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?
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.
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.
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.
But after a few months, I decided I wasn’t going to make my mother’s mistakes. With careful planning, I made my second escape. I moved to a different city. I took business and accounting classes at the local colleges while I was working full time, and two years later, I started my first company. It hasn’t been easy, but I have been successfully self-employed ever since.
During that time, a lot more lessons came and went – important lessons of strength that I don’t have time to flesh out here today. But having to rely only on myself – it was empowering and comfortable.
Now during this time of Carine’s great independence, along came the greatest lesson: that of unconditional love. A 2-year-old little girl came into my life. Her biological mother eventually abandoned her. And this little girl needed a mom. That was pretty much my reaction. Me? No.
Now, I had explored a lot of trails in a short amount of time, but I never planned to go down that one. I was absolutely petrified about being a mom. I was afraid I’d be abusive. I was worried that the behavior that I’d witnessed as a child was bred inside of me, deep down in my DNA, just waiting for the opportunity to show itself.
But then in steps faith, and this overwhelming feeling that somehow moving in a scary direction is the right direction. And I thought about Chris and how he’d told me that the greatest experiences are usually waiting for us far outside of our comfort zone. This is my daughter, Heather. I know, who can say, “No,” to that face, right?
She has been the greatest opportunity that has ever come into my life. She taught me that I can be a mother, and I’m proud to say, I’m a good one. I can be a tough disciplinarian, but always a peaceful one. She knows every single day, every second of every day, that I love her.
So a few more years go by, and my new husband and I decide that we’re going to expand our little family. And nine months later, out popped this little cutie. She didn’t exactly pop out, she was nine pounds. Yeah. Ouch. Whew! Don’t be afraid if you haven’t had children; it’s worth it.
So we were fortunate enough to have another daughter. We named her Christiana after my brother. Soon after Christiana’s born, they whisk her off to weigh her and clean her up, a little quicker than I expected they would, and a few people start entering the room, family members, and my little Heather, who was one month shy of turning seven.
A few minutes later, a nurse comes into the room that I had never seen before. She asked someone to take Heather out of the room. Heather looked over at me and I said, “No, she can stay. What’s wrong?” That’s when we learned that Christiana has Down syndrome. I was in shock. I had had no complications during my pregnancy. I was super healthy; I thought I’d done everything right.
The doctor proceeded to explain that it happens at the point of conception. It’s part of her DNA. So again, I was in shock, and the nurse proceeded to tell us that Christiana was being taken to the ICU because she probably had gastrointestinal disorders, and heart problems, and- at this point, for me, everything for me was a blur.
I looked around the room, to my husband, to family members for strength. Everyone’s staring at the ground; no one knows what to say or do, except for, who do you think? Heather. All these years, I’m thinking I have to be this rock for this little girl with a troubled past. And she walks over to me and takes my hand, and she says, “Don’t worry mommy, she’s going to be just fine because you’re going to take great care of her just like you take care of me.” Heather saved me. And she’s been a great little helper.
Having a special needs child certainly has its challenges, but it’s well worth the extra efforts and let me tell you, she really is too cool. I take total credit for that hair-do. Heather was right, Christiana’s doing just fine. She’s happy, she’s healthy, she’s very high functioning. She’s got some delays, of course, but, she has the right name because she has her uncle’s strong spirit.
As I’ve watched my girls grow up, they remind me of Chris and me. I can sense that Heather will always be Christiana’s protector. Hmm, God, it just gets to me still. She’ll always be her protector, and I know that they’re always going to have each other’s back.
Now, about this time, my relationship with my own parents had all but disintegrated. They didn’t do everything wrong, and in some ways Chris and I had a privileged upbringing. They absolutely deserve empathy for losing their son. They’re humans and they made mistakes. We all make mistakes.
But I’ve come to learn what matters most is that we learn from our mistakes. And you have to remain cautious around those who don’t. At all costs, you must protect your own children. All of my siblings, in our own time, and for our own reasons, have come to our final breaks with our father and my mother.
About, not long after that, when Christiana started a full-day school program, I started accepting invitations where “Into the Wild” was required reading. It had become required reading at about 3,000 high schools and colleges around the country. It was an opportunity for forced reflection. I began to understand what a disservice I had done to my brother. I had insisted that certain blanks be left in Chris’s public story. People, understandably, inserted their own answers into those blanks, that Chris was mentally ill, that he was just another rebellious teenager whose story had been romanticized by the media, that he was suicidal. None of these assumptions were the truth.
