How a False Self-Image Pushed Christopher McCandless to His Death
On September 6th, 1992, hunters found a young man’s decomposing body in the deserted wilderness of Alaska. They would later find out it was the body of 24-year-old ‘Chris’ (Christopher) McCandless, who since 1990 had completely cut all ties with his parents, sister, and family. Since the start of the year when he was found, Chris had been living off wild plants and the animals he shot dead with his rifle. His story became known to the general public after writer Jon Krakauer wrote the best-selling and later filmed book Into the Wild about it.
Since his voluntary disappearance, without money, and on foot, sometimes for months at a time, Chris roamed large parts of America’s west coast, Northern Mexico, and his final destination Alaska. Chris called himself an “aesthetic traveler”, but an experienced backpacker he was not. In his rucksack, he carried along a larger weight of philosophical literature than survival gear. He largely left his travels to chance. In the Alaskan wilderness, he stumbled upon an abandoned bus that would protect him against the cold, but after over a hundred days of social seclusion, he still died of the consequences of hypothermia and starvation.
Cause of Death
People question the precise cause of death. To some, it makes a difference whether Chris died in an accident, perhaps by eating poisonous plants, or whether he went into the Alaskan wilderness to commit suicide. I have a different theory. Chris was indirectly murdered by the psychological consequences of conditional love, namely gross mental and physical childhood abuse—by his own parents.
In his book, writer Jon Krakauer, who as a young man sometimes climbed the Alaskan mountains for weeks at a time himself, arrives at the bizarre conclusion that Chris rather would have surrendered his sexual urges to rugged nature than to women, “His yearning […] was too powerful to be quenched by human contact.” Another writer recognized in Chris’ actions an insatiable urge for adrenaline. As a sort of wilderness addict, the adventurer supposedly drove himself to the extreme and consequently died in an accident. Both points of view are intellectual masturbation.
Chris’ sister, Carine McCandless, can tell more about her brother’s true motive. In her book The Wild Truth, after 22 years of silence, she hangs the dysfunctional family she and her brother grew up in out to dry. Father Walt begot Chris and Carine with their mother Wilhelmina (Billie) but did so still during his marriage with Marcia, with whom he conceived six children in total. A week before Billie’s first pregnancy, he begot another child with his wife, and in between Chris and Carine’s births, Marcia was once more impregnated by Walt. Reluctantly, he moved in with the eight years younger Billie but refused to divorce Marcia until after a long battle she managed to push him over the edge.
Walt and Billie kept their past well hidden from their children, but according to Carine, the secret of Walt’s bigamy eventually became all decisive for her brother’s psychological identity:
“From the time we were small children, still unaware of how children come to be, I remember Chris being consistently told through our mother’s tears that the family struggles began with his birth, when she became “stuck” with our dad. Chris carried this unfounded guilt with him until the wisdom that comes with age resulted in feelings of betrayal and eventually anger. This mislaid blame was never rescinded, only ignored. Seeing no alternative but to completely remove himself from the pain he could not manage, Chris had just cause to leave in the way that he did. For him it was a matter of survival.”
Walt and Billie were at war with each other. The domineering Walt vented his anger unrestrained on his wife, whereby he would ritually throw her onto the bed and attempt to suffocate her with a pillow. Carine describes what happened next:
“’Kids! Kids! Help! Look what your father is doing to me!’ she would scream out between breaths. ‘Kids! Get in here now! Look what your mother is making me do!’ was his pathetic defense. I would scream at him to stop and try to push him off her. Chris—three years older and wiser from his own injuries—would quickly pull me back, until I learned to watch from the doorway. 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. We learned early on that if you haven’t managed to run before the bear smells you, the best course is to just stay really still. Eventually Dad would release Mom, without apology, and she would collapse into the doorway with us. ‘I’m sorry, kids,’ Mom would shriek toward Dad as he walked away, ‘but when I got pregnant with Chris, I got stuck with your father!’”
Divorcing His Parents
What kind of psychological trauma does a young child suffer that has to apologize to his mother for his own existence? From an early age, he knew what was expected of him. In order to live up to his mother’s wishes, he had to undo his own life, but it was an impossible mission. After all, as a child, he could not simply run away to remove himself from the family. He needed his mother for his survival.
Until the end of their teenage years, Billie would keep telling her children she “finally” wanted to divorce her aggressive husband. On such days, she would take her children house hunting, supposedly to go see where they would like to live. She even went as far to organize family meetings with Walt and the kids to discuss their possible divorce. They would then force the children to choose which parent they would want to stay with, but every time it turned out to be a psychological game intended to plague the children and not really to file for divorce, something Billie, in the end, would never do. As an adult, Chris made up his own mind:
“Since they won’t ever take me seriously I’m just going to play along with their little acting game.[…] And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life. I’m going to divorce them as my parents… I’ll be through with them once and for all forever.”
