Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild doesn’t tell the whole story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, the 24-year-old guy from an affluent Washington D.C.-area family who forsook them and burned the money they gave him and lived like a vagabond for the next two years, all over the country, before disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness, where he died after four months.
McCandless became something like an icon to dissatisfied young 20-somethings, an icon of knowing that there’s more to life than the pursuit of wealth and comforts, an icon of living wild, not just living.
Turns out, it had far less to do with a distaste for wealth and comfort and far more to do with pain.
Just learned via NPR that McCandless’s sister, Carine, 21 when Chris died, just published a book called The Wild Truth, and in it, she makes clear that Chris wasn’t running from wealth and comfort, but rather from a horrible father.
Walt McCandless beat their mother and his children. He was often drunk. “The snap of the leather,” Carine writes, “was sharp and quick between our wails. I will never forget craning my neck in search of leniency, only to see the look of sadistic pleasure that lit up my father’s eyes and his terrifying smile — like an addict in the climax of his high.”
Not only that: When Walt met Chris’s mother, Billie, he was married. In the first few years of his and Billie’s relationship, Walt fathered two children with his current wife, Marcia, and two with Billie — Chris and Carine. Along the way, he physically and emotionally wrecked both women. When Carine was 1, Marcia escaped with her six kids. Billie often said she, too, would leave Walt, giving her terrified children hope, but she never did.
This is astounding. This completely changes who Chris McCandless looks like in Into the Wild.
The only thing more astounding: when Jon Krakauer was writing Into the Wild, he knew all of this.
Carine told him about it off the record. She said she wanted to protect her parents “in case they could change for the better.”
They never did.
Jon Krakauer’s one of my favorite authors — I love Into the Wild and Where Men Win Glory. But the more I think about this, the more it bothers me.
I actually started this post planning to explore and defend Krakauer’s decisions — one of the hardest parts of nonfiction writing is compromise, is knowing that more often than not we’re probably not telling the full, true story, because human life is more complex than can be fairly captured, no matter how good the journalism or journalist.
But I can’t honestly sit here and tell you that I think Krakauer was right. He kind of screwed Chris McCandless. Same goes for Carine. And look, I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t mean for it to — I respect what Carine wanted, and I respect Krakauer’s decisions. But those decisions are disturbing. If Carine didn’t want these things coming out about their parents, then she shouldn’t have told Krakauer, and if Krakauer wanted to honor Carine’s desires, he shouldn’t have published the book.
This is nonfiction. This is journalism. And journalism is about fact, right? (Well, in theory.) The fact here is that the Chris McCandless who Jon Krakauer presents to us in Into the Wild isn’t the real Chris McCandless.
The real McCandless is a tortured soul just trying to escape. Krakauer’s McCandless is some spoiled rich white boy, some privileged asshat who throws a good life away over some ambiguous, adolescent resentment for wealth and comfort.
And I don’t know how you can look at the difference there, and be honest, and say that that’s okay.
It’s not like Krakauer was some nobody whose book just happened to take off. He was already an established author. I don’t think if he knew Into the Wild would become the sensation it did, because what makes a book a sensation is a mystery to everyone — but he knew people would read it.
This drives me absolutely crazy in nonfiction, and I’m getting sick of it. No nonfiction story is ever truly, wholly true. At best, you just can’t trust a human being’s memory — that’s just science — and you can’t trust people not to exaggerate — that’s just human nature. At worst, you know some deeper, darker, more truthful story that people don’t want told, and you have to compromise, because you have a contract, and you have to get paid, because you have to eat.
Look, there are gray areas. Sometimes, you leave out parts of stories because they’re not relevant to the greater story you’re trying to tell — they only distract from the more important heart of the story.
But there’s a difference, an enormous difference, in a story falling into some gray area, and a story altering its subject’s identity.
Frankly, part of me feels like it’s stupid of me to say that Jon Krakauer screwed up. He’s a great author, and I love Into the Wild.
I just wish it were true. The true version would’ve been so much better.