“Into the Wild” (2007)

Always thoughtful Adam-Troy Castro kicked off a morning essay as follows:  “A couple of decades ago Jon Krakauer wrote a widely-acclaimed book, which became a widely-acclaimed movie directed by Sean Penn, called INTO THE WILD. It followed the mystery of a young man named Chris McCandless, who on the eve of attending Law School gave his college fund to charity, hit the road, cut off all communication with his family, and was not heard from again until hikers in the Alaskan wilderness found his body in an abandoned bus, where he had died of starvation. Central to the story’s central mystery is the question: what would drive this young man to drop out so completely, so irrevocably?”


Later, Chris’ sister Carine wrote a book in which she answers the question: he had suffered terrible psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his parents, and was afraid he might pass it on.   So he left society, either too confused to know that human beings are social animals for a reason, or not sufficiently caring about his own life that he would avoid the risks involved.


I had to find images from the movie before my memory yielded it up. Yes, I saw it, but I know why it didn’t stay at the forefront of my mind:


I wish this second book had been the one made into a film. 


So many people have the “human beings are unknowably mysterious” idea.    So many people dislike delving into the pasts of villainous figures.  How DARE you humanize Hitler!   Or even suggest that violence is related to fear, such that the things that happen to us have programming and corruptive influence.  So much safer to just believe that those who do things we can’t see ourselves doing are somehow totally different species.


Make no mistake: the real argument behind an entire raft of social issues is the interrelationship of nature and nurture.    In other words “What are we?”   With race, its “The Bell Curve” versus “Guns, Germs and Steel”.     With gender it is assuming women are confined to their reproductive roles.  With nationalism it is that immigrants somehow cannot be Americans as we understand the term.  Homophobia is an interesting one: usually it is the Left that holds more to nurture.  But because homosexuality has been tied so tightly to sinfulness, the notion that this might be choice is problematic, and it is the Right who claims nurture over nature.   Interesting.


And of course, human domination of the environment and endless breeding might be the death of us.   But there are both  genetic and cultural  components here.  We are definitely programmed to screw each other, make babies and feel good about the behaviors that will bring more grandchildren into the world.  And I see this going to edge of crazy: people who will not admit there is ANY level of population that would be dangerous.  People who believe space travel will ease population pressures somehow.


I see this stuff as having the breeding switch stuck in the “on” position.  Racism factors in when people are worried about the decline in breeding rates of “western countries” (when people say what they’re really thinking, and talk about the decline in white birthrates, the actual intent is a little clearer)




It’s been a decade  since I saw INTO THE WILD, and what I remembered was feeling I was watching someone in horrible existential pain, someone trying to obliterate their identity by leaving behind everything built on the previous foundation of his life. We were given no answers “why” and I remember conversation at the time, people wondering about it, projecting their own existential crisis onto him, and justifying his behavior as a valid healthy choice.


Because we didn’t know about the abuse.  If we’d known that, his behaviors make simple truth, a lot less romantic and perhaps aesthetically pleasing than a conundrum with no answer, but to me…a lot more honest and useful.   His behavior fits right into a continuum of behaviors by people who have been shattered in childhood, whether psychological or social.  They struggle with either self-destructive or violent behaviors, both related to fear and self-loathing.  The sense that deep inside they are something corrupt and vile (otherwise, why would they have been treated this way?)


In that case, his journey makes perfect sense: “I am afraid of becoming an abuser.  I will remove myself from society, destroy my previous identity and try to find a new life.  If I cannot, I will die.”  I say this last part because he was intelligent enough to know that his behaviors were terribly risky. They were NOT behaviors one would advise one’s own child to take, if you loved that child.

Anytime you see someone taking behaviors they would not advise their own beloved (adult) child to take, you are seeing a conflict of values.  Sometimes a deadly one.


They are the behaviors of someone seeking to die and be reborn…or at the least, to die.  When he was depicted as having an epiphany and seeking to return to civilization you are speaking of the core “survival wiring” that we can all get down to simply by holding our breaths.  Stick your head in a bucket of water, and I don’t care how depressed you are, how guilty or whatever.  YOU WILL STRUGGLE TO BREATH.  That survival drive can be coupled with   the love programmed into us to protect children.  The very thing he was terrified had been totally corrupted by his parentage.


What a tragedy.   People can be damaged beyond the point that healing is a practical possibility.   Criminality can be inculcated so deeply that it is too late to reasonably expect rehabilitation.


But I think we have the responsibility to seek answers, to tell the truth, and INTO THE WILD, as beautiful as it was, strikes me as having made choices for the sake of artistry rather than truth.   There would be valid disagreement about this, and I can only speak for my own perspective.


If you want to protect the family, fictionalize the story.  There are people in the audience contemplating self-destruction and thinking (I fear) “if his life was so wonderful, and he can make a choice like that, then with all MY motivations, surely self-destruction is justified.”


And while the choice to take your own life, however obliquely, is a human right, perhaps the ultimate and decisive human right, I think it critical for people to be aware that we do have reasons why we do what we do.  We make sense. The cruelest and most destructive things that humans do make sense.


We cannot always heal ourselves, or each other. But there is so much that love can do when we learn to let it in.  So much damage that can be undone if we can contact our core survival programming.


What might have been a story that would have seemed better to me?  I don’t know about “better”–I can only say what would have made more sense to my specific aesthetic, my values.


The Hero’s Journey might well have two protagonists.  They have both been abused, and let their paths cross in a support group of one kind.   One lies about his past, as his family lied about it for so long. The other risks and tells the truth.  One has a successful social life, graduates college…the other struggles but keeps reaching out to people who have been this road before him, and found healing.


The one goes on a journey of self-discovery with a secret intent to kill either identity or body. The other crashes, burns…and begins to rebuild.  And then slowly finds meaning, as the more externally “successful” one boxes himself in with worse and worse choices, until he is finally trapped by them, and cannot survive.  Dies.


While the one who spoke the truth, at great risk, perhaps even the loss of family, finds a new life.  And turns around and becomes a counselor to help others.




I can’t say this would be a better story.   I don’t think it would appeal to people who want to believe human behavior is inpenetrable. I find that many of these don’t want to look at the core motivations in their own lives, that if they did they’d have to destroy their egos and emerge as their true selves.  Unless you believe that something in you at the deepest level is precious, why would you go through such a process?


You can touch this place through meditation, journaling, prayer, visualizations.

You can reach this place by loving another adult human being and really letting that love in.

You can reach this place by having a child and letting the utter innocence and vulnerability in, and realizing THAT WAS YOU.


So many ways.  So worth while.   Other artists, better artists, will make other choices.  If I had known the truth, I couldn’t have made INTO THE WILD and felt honest.







One comment

  1. Steve:

    But remember, we know Glenda as “the Good,” by inference; she introduces herself as the Witch of the North. We assume she’s “the Good,” (at least in the movie) because she wears white and stands in opposition to the two “wicked witches”.

    And of course she’s “the Good” one; she’s the heroine of her own story, right? Just as the Witch of the West sees her own actions as justified.


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