Does 'The Wild Truth' Tell the True Story of Chris McCandless?

An explosive memoir by Carine McCandless provides new details about a toxic family environment that drove her brother to embark on the famous and fatal quest immortalized by Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild

Nov 9, 2014
Outside
Outside Magazine
  • Chris and Carine McCandless in the mid-1970s, dressed for Easter at the family’s home in Annandale, Virginia.  Photo: Courtesy of Carine McCandless

  • Chris, Walt, Billie, and Carine at dinner after his graduation from Emory University in May 1990.  Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

  • Chris and Carine McCandless outside their Annandale, Virginia, home.  Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

The Wild Truth, the new memoir by Carine McCandless, is rough going at times. The book covers many years and a lot of ground, and much of it is emotionally powerful in a positive way, including new details that Carine offers about what the late Christopher McCandless was like as a brother. (Short answer: loving and protective.) But this family history features a startling amount of toxic behavior, most of it coming from Carine's and Chris’s parents, Walt and Billie McCandless. Carine describes them as a pair who, at their best, were good providers and fun, caring people. But at their worst, she writes, they were cruel and abusive, and this side of them was on display all too frequently when the kids were growing up in El Segundo, California, and, later, Annandale, Virginia. 

According to Carine, Walt was a violent bully who drank heavily and sometimes flew into rages that ended with whippings and beatings for his wife and children. Billie was the primary victim, Carine writes, but she was also a victimizer, belittling and betraying both kids at crucial junctures. A vivid example occurred a week after Carine graduated from high school in 1989, when she came home from a date just before a household curfew. Walt, she writes, was waiting for her at the door, intoxicated, and he jerked her violently into the house. 

Chris and Carine McCandless outside their Annandale, Virginia, home.   Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

“My feet crossed over the threshold without touching it,” she writes, “my sandals falling to the floor as he lifted me by the neck and shoulders, repeatedly slamming me against the wall. A deep, fierce roar escaped him as he threw me onto the couch and trapped me under his weight.” Walt soon let Carine go, but not before putting his hands around her throat and calling her a “fucking bitch.” Billie was away that night, at a family beach house in Maryland. Carine says that when she got Billie on the phone and told her what had happened, her mother said: “You know what, Carine? I think you’re a lying bitch.”

The book also explores in great detail another McCandless family drama: the fact that Chris and Carine were illegitimate. In the early 1960s, when Walt was working at Hughes Aircraft in southern California, he was married to a woman named Marcia, with whom he eventually had six children. Billie worked at Hughes as a secretary, and she and Walt began having an affair. For years, Walt kept two households: one for Marcia and her kids, one for Billie, Chris, and Carine. Chris was born to Billie in 1968, only three months after Marcia had given birth to a fifth child, a boy named Shannon. Quinn McCandless, Walt and Marcia’s sixth child, was born in 1969. Carine, the youngest of Walt’s eight children, was born to Billie in 1971. Walt and Billie finally married a few years after Marcia divorced Walt in 1972.

This second family proved to be a godsend for Carine over the long haul—she’s close with them still—but the legacy of abuse and deception weighed heavily on Chris, and one of the driving points of The Wild Truth is that his famous, ultimately fatal journey of adventure and discovery was motivated in large part by a desire to escape his parents, a theme that will be familiar to anyone who saw Sean Penn’s film version of Into the Wild, released in 2007. But Carine’s new book fleshes out the causes of Chris’s actions with much more detail and impact. “People think they understand our story because they know how his ended,” she writes, “but they don’t know how it all began.” 

Finally, the book includes another fascinating piece of backstory, unknown until now: Carine told Jon Krakauer, author of 1996’s best selling Into the Wild, about Walt and Billie’s flaws when he was researching his book. At the time, Carine wasn’t ready to go public with this information, and she asked Krakauer to keep that part of the story private. In a foreword to The Wild Truth, he says that honoring this promise was no problem—journalists keep information off the record all the time. In addition, he writes: “I shared Carine’s desire to avoid causing undue pain to Walt, Billie, and Carine’s siblings from Walt’s first marriage.”

(Clockwise from bottom left) Carine McCandless and her daughter Christiana, Shelly McCandless, Robin Wright, Sean Penn, Shawna McCandless, and Emile Hirsch on the South Dakota movie set of ‘Into the Wild’ in the summer of 2006.   Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

Krakauer also thought people would be able to grasp, from “indirect clues” in his narrative, that Chris’s behavior during his final years was explained by “the volatile dynamics” of his upbringing.

“Many readers did understand this, as it turned out,” Krakauer writes. “But many did not. A lot of people came away from reading Into the Wild without grasping why Chris did what he did. Lacking explicit facts, they concluded that he was merely self-absorbed, unforgivably cruel to his parents, mentally ill, suicidal, and/or witless.”

