When she was a girl, Carine McCandless idolized her older brother Chris. He knew the names of all the trees they passed walking home from church through the woods. He could invent stories and games that kept them amused for hours. And he always tried to protect her from verbal and physical abuse when their parents fought, which was often.
Chris rarely returned home to suburban Annandale, Va., after leaving for college at Emory University in Atlanta, but he and Carine exchanged long, emotional letters trying to make sense of their turbulent childhood. In one letter, he shared his plans to “divorce” his parents, removing them from his life with “one abrupt, swift action.”
After graduating from Emory he hitchhiked across America, befriending dozens of people but never staying in one place for long. He eventually walked deep into the wilds of Alaska with minimal supplies and starved to death in an abandoned bus.
Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book “Into the Wild’’ and Sean Penn’s eponymous 2007 film presented Chris as a visionary wanderer who spurned society and sought truth in nature. Though Krakauer was aware of some troubled family dynamics, he honored Carine’s request not to include these details in his book. The suppression made many readers feel that Chris’s break from his parents was inexplicable and cruel.
In a new memoir, “The Wild Truth,’’ Carine McCandless shares the childhood traumas that complicate and inform her brother’s story while chronicling her own attempts to transcend a troubled past. The result is a moving and revelatory saga.
Any account that exposes the misdeeds of an author’s parents is necessarily partial. But it seems clear that the McCandless home was not a happy one. Chris and Carine were conceived while their father was having an affair with their mother. He already had several children from a first marriage, and though he eventually married their mother, the presence of this other family was always an awkward and painful subject.
The first half of the book traces Chris and Carine’s upbringing up to Chris’s death. Some of Carine’s earliest memories involve alcohol-fueled fights between her parents. When these conflicts turned violent, she and Chris became targets as well. Her father worked as an engineer for various space agencies, and she recounts how he would bellow expletive-laced boasts about his “genius’’ after drinking some gin. Their mother, in turn, regularly threatened to leave him, and Chris and Carine were forced to pick one parent over the other. The unchosen one would invariably scream at them for making the wrong decision.
In a letter to Carine, Chris later described their parents like this: “Over 20 years of lies and meaningless games has reduced them into a permanent state of psychotic insanity.” Their half-siblings also had difficult relationships with their father, and even a psychiatrist hired by Chris and Carine’s parents described the couple’s relationship as unquestionably broken.
But “The Wild Truth’’ is not just dedicated to recording the injuries of childhood. In the book’s second half Carine also charts her gradual movement from anger and grief to a fragile acceptance of her parents’ flaws and a devoted love of her late brother. After two brief and unhappy marriages, she flourished in the male-dominated world of automotive repair, opening her own garage and pursuing a passion for mechanical work that began in high school. She also revisits her cathartic collaboration with Krakauer and Penn for the book and film versions of “Into the Wild.’’ She is intensely grateful that Krakauer’s meticulous reporting uncovered the details of Chris’ wanderings and showed how powerfully he affected those he met.
Many anecdotes show that while Chris was fleeing a traumatic childhood, his journey and ultimate death also reflected his carefully considered pursuit of an unorthodox life. One older man Chris met was so inspired by Chris that he took to the road himself, outfitting his SUV with a bunk and a portable toilet. Many of the details Carine recalls about Chris as a boy show the same adventurous and restless spirit Krakauer depicted. He used to complain during family camping trips that the light from the campground made it impossible to see the stars. “The Wild Truth’’ is a somber and sad book, but there’s something indomitable about Chris’s character. Even as a boy, he wanted a pure and unadulterated experience of nature.Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.