Many of you have read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, or have seen the Sean Penn movie of the same name; the movie starred Emile Hirsch and included a poignantly beautiful soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.
If you did, you learned a version of the story with all the abuse excised from it.
Into the Wild is the true story of a young man named Chris McCandless who headed off into the Alaskan wilderness at only 24 years of age. He ended up living in an abandoned bus. In less than six months he had died, due to a combination of illness and starvation.
What we learn in the book, and in the movie, is that Chris was a troubled fellow. He felt alienated from modern society and craved a deeper, more authentic existence. He began wandering the U.S. in an aging Datsun, working a few different jobs and sharing his philosophy of life with anyone who would listen. Everyone who came to know him liked him; he was remembered as kind and thoughtful. One older man whom Chris befriended in his travels considered his connection with Chris one of the more important friendships of his life.
Chris’s sister Carine was devastated by his death, and Chris’s six half-siblings also took the loss hard. Chris and Carine’s parents, Walt and Billie McCandless, described themselves as heartbroken and expressed how mystified and hurt they felt that he had disappeared in the way he had. They felt that Chris had acted selfishly and had shown reckless disregard not only for his own life but for the hearts of those who loved him. His rash actions had especially hurt his parents, who had loved him and wanted what was best for him.
Chris McCandless died in August, 1992. Krakauer’s book Into the Wild came out in ‘96 and became a major bestseller, to the surprise of Chris’s relatives. The movie version was released in 2007 and was also a huge hit.
All this while, Carine McCandless was struggling internally. She didn’t want to ruin forever her relationship with her parents – which was a rocky one already – by letting the world know what had really happened. But she found the version of the story that the public was hearing increasingly unbearable to live with.
Nobody had exactly lied. But the most important truths had been left out. And in Carine’s opinion, her parents were being deliberately dishonest about a huge and painful history.
So, some fifteen years after the book came out, and five or six after the release of the movie, Carine decided she had to speak out. She could no longer live with the misleading impression the public had been given about what had driven Chris away. She wrote her own book, The Wild Truth, published by HarperOne in 2014.
What does Carine McCandless say was the real story?
Well, to begin with, their father was a vicious batterer. Carine describes Walt beating and then strangling Billie, and she implies that this was a common occurrence. Walt would require the kids to come and watch his assults. ”We were forced to witness, and then wait. We waited in fear of what would happen – not just to our mom but also to ourselves – if we left before being given permission.” (pg. 11)
After these incidents, the children would be blamed for having caused their father’s violence, and he would whip them with a belt.
Finally, Chris and Carine would be warned that if they ever told outsiders about the abuse, they’d be removed from the home and placed in foster care. And before long their parents would be acting as if nothing had happened, and expecting the kids to do the same.
Walt fathered both Chris and Carine while married to another woman with whom he had six children. For years he went back and forth between Billie and his wife, until his wife cut off her relationship with him and built an abuse-free life for herself and her six children.
All of this history contrasts sharply with the image created in the book and the movie. More importantly, it puts the lie to the public image put forth by Walt McCandless – and by Billie, though you can hardly blame her for trying to say whatever will keep Walt from strangling her.
This was also a family of tremendous emotional cruelty. In addition to being blamed for their parents’ misery, the kids were ignored, put down, and compared to others. Carine had precious belongings of hers, including trophies, destroyed (by her mother). The toxicity was everywhere.
The dynamics in this family prove, once again, that a batterer’s violence is only the (horrible) beginning of the damage that he does, because he creates such a psychologically toxic, and intermittently cruel, environment. And Carine’s story also illustrates the way the abuse-perpetrator puts on a great public face and earns sympathy by claiming he’s been unfairly accused.
What this history adds up to is that Chris’s alienation from society, his hatred of hypocrisy, and his deep emotional struggles, were not a mystery at all. He was carrying the deep wounds that inevitably come from growing up around a man who terrorizes your mother and terrorizes you, and then puts on a great face for outsiders. The lasting effects on children of exposure to a domestic violence perpetrator have been confirmed by dozens of research studies, including the famous ACE study. (And it didn’t help that their mother was little source of protection or solace; it’s hard to tell how much of her destructive role was the result of her own trauma at Walt’s hands, and how much of it was due to preexisting issues she may have had.)
I highly recommend reading The Wild Truth. It’s a powerful and inspiring story. This is all the more true because Carine has built a life to be proud of despite the abuse and hypocrisy she grew up with, and despite the devastating loss of her beloved brother to whom she’d been very close.
There are three lessons I’d like to underline from Carine McCandless’s revelations.
First, the public persona as a kind, loving, concerned person that Walt McCandless adopted is rampant among abusers. We run into story after story of men (in the case of domestic violence perpetrators) or men and women (in the case of child abuse perpetrators) who everyone in town thinks are the most likeable, charming person in the world. Sometimes I wonder what it will take to get people to stop being surprised by these kinds of revelations.
After Carine’s book came out, Walt predictably accused her of lying about all of his abusiveness. He now casts himself as betrayed by both children, and both times for no reason. He avoids mentioning that none of his six other children, Carine’s half-siblings, have denied her account in any way, and that they have remained close to her. Those are inconvenient facts.
Second, court personnel and other professionals need to stop claiming that a man can be a domestic violence perpetrator but still be a good father. Abusing your children’s mother is one of the most damaging things you can do to your children; it’s terrible fathering. No man who has abused his children’s mother should be a candidate for anything close to 50-50 custody. Courts currently are ignoring “the best interests of the children” and caring only about the best interests of the father. The custody courts have become the top enabler of domestic violence and child abuse.
Third, kids who manage to minimize their contact with their battering fathers can heal and go on to have happy, fulfilling adult lives. Carine McCandless’s inspiring life is testament to this potential.
The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. HarperOne, 2014. (The page number for the quotation is from the hardcover edition.)
In Custody is the book to give people who don’t get it. They’ll be entertained by humor, romance, and suspense, but by the end they’ll understand a bunch of things that you’ve been trying to tell them. (Make sure they read the Afterword, too, where they’ll learn that all the cases the journalist uncovers are true stories.) In Custody is available in paperback and Kindle editions. You can read the first 30 pages free at InCustodyTheNovel.com