The Wild Truth will be published on November 11, and what remains to be seen is how Walt and Billie respond to a work that purports to lay everything bare and could be extremely damaging to their reputations. They have made only one blanket public statement so far, in response to a request from ABC’s 20/20 that they comment for a segment about The Wild Truth that aired on November 7

“After a brief review of its contents and intention, we concluded that this fictionalized writing has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, or his character,” they wrote. “The whole unfortunate event in Chris’s life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams—not a spiteful, hyped up, attention-getting story about his family.” Walt and Billie declined a request from Outside to comment further on the book.

In advance of The Wild Truth’s release, Carine McCandless spoke with Outside editorial director Alex Heard about the what, why, and why now of a memoir that seems destined to arrive with a bang. 

OUTSIDE: Readers will be shocked by the abuse you describe in the book, which is very frightening. What was it like living with this, and why did you decide it was time to tell people what really happened?
CARINE: My hope is that this new information about a very well-known story is going to be helpful to people, and eye-opening. I want to empower others who face tough circumstances, specifically domestic violence. My point was not to villainize my parents in any way, shape, or form. People don’t learn from villains. My point is to humanize them, so that people can learn from the situation.

I don’t like to use the word “expose.” This is just the truth, the information, the answers to all the “why” questions that have been lingering about why Chris felt the way he did, why he left the way he did, and what pushed him to the extreme. 

What kind of reactions are you getting from your extended family—the sons and daughters that Walt had with Marcia? 
It’s important to acknowledge that, while all my siblings were supportive of me and gave me their trust and respect for why I felt I needed to do this, there were a couple who wished I wasn’t doing it. Because it’s tough having your family in the public eye so much, and then being thrust into it again. I really want it to be clear how much I worked, in the writing of this, to respect my family’s space and their comfort level. I worked very hard not to speak for anyone who chose not to have their voice directly present outside of the facts, including my siblings, and I also was careful not to speak for Chris, unless it’s something he directly said to me or wrote to me in a letter.

There are three different episodes in the book in which Chris, you, and you and Marcia’s kids together try to confront Walt and Billie—either by letter, e-mail, or in person—and have a healthy, if confrontational, discussion about their behavior and why you think it needs to change. Every time, they give a sort of flippant, dismissive response, which doesn’t indicate that they see much need to self-assess. Have they read the book, and do you have any sense yet of how they’re reacting?
My parents were sent a copy of the book ahead of time, because I did want to allow them, with all due respect, the opportunity to respond however they wished to. And I didn’t want them to be blindsided, you know, by the media or in an e-mail.

Have you heard anything about how they’re taking it?
Nothing has come directly to me. I don’t want to speak for Walt and Billie, but I’ll just tell you what I personally expect. I think their history has shown that denial would be very likely. My mother has told me in the past that, because of her and my dad’s religious beliefs, the slate has been wiped clean, and that the events of our past just don’t matter anymore—they’re non-existent. But I believe honesty is imperative in the process of healing from family turmoil and tragedy. In the book, I write of having raw and selfish optimism, holding out a slight hope that removing the final masks from my parents might bring upon them some relief and allow some healing within my family. This is certainly not my expectation, but again, I want to be respectful and not speak for them.

And, obviously, you can’t try to predict what they’ll do.
I don’t expect it to be a pleasant situation. But over the years, I’ve really come to feel that I did a disservice to Chris and my extended family—maybe even to my parents—by allowing these things to be buried and to manifest as misconceptions about Chris.

I also want to make it clear that I have the highest respect for Jon Krakauer, who did a remarkable job writing Into the Wild. I realized when I was writing my book what a difficult task I put on him when I shared a lot of the struggles and details about the family dysfunction in order for him to better understand Chris. But I made him promise—before I let him read Chris’s letters, before I told him these things—that he wouldn’t expose any of it in the book. He had such high integrity in doing that, and I admire him for it.

A key moment in your memoir comes around the time of Chris’s graduation from Emory University in 1990. He tells you he’s going to allow your parents to fool themselves into believing that their dysfunctional relationship with him is stabilizing. But then he tells you what he really has in mind, in a letter that you’re sharing for the first time in your book: “I’m going to completely knock them out of my life ... I’m going to divorce them as my parents.” And you make it clear that, when Chris set a course like that, he stuck with it.
Yes, that’s right.

Chris, Walt, Billie, and Carine at dinner after his graduation from Emory University in May 1990.   Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

You also emphasize that Chris had a sense of adventure at a very young age, a love of nature, and that he was drawn to Alaska by the books he liked as a boy. Have you ever thought about whether—without the catalyst of him wanting to get away from your parents—he would have gone off wandering anyway?
I think Chris would have been an adventurer and drawn to nature no matter what. I think it was just innate. There are a lot of people who go off and do extreme adventures, but the difference is that they let someone know where they’re going.

Chris was a smart and reasonable young man, but he was also a young man. From conversations I’ve had with Jon, I know that he, his friends, and fellow mountaineers remember when they were young and how many times they came out of a situation where they nearly didn’t make it out alive. It might seem reckless to them now, when they’re older, wiser, and more experienced. But at the time their boldness could be blinding, or perhaps that was the point.

