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.

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?

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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.

Chris was drawn to nature from an early age. He immersed himself in the peace, the purity and honesty that those surroundings offered him. Our parents introduced us to the Shenandoah mountains. That was a great gift, and it was liberating. The energy that was given to constant battles gave way to paying attention to blaze marks on trees, to finding a safe place to pitch a tent near a water source, to collecting firewood before dark.

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From a remarkably early age, Chris had an incredible sense of his own identity, of what was important to him in life, and of his faith. And he always said, nothing was more important than truth. Our mother rarely raised her hands to us, but she became a full partner in the mental cruelty that was by far more damaging.

Her fear of the truth caused her to become an accomplice. She’d given birth to Chris and me while our dad was still married and having children with his first wife. We knew our six brothers and sisters growing up, and we spent time with them during summer breaks. But as we got older and began to ask our parents the tough questions about our family history, about our other siblings and why our ages were intermixed, we were told one tall tale after another about how that history had been woven, and the web grew larger and more daunting with every passing year.

As Chris grew up, his ventures into the solace of nature became more frequent, and he preferred to spend that time alone. So it came as no surprise when he quietly informed me that soon after college, he would be divorcing himself from our parents and heading west, to experience life raw and real.

These were the days before emails and text messages and iPhones, but being out of contact didn’t concern me; Chris was strong and he was good at everything he tried to do. He was intelligent, he was confident, but he didn’t have a big ego. I knew in my heart that my protector would never get himself into any situation that he couldn’t handle.

On September 17, 1992, I had to come to grips with the unimaginable. Through a series of unfortunate missteps, Chris’s life was cut short. He’d promised that he’d come back to find me, and he was always true to his word. Being told that Chris was gone forever was like being told that there was no longer oxygen in the air. I’d also separated from my parents, and I still felt this duty to remain compliant to them.

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It should have been the right thing to do – keeping quiet, protecting my parents, protecting my family. Yet in truth, what I’d done is perpetuate these same lies that caused Chris to leave in the first place, and I’d given my parents the opportunity to not have to face the truth nor learn from it.

For years and years, since Jon Krakauer’s book was published, I received these impassioned letters from people all over the world. I never expected Chris’s story to touch so many people and affect them so deeply. Jon’s book eventually was published in over 60 countries and translated into more than 30 languages.

About a decade later, during the production of the “Into the Wild” movie, one of my other siblings sent me this quote by artist and poet Kristen Jongen. It reads, “Perhaps strength doesn’t reside in having never been broken, but in the courage required to grow strong in the broken places.”

I don’t speak for my other siblings, but this quote always makes me think about them and their mom who was strong enough to save them. So I had a lot of time to think about the consequences of my silence.

As Chris went into nature and sought out his life lessons away from human relationships, I found mine by choosing bad ones, and I was good at it.

When I was 18, I’d left home, and I married my new boyfriend. He was a sweet guy in his mid-20s, worldly, smart, hard working – he promised to take care of me. Two weeks after our tiny justice of the peace ceremony, he started to beat me. I never saw it coming. With him I had financial security, a place to stay. I told my friends that he was great, that everything was great.

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