The Search for a New Identity
Chris’s disappearance had nothing to do with erotic nature nor with a wilderness addiction. He and his little sister grew up as victims of heavily disturbed, manipulative parents who emotionally and also seriously physically abused their children. For example, when as small children Chris and his sister had ‘transgressed’ a rule, Walt would command them to go to his bedroom to choose the belt with which they wanted to be beaten. He would vent his sadistic frustrations on small children—with the approval and to satisfaction of their onlooking mother, “We had ruined her life with the weight of our existence, trapping her in this hell.”
In adulthood, in Chris’ attempts to erase his existence, his personality underwent a radical change. He rejected his wealthy middle-class life, would deliberately starve himself for months during summer vacations, stepped out of the capitalist consumer society and donated all his savings to charity. He often walked barefoot and identified himself with the victims of Apartheid. In an ultimate attempt to erase his identity, he made up an alter ego named Alexander Supertramp. From now on, during his travels, he would call himself ‘Alex’.
Chris’ change of name got me thinking. I noticed that on his last journey he dragged along, among others, Leo Tolstoy’s Family Happiness. The story in this book, about a young woman marrying an older man who despite his wealth eventually becomes miserable, is a clear analogy of the life of Chris’ own parents. What strikes more is that he adopted Tolstoy’s lifestyle, “In college McCandless began emulating Tolstoy’s asceticism and moral rigor to a degree that first astonished, and then alarmed, those who were close to him.” If Chris psychologically identified himself so strong with this author, would it be possible that the alter ego Alexander S. points to that other famous Russian writer of the same initials—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?
Russia had accused Solzhenitsyn of propaganda and condemned him to eight years of solitary forced labor in various work camps. Likewise, since his disappearance, Chris alias Alex Supertramp worked various underpaid jobs. In between jobs, he would heavily starve himself. After having served his sentence, Solzhenitsyn was banished. Chris voluntarily broke contact with his parents and banished himself to Alaska. After his return, Solzhenitsyn made fame with his book about the Gulag Archipelago, but Chris too planned a successful return. In the abandoned bus in Alaska, he left an inscription that he intended to conclude his travels “victoriously”.
It is clear that Chris mirrored his life to that of Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and perhaps others, probably in a desperate attempt to create a new identity and so fulfill the lifelong mission to his mother, who through his birth had become so unhappy. His depression and flight behavior arose from the guilt he felt over his own birth, but whatever he tried, no matter how far and how long he traveled, he could never undo his birth. Even a possible suicide would not solve the problem of his existence: he had to be reborn. In Alaska, he wrote on the cover of his diary not for nothing, “I am reborn. This is my dawn. Real life has just begun.” On his first day in the bus in Alaska, he carved in wood that he would kill the “false being within” as a climax to his “spiritual pilgrimage”. The “false being”, that was the child so hated by his mother that he sought to destroy.
Response to His Death
After the news of his deceased son had reached him, Chris’ father Walt asked himself, “How is it […] that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain?” So it didn’t interest Walt why Chris hurt himself so much. The tragedy of maltreated children is that their egocentric parents often do not repent. Chris predicted his father’s reaction, “[My parents] aren’t ever going to change because they’ll never be able to admit that they’re the problem.” He disappeared into the wild to kill his old identity and to give birth to a new one. Christopher McCandless successfully became Alexander Supertramp, but he did not survive his transformation.
Chris’ death was the direct consequence of the message his parents had communicated to him his whole life. His death was an indirect murder, the result of psychological damage that through his search for healing forced him to take risks that would endanger his life. That is precisely what Walt and Billy have done: through years of psychological, emotional and physical abuse, they indirectly pushed their son to his death.
On a final note, Carine remarks:
“We did not expect our parents to be perfect, as we certainly were not, but we did expect to be able to trust them and feel safe and loved within our own home.”
Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild (Pan Macmillan, 2011), 162.
Jon Krakauer, “How Chris McCandless Died,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-chris-mccandless-died.
Krakauer, Into The Wild, 67.
Wayne K. Sheldrake, “The Elegant Solution: Omission and Parallel Narrative in the Creative Nonfiction of Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild,’” 2004.
Carine McCandless, “A Note from Carine McCandless,” 2013, http://www.christophermccandless.info/carinemccandless.html.
Carine McCandless, The Wild Truth (HarperOne, 2014), 16.
Krakauer, Into The Wild, 2.
McCandless, The Wild Truth, 145–46.
McCandless, “A Note from Carine McCandless.”