job showing a certain side of him, but this is the side that nobody knew. So I couldn’t not write this book. I’d been telling my story to school groups for years. And I saw the effect it had on teachers, professors, and students, when they learned the rest of Chris’s story. These kids are at an age of opportunity, deciding who they want to be, laying the foundation to be the husbands and wives of tomorrow. Inevitably, whenever I told my story, a student would come up to me after class to confide that they’d experienced violence too, and that they were reaching out for help.
How do you feel about your parents now?
As the only surviving child of their union, I felt this responsibility early on to suck it up and not have them lose me, especially my mother. But I realized I was not responsible for them. Writing this book was my recovery from trauma.
I used to feel mournful about the relationship, before having kids. Being a mother strengthened my resolve to protect them at all costs and never go through what I went through. My responsibility as a daughter and a sister shifted to being a sister and a mother. Chris has passed and is not physically in my life, yet I feel his presence at all times. My parents aren’t in my life at all. Whereas I see the sadness in that, I also see the necessity in it. Sometimes you have to remove yourself. As difficult as that can be, it’s all about self-awareness and truth. Chris taught me that.
My brother’s story is a powerful example of the devastating consequences of domestic violence.
Do you think it’s possible to renew a relationship with an abuser?
Each person has to evaluate that for him or herself. You have to put yourself first. If a person who has abused you in the past cannot be honest about it and doesn’t have the self-awareness to get help, I don’t believe they can change. In my experience, I spent 20 years waiting for people to learn these lessons, and when I realized it was not going to happen, I realized what a disservice I was doing to all of those who sought inspiration from my brother. People tell me all the time how Chris’s story empowers them. Sometimes you have to love yourself enough to let go.
Has your father shown remorse?
I have seen no remorse in him. He is a megalomaniac, and he believes it’s our loss not to be in touch with him. He sees no fault in his actions. We really have no contact except for his occasional threatening emails. I haven’t responded in years.
Do you hold your parents accountable for Chris’s disappearance and death?
He’d always been a lover of nature. But he changed his identity and cut off all contact due to our childhood. I do not blame them for his death. He put himself in precarious situations. But I absolutely hold them accountable for his disappearance. He was being pushed away.
What message would you like to give to people in an abusive situation?
Number one: It’s not your fault. Number two: You don’t deserve it. Number three: You’re worth more than this! You deserve better. Number four: There’s always a way out.
In retrospect, how do you rationalize your brother’s disappearance?
When you understand how much he was hurting, you realize that his trek was a pure act of self-awareness. He needed to resolve everything in his past before he could become a parent or a partner. Sadly, he didn’t live to bring what he learned into his adulthood.
What do you hope this book accomplishes?
I want it to give people hope. I want people to be self-aware and use their voice, either to speak up for themselves and tell the truth or to offer hope to the family down the street, the one who might look fine on the surface, like we did. After telling my story, I’ve had people from high school reach out to me and say, “You know, I could tell something was going on. I wish I’d asked you more about it. I wish I’d said something.” I hope the book makes people willing not to look the other way and to stand with survivors.