Wednesday, July 15, 2015

children can be pretty harsh when it comes to their parents

But, Into the Wild doesn't really romanticize Chris McCandless. At least no more than it detracts from that same romanticism.

We begin with a mother in pain. Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) sits up from sleeping because she has heard her son's voice. Of course, he is not there. He's been gone for two years, with no contact. The film even reduces his contact; in reality, Chris sent his grades home from Atlanta before leaving. There was a note attached:

Here is a copy of my final transcript. Gradewise things went pretty well and I ended up with a high cumulative average.

Thank you for the pictures, the shaving gear, and the postcard from Paris. It seems that you really enjoyed your trip there. It must have been a lot of fun.

I gave Lloyd [Chris's closest friend at Emory] his picture, and he was very grateful; he did not have a shot of his diploma getting handed to him.

Not much else happening, but it's starting to get real hot and humid down her. Say Hi to everyone for me.

As Krakauer points out in his book, "It was the last anyone in Chris's family would ever hear from him." In the film, Carine (Jena Malone) says Emory mailed them, not that they came from Chris. And, there is no mention of the note. The film is not offering us the guy who included that note. It is not offering the guy who the day after graduating (Mother's Day) gave his mother candy, flowers and a "sentimental" card after two years earlier announcing that, "on principle, he would no longer give or accept gifts."

(I'm reading a sample of the ebook version of Krakauer's book, by the way, and it hasn't any page numbers.)

Carine's pained voice is the one we hear. She understands her brother leaving, but laments, "I wondered why he hadn't tried to call in case I might answer. He could've hung up if it wasn't me." Chris gets no voice outside the story itself. Had he lived, that may have been different; Power (2007) writes:

McCandless clearly believed in self-mythologizing, in the power of storytelling and self-invention. Had he lived, perhaps he would have gained enough perspective to tell the story himself, rather than leaving it for others to tell. As it is, he has entered the realm of myth, and myths are shaped by those who can make use of them.

Who cannot make use of the myth of Chris McCandless is his father, is his mother. Carine has gone on to write her own memoir--The Wild Truth. Heller McAlpin, reviewing the book for NPR, suggests that what was missing from Krakauer's book was a full answer as to "what motivated McCandless' ascetic renunciation" and Carine answers it. The film shows us the pushy parents, Billie and Walt (William Hurt), it implies heated arguments if not physical abuse. But, it also implies that what broke Chris away from his parents was learning about their dishonesty regarding his own and his sister's births. Carine, narrating the film, describes Chris' discover upon staying with "old family friends" on a roadtrip to California after high school:

He discovered that our parents' stories of how they fell in love and got married were calculated lies masking an ugly truth. When they met, Dad was already married. And even after Chris was born, Dad had had another son with his first wife, Marcia, to whom he was still legally married. This fact suddenly redefined Chris and me as bastard children. Dad's arrogance made him conveniently oblivious to the pain he caused. And Mom, in the shame and embarrassment of a young mistress, became his accomplice in deceit.

The fragility of crystal is not a weakness but a fineness. My parents understood that a fine crystal glass had to be cared for or it may be shattered. But, when it came to my brother, they did not seem to know or care that their course of secret action brought the kind of devastation that could cut them. Their fraudulent marriage and our father's denial of this other son was, for Chris, a murder of every day's truth. He felt his whole life turn, like a river suddenly reversing, the direction of its flow, suddenly running uphill. These revelations struck at the core of Chris' sense of identity. They made his entire childhood seem like fiction. Chris never told them he knew and made me promise silence as well.

Let us explore this passage in detail.

First of all, a personal note: I am not in a position to be bothered by the revelation at the start of this passage. And, I don't mean that, because I am my parents' 7th child, and they are still married, that there is absolutely no chance I am a bastard. I mean that I just don't care much about that label, about being a bastard. I remember once after my oldest nephew was born, my mother worried aloud about the time when he would figure out that he was conceived out of wedlock. My mother grew up in a time when that mattered. Time was already changing, society moving forward. I don't know that it was ever a problem for my nephew that he was conceived (but not born, mind you) our of wedlock. He went to the same church-owned private school that I attended for a while, so maybe it came up. But, I'm sure it was never as big a thing as my mother feared it might be. Additionally, being in the situation I am presently, with divorce papers filed but not finalized, having first separated from my wife nearly 3 1/2 years ago, I have no qualms in regard to still being legally married that would keep me from moving on to something else or acknowledging a child... not that I would make an effort, necessarily to have more kids at my age. (It's not forbidden, just not something I think about.)

