Your DNA Does Not Define You: Carine McCandless (Full Transcript)

Carine McCandless

In this TEDx Talk, best-selling author Carine McCandless shares the power of bringing your life into focus and living your truth; lessons she learned from her brother, Chris McCandless, subject of the iconic book & movie Into the Wild.

The following is the full text of Carine McCandless’ talk titled “Your DNA Does Not Define You” at TEDxEmory conference.


Carine McCandless – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

I’d like to thank Emory University for asking me here to speak today.

I’m really not here to give you a lecture, I’m here to tell you a story.

The last time I was on this campus was almost 26 years ago. I was here to watch my older brother, Chris, graduate with honors. It was my first trip to the college.

I remember watching Chris stroll confidently across the quad lawn, accepting his diploma on stage. We were very close, and I was a good girl but I wasn’t shy. And Chris had made it very clear that he had absolutely zero interest in keeping track of his little sister around college boys.

Of course, I had no idea that trip to Emory would be the last time that I would see my brother alive.

Two years later, his body was found in an old abandoned bus that had no engine, yet it was miles and miles from the nearest road, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. He was only 24 years old. There was a lot of mystery surrounding his death, and that intrigued an avid outdoorsman and gifted writer named Jon Krakauer.

And the world came to know Chris’s story as “Into the Wild,” a powerful, best-selling book, and later, a critically acclaimed film. I knew the secrets that had caused much of the mystery. I shared these with Jon in private, yet I insisted that he keep these details out of his book – the reasons for my brother’s seemingly callous departure, the answers to all of the questions.

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Why did Chris leave the way he did? Why did he feel the need to push himself to such extremes? Why did he cut off all contact with his family? Why was he so angry with his parents?

Chris was a great, big brother and always my protector. Our childhood home was far from peaceful – domestic violence, our father’s gin-induced rages, combined with constant lies and manipulations to keep secrets, made it a confusing place to grow up and figure out who you were.

This picture was taken on a typical morning. The violence had erupted over the breakfast table and continued until our parents realized it was time for church. It was Easter Sunday. So, we were put into our best suit and dress and marched into the backyard for pictures. Look closely at our expressions. If you didn’t smile for the camera, threats ensued. I’m compliant, I’ve got my hand behind his back, trying to get him to cooperate. Chris is only about six years old here, but he refused to be part of the charade.

We went to church and sat in the Sunday school class that our parents taught, and listened to them tell our friends’ stories about God and to trust in him. But when we got back home, behind closed doors, we were told that our father was God, and that meant nothing that he did could be wrong.

Our mother, usually through tears, after being released by our father, told us that she had been trapped when she became pregnant with Chris. We understood that she was suffering because of our existence. Chris was three years older than me, so he grew up every day with a lot of guilt in his young life. That’s a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a little boy.

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