And when I gave the honest answers to the students I spoke with, safe inside the intimate walls of the classroom, I saw the incredible impact it had on them. The personal perspective I was able to provide, took Chris beyond that literary legend he’d become, and it made him more relatable.
Now I understood that teachers didn’t assign “Into the Wild” so their students would get a better understanding of Chris, it was so they would achieve a greater understanding of themselves. Listening to their questions, I understood that these students are at this age of opportunity where they’re deciding who they are. They’re choosing the paths that will determine who they will become.
As I listen to their questions, I realize that my brother’s story was no longer just an assignment, it became a real lesson that they would take with them far beyond that campus, into their lives as leaders and lawmakers, and husbands and wives, and partners, and most importantly, as parents. And I saw that they learned far more from what makes Chris human, than from what had made him iconic. I decided that it was time for me to be accountable for all that had remained unsaid, to tell my story, to tell the whole story.
Since we were kids, Chris had always taught me to journal, and after three years of very hard work, those journals turned into a book. Which is fair to say was far more painful than the nine-pound baby.
When I first began writing “The Wild Truth,” I did so with students in mind. I hadn’t really intended for it to start a new conversation about domestic violence, but taking a second look at Chris’s story caused people to take a closer look at the stories within their own communities. Not long after my book was published, I got a letter from a friend from church. Her name’s Catherine Miklos, and in her letter she noted:
“The power of abuse is in the silence its perpetrators demand. The cycle is broken by diminishing that power through exposure.”
I haven’t left one school, not one school, where at least one student didn’t come up to me to talk about their own experiences and reach out for help for the first time. It made me think how Chris’s story might have been different if someone had spoken openly to us. Sometimes people talk about whether Chris’s life can be considered a success, because he died so young. I say they need to ask themselves if life is more about quality… or quantity.
One of the greatest things you can hope to do in this life is to inspire someone, and Chris has done that for so many people, even without intent. Now in the days of social media, I receive constant messages from incredibly diverse people telling me how Chris has inspired them to make positive changes in their own lives. I think that life is like a book.
Now, unless someone invents the cure for mortality, we all have the same first and last chapter. What makes up the story of our lives and the legacy that we will leave behind are the pages in between. Now for me, serious thoughts about legacy have little to do with famous stories, books or movies. It has everything to do with these two little girls, although I guess I can’t really call them little any more. Heather’s now 16 and Christiana is nine. Both their lives had a rocky start. And I know they’ll each have their own adversities to overcome.
But I want to empower them to stay on their own true paths, even when the walking becomes rough. What I have to teach them, what I have to show them through my own actions, is that their DNA will not define them.
In closing, I’d like to read a short excerpt from “Into the Wild,” where Jon Krakauer describes one of the last things Chris does before he dies. “He tore the final page from Louis L’Amour’s memoir, ‘Education of a Wandering Man.’ On one side of the page were some lines L’Amour had quoted from Robinson Jeffers’ poem, ‘Wise Men in Their Bad Hours.’
‘Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to the centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone,
the people Admire or hate their stature,
their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened or troubled
And a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper.’
On the other side of the page, which was blank McCandless penned a brief adios: ‘I’ve had a happy life, and thank the lord. Good bye, and may God bless all.'” Jon Krakauer continues, “One of his last acts was to take a picture of himself standing near the bus under the high Alaska sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave beatific farewell. His face is horribly emaciated, almost skeletal.
But if he pitied himself in those last difficult hours, because he was so young, because he was alone, because his body had betrayed him and his will had let him down, it’s not apparent from the photograph. He is smiling in the picture, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes. Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk, gone to God.”
Now, it’s impossible for me to look at that picture Jon talks about without crying, but in a way it’s a good pain. I know that Chris died at peace because of the paths that he had chosen in life that kept him true to himself. And in the end, whenever that end comes, isn’t that the best that any of us can hope for? Chris achieved eternal life certainly through the written pages of “Into the Wild,” but more importantly, through his own faith. He loved life more than anyone I have ever known, and he wanted to have a long one, but his main concern was that it be purposeful.
My brother’s story is globally known, not because he died, but because he truly lived. And he lives on in the lessons.