However, this passage lets us know that Chris--film Chris, to be sure--was hurt by this revelation, or at least the lies behind it. Maybe his own romanticism of life had come from stories his parents told about how they met. Maybe his view of what mattered in the world depended on the order that came from knowing his parents were unique in their love for one another. According to Carine (by way of McAlpin's review), Carine was Walt's secretary, and he fathered two more (of six) children with his wife Marcia after getting together with Billie, "while brutalizing and lying to both women. When Carine was 1 year old, Marcia finally escaped with her six children. But although Billie repeatedly vowed to leave Walt, raising her children's hopes, she never followed through." Perhaps it was this fact that hurt Chris most; if his parents had gotten together in some romantic, societally acceptable manner, then Billie's insistence on staying with her abusive husband might have made more sense. It might have been a romance turned tragic, instead of an affair built on lies. As for the abuse, The Wild Truth begins, McAlpin tells us,

with several harrowing scenes. After vividly describing one of their father's attacks on her mother, McCandless moves on to the double beatings she and her brother suffered, "forced down, side by side" across his lap. She writes, "The snap of the leather was sharp and quick between our wails. I will never forget craning my neck in search of leniency, only to see the look of sadistic pleasure that lit up my father's eyes and his terrifying smile--like an addict in the climax of his high."

McAlpin says (and I'm guessing this comes from Krakauer's introduction to Carine's book) that Carine told Krakauer all of these details back when he was writing Into the Wild but "strictly off the record in order to protect her parents 'from full exposure in case they could change for the better.'"

Carine's next line in that movie passage above sounds like something Krakauer may have written; reviews of Carine's book suggest it starts well but she's not a great writer. So, that line about crystal sounds like Krakauer's embellishment. A quick google search and I find that it may also be a deliberate reference--I found this line: "The fragility of crystal, and of Miss Bulstrode's person, is due, not to weakness, but to the purity of their substance" in a book about John Dunne--or maybe it's just a common understanding of crystal. Never had much use for crystal, so I don't know.

According to film Carine (if not real Carine), Chris' "every day truth" was destroyed by this revelation about his parents. I figure it's like divorce. Your parents' marriage--something solid, something... understood. And, it breaks and you realize that the world isn't as solid as you thought it was. Social scientists and psychologists don't look at divorce and its effect on children as simplistically as they once did. "Research demonstrating that children's behavioral symptoms and academic problems could be identified, in some instances, for a number of years before their parents' divorces was particularly important in facilitating this conceptual shift" (Kelly & Emery, 2003, p. 352; citing Block, Block & Gjerde, 1986 and Cherlin et al, 1991). To be fair, I haven't read the entire piece I just cited; it's among some stray articles mixed in with my thesis research and I'm not sure the divorce material is going to be included. But, I wonder if, just as children's behavioral problems might stem from time earlier than the divorce--which Kelly and Emery point out, was reconceptualized more than 30 years ago "as a process extending over time that involved multiple changes and potential challenges for children, rather than as a single event" (ibid; citing Hetherington, 1979 and Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980)--so might the problems leading to the divorce "stem from time earlier." I've seen my own children struggle these last three years, but even before my wife and I separated, our family has problems.

Little cracks in the edifice that grow over time.

That Chris never told his parents that he knew about their lies goes hand in hand with his severing of ties with them when he leaves. He has no interest in his parents, in maintaining in any way a relationship with them. Carine, on the other hand... In an interview with Outside, she says,

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 tot 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.

The film does the same, though it spends very little time with Walt or Billie. Ron (Hal Holbrook) tells Chris, "when you forgive, you love. And when you love, God's light shines on you." The clouds move and sunlight emerges and after Chris swears, they laugh at the timing of it. But, importantly, in regards to cinematic detail, that same light, the sun flaring around the clouds comes at the end of the film as Chris dies, imagining a reunion with his parents--who we have only a few minutes earlier seen in pain again, his father collapsing in the street. This film's version of Chris effectively forgives his parents in that moment. That is what the visuals are telling us. He also calls himself by his "right name"--Christopher Johnson McCandless; no longer is he Alexander Supertramp.

This, then, is not a film about a young man venturing outside society to discover himself--he knows damn well who he is--but traveling the highways and living in caves and in abandoned buses and in his tent until finally, as he dies alone in a wilderness that proved more powerful than he was, he can forgive his parents for the life that he had before.

Maybe.

References (because I've been neglecting this section of late)

Heard, A. (2014, November 9). Does 'The Wild Truth' tell the true story of Chris McCandless? Outside. Retrieved from http://www.outsideonline.com/1927741/does-wild-truth-tell-true-story-chris-mccandless

Kelly, J.B. & Emery, R.E. (2003). Children's adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family Relations, 52(4), 352-362.

Krakauer, J. (1996). Into the Wild. New York, NY: Villard. (ebook) Retrieved from https://sample-37c12346b5db2083921f4366a6706e6e.read.overdrive.com/?p=into-the-wild-85d932

McAlpin, H. (2014, November 11). Behind the famous story, a difficult "Wild Truth." NPR books. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/11/11/363120048/behind-the-famous-story-a-difficult-truth

Power, M. (2007, September). The cult of Christ McCandless. Men's Journal. Retrieved from http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/print-view/the-cult-of-chris-mccandless-20121015

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