Because of Chris’s childhood situation, he felt this need to push himself to extremes and prove something. Things came pretty easily to Chris—and by that I mean he was smart and he was good at everything he tried to do—so he had to up the ante a bit and make things harder. Chris believed firmly that if you knew exactly how the adventure was going to turn out, it wasn’t really an adventure. He understood the risks he was taking, and they were calculated, and there was a reason for it.

But to answer the crux of your question: People ask me all the time if I blame Walt and Billie for Chris’s death. I don’t. Chris made certain decisions and placed himself in that perilous situation. He also accepted responsibility for his mistakes, and accepted his fate bravely at the end. I do, however, hold Walt and Billie accountable for Chris’s disappearance and for us not knowing where he was. That was absolutely related to his feeling a need to escape and disconnect.

Walt and Billie with Chris after his high school graduation in 1986.   Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

Your decision to write the book was a long time coming, and you’ve indicated that it stemmed from years of watching Walt and Billie self-interpret events to their benefit. You offer a particularly telling scene. It’s the morning after Chris’s wake in Virginia, during a breakfast at your parents’ home, and your mother says, “Everyone was so kind and forgiving of Chris for what he’s done to this family.” That must have been—
Yeah, I remember that morning! I was in this haze of not even being able to fathom that Chris was gone. And I’m balancing my anger with why I know that he left, in the way that he did, and why we didn’t know where he was. I’m struggling with that anger, along with the empathy my parents deserve for having lost their son.

Chris was not just some insolent teen rebel who had nothing to complain about and took off, and I didn’t write this book in defense of him. But what really made it difficult for me to continue to allow the unspoken to remain unspoken was that, with that information not being out there, it gave my parents the opportunity to almost bury themselves. I saw it coming and I warned them many times, when they would do outreach and were speaking about Chris and portraying themselves as martyrs who were honoring him, no matter how much he had hurt them.

I begged them many times, “Please, you need to stop doing that.” In reply, they kind of used Jon’s book as a bible: “It’s not in here, so it didn’t happen, Carine. We don’t know what you’re talking about.” And that angered me very much, because I had protected them in that book. 

Meanwhile, Jon was keeping his mouth shut and I was keeping my mouth shut, and I kept waiting for my parents to learn a lesson. And while I’m waiting, I’m keeping the rest of that lesson from millions of people around the world who are learning about this story.

What made you finally decide “now”?
It came full circle for me when I started speaking with students. In places where Into the Wild was required reading, I saw what an amazing effect it had on them, and I became more and more comfortable answering their questions. I would always answer the students honestly, and I just started giving out more information. Then I would receive letters from professors, saying, “Your visit here has changed the way I’m teaching this book.” Or when I talked to some student who I just knew was dealing with violence at home, or I could tell they were going through some abusive situation. To hear so many times how these young people finally reached out for help, for the first time, I knew I had to tell this story.

On that score, the book is not just about Chris and your parents and Into the Wild. A lot of it is about you, as an adult survivor of domestic violence and emotional trauma.
Yes, and I want people to understand that, because my intent is not to retell Into the Wild. There will be people who don’t understand why I’m talking about having kids and failed marriages and having a special-needs child with Down syndrome, when they just want to know about Chris.

The book is about Chris, but it’s more of a survival story. The best way I can help people learn from Chris and our experiences and our childhood is to show them directly how I learned from Chris and how I learned from our family’s dysfunction, how I survived. So I utilize myself in both positive and self-deprecating ways. I can’t criticize other people for not learning from mistakes if I don’t acknowledge my own mistakes and what I learned. This book very much goes into all of that.

Carine, Chris, Walt, and Billie in the 1970s.   Photo: Carine McCandless family collection

There’s a moment when you and Chris are both little kids and you’re walking to church. You’re reminded of a waterfall you both saw during a family trip to the Shenandoah, and you recall Chris saying, “See, Carine? That’s the purity of nature, it may be harsh in its honesty but it never lies to you.”
Truth was so important to Chris, and I want people, when they turn the last page of this book, to feel empowered in knowing that all things that happen in life, both good and bad, have a purpose. Chris used to talk to me about how everything that happens brings with it an opportunity, and we used to talk about how even negative things that occur are fuel and you can use that energy—it’s all energy, you’re in charge of how it affects you, and you can use it to launch yourself in a positive direction. I think Chris saw nature as an escape from all the things that he was lacking in his childhood. Things might be harsh, and nature is sometimes harsh, but nature is not going to manipulate you.

Chris and I knew the good things that we had, just by virtue of being kids who grew up in America, but that didn’t make the negative things any less real. I had to navigate my way through that, and it took me a long time, and I had to face that I couldn’t navigate successfully without acknowledging the full truth. I know this book is going to be the beginning of a long, really tough process. I know I’ll be heralded as brave by some and I’ll be criticized as cruel by others. But I believe these lessons can help those who read them as much as it helped me to write them down. I wrote this book with a focus on truth and with pure intent. The person who taught me that this is the only thing that matters is Chris.

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