Making Sense of Christopher McCandless

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Making Sense of Christopher McCandless
by Jenn Stall

Like many people, I first heard of Christopher McCandless after stumbling across the book, Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. I remember finding it in the travel narrative section of the bookstore when I was searching specifically for “road” novels – which happen to be an addiction of mine.

Into the Wild was unlike any such narrative I’d read before — no wacky hijinks of Tim Cahill or Bill Bryson or the glib storytelling of Kerouac or Steinbeck. Into the Wild is about a life lost.

Even now I have mixed feelings about Christopher McCandless, the book, my reaction to the book. It feels very weird to disagree with virtually every decision that a person chooses to make and yet admire his adventurous spirit.  Sometimes I wonder how much my reaction is to Christopher himself and his story, his death and how much of it is my reaction to Krakauer’s empathetic treatment of his subject.  He is certainly a great writer.

Read the rest of Jenn Stall’s article here.

 

 

 

 

Christopher McCandless Bio Information:

Christopher Johnson McCandless (12 February 1968 – 18 August 1992) was an American wanderer who hiked into the Alaskan wilderness with little food and little equipment, hoping to live a period of solitude. Less than five months later, he died of starvation near Denali National Park. In 1996, Jon Krakauer wrote a book about his life, Into the Wild, which inspired a 2007 film of the same name (directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless, soundtrack featuring Eddie Vedder).

McCandless was born in El Segundo, California, the first of two children to Walt McCandless and Wilhelmina “Billie” Johnson. He had one younger sister named Carine. In 1976, the family settled in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after his father was employed as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft, and later assisted her husband with his successful home-based consulting company in Annandale. Despite the McCandless family’s financial success, Walt and Billie were often fighting and sometimes would contemplate divorce. Chris also had six half-siblings living in California from Walt’s first marriage. Walt was not yet divorced from his first wife when Chris and Carine were born, however Chris did not discover his father’s affair until a summer trip to Southern California.

At school, teachers noticed McCandless was unusually strong-willed. In adolescence he coupled this with intense idealism and physical endurance. In high school, he served as captain of the cross-country team, urging teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were “running against the forces of darkness … all the evil in the world, all the hatred.”

On June 2, 1986, McCandless graduated at Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School in Annandale. On June 10, McCandless embarked on one of his first major adventures in which he traveled throughout the country in his Datsun car, only to arrive at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia two days prior to the beginning of fall classes. In April 1990, he graduated at Emory with a Bachelor’s degree in history and anthropology. His upper-middle-class background and academic success was the impetus for his contempt of what he saw as the empty materialism of society. In his junior year, he declined membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, on the basis that honors and titles were irrelevant. McCandless was strongly influenced by Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, W. H. Davies and Henry David Thoreau, and he envisioned separating from organized society for a Thoreauvian period of solitary contemplation.

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Christopher McCandless

  1. I havent read his book but i did watch the film sean penn produced or directed n have read many of his article.i see critics are always there but what christopher achieved wouldnt matter to the world at this period of time,what he believed would be called foolishness n irrational to many…but people forget that if it wasnt for srtong willed people like christopher this world would still be small for all of us to live.He was confident,spiritually strong and didnt believe that it always takes many to do many things.He was a fearless explorer and man who deserves a lot of appreciation….Alexander supertramp could be like many of us,he just didnt choose to be us for we all flow along with force but very few could be like him who goes against all the odds not even fearing a inch…

  2. I too read the book and was left with mixed feelings about Chris. While I admire his adventuresome nature and his courage I can’t help feeling sadness for the futility of the quest he ventured out on especially with his refusal to exercise even basic common sense. If he set out to commune with nature to discover the basic reason for existence one would think that he would safeguard his most precious gift of life so that he could return to reality at some point, reborn and with gifts to share with others. Even the first pioneers, not knowing what lay ahead of them, used common sense by taking the appropriate provisions, and sought out survival knowledge from the locals, including the Indians. Something Chris refused to do.

    Two points I’d like to make as observations. First, he was a young man chronologically, and most likely immature as one would expect someone of 24, and a male at that, to be. His life experiences were limited in regards to interpersonal relationships. I think both of these predispositions made him vulnerable to the influences of the cerebral indoctrinations and utopic & and idealized ramblings of the writers he chose to explore. Interestingly, he readily overlooked the tragic real lives of each of the authors and yet chose to accept their written words with biblic faith, with no hesitation. Herein is the first noteworthy example of his youthful filtering which is devoid of reflective and empathetic vision. Additionally, as a stage that young people go through, part of the self centered phase on the way to empathy, they tend to oppose authority in any fashion beginning with their parents as the first figureheads of opposition that they experience, next teachers, and then employers, etc. Until they move through this self absorbed stage and move on to empathy, they are stuck on themselves, their own internal and external needs. Their focus on life stays with their need for self expression and self exploration to the exemption of others. This may account for his inability to forgive his parents for what he considered a monumental transgression. Here I refer to the affair that his parents had before they married. Chris was not able to accept the frailty of his parents as individuals and could not see them as anything less than perfect parents/people. They did not measure up to his ideals of what he thought they should be. Because he saw them as hypocrits it gave him another reason to exempt them from his life, as easily as an idea that didn’t appeal to him. As a parent myself the question of how he could leave his parents and sister to worry and suffer at his disappearance for two years, had troubled me greatly until I looked thoughtfully at the life and stages of this young man. This explanation helps me understand the underlying factors but it doesn’t relieve the sadness I feel for his parents.

    The second point takes me to Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. I believe that this is covered in college core class Psychology 101, a class I’m sure Chris was required to take. A brief overview is that the hierarchy is a explanation of the psychological motivational stages that we go through on our way to self actualization. It is usually represented as a pyramid. At the base (Basic Needs (survival))is our physiological needs of safety and comfort.Further up the pyramid, the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment take priority (Self Actualization and Peak Experiences). The premise is that we cannot move up to the higher stages until we have satisfied the lower stages. In Chris’s case, going out to commune in a wilderness without proper provisions would put him into the lowest most basic stage (survival) and would prevent him from working on self actualization. He would have been in severe conflict and unable to transcend to a higher level of thinking and realization when his most basic need to stay alive was at the forefront. This would explain his lack of reflective note taking in the books that he used to record his Alaskan journey, especially at the end. He didn’t understand the essential physiological and psychological needs of man and how they rely upon each other for self actualization. This is unfortunately the likely misfortune of the authors he chose to believe in as well, particularly Jack London.

    In closing, I am still left with a heavy heart, saddened at the waist of young vibrant life … so unnecessarily. I am saddened too that even in his last hours he couldn’t transcend himself to write a personal note to his parents of gratitude, a plea for forgiveness, and an expression of love. His last words “Goodbye and may God bless all” is as open to interpretation as is his motivation for the Alaskan journey he took.

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