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. Once Walt 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.”
A pleasant-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 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 Lake Wentitika 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 film-maker 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.”