A woman in her 20s becomes despondent. Her mother has died and her family has fallen apart. She—the woman, Cheryl, our narrator—begins to cheat on her husband. She does this not once or twice, but over and over again, with an array of men. She starts taking heroin. It looks like her life might be over.
I know how this is. In my mid-20s, it looked like things weren’t going to work out as I had imagined. I’d studied obsessively throughout school. I worked very hard to please my parents. I realized that my sexual orientation was going to be a problem for them. My father stopped speaking to me—stopped for five years. It was as if he had died. I was in a bad relationship, and though I didn’t cheat on my boyfriend, I’m pretty sure he was cheating on me. I became depressed. I didn’t know how to take care of myself.
Given all this, I could relate to young Cheryl Strayed. I was curious to see how she had dug herself out of the hole she’d landed in.
So I read Wild. Here’s what I learned.
A part of Strayed really does want to die—at least, at first. There’s the heroin, which she tells herself she’ll only smoke. Soon enough, she’s injecting it.
There’s the fact that she doesn’t carefully read the entirety of her Pacific Crest Trail guidebook before embarking on a long journey. (I should note here that Strayed’s walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, forms the spine of Wild. Strayed decided to walk the trail when her life was approaching rock bottom.) There’s the fact that Strayed does not consider how heavy her pack is; she crams everything in without giving a thought to the many, many miles she will have to hike with an enormous boulder-like burden on her back.
All right: maybe these details don’t all indicate a will to die, but they at least indicate a serious lack of reflection. When she starts her journey, Strayed is on bad terms with herself. She is not very kind to herself; she regularly endangers her own life; she makes foolish choices.
On the other hand, there’s an obvious will to live. Overwhelmed by brutal weather, and by frogs and snakes, and by an encounter with a bear, Strayed begins to tell herself that she is extraordinarily brave. (You can chant any kind of sentence in your head; you might as well choose a life-affirming sentence.) She pursues sex; she carries condoms with her, despite the fact that she smells like death and her toenails are beginning to fall off.
Most touching: Strayed indulges her literary curiosity when she is out on the PCT. She draws sustenance from books. Sitting alone in the wilderness, she is mesmerized by Lolita. She studies Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Power”, about Madame Curie. The poem observes that Curie’s pain and strength were inextricable; Curie won fame and hope from the very thing that poisoned her and led to her death. We can’t divorce our mistakes from our triumphs. They feed each other and push us onward. Meditating on these lines, Strayed begins to wonder if she does indeed have a reason to be optimistic. Maybe she has a reason to be alive.
So: Wild is about a girl who becomes an adult. It’s about a lost soul who learns to forgive herself—who learns to be generous toward herself when there is no one around to take care of her. Toward the end of the memoir, Strayed stares at Crater Lake in Oregon—an unusually still, calm, almost otherworldly lake that formed long, long ago, after a mountain exploded. The lake is the deepest in the United States. Strayed marvels at the realization that such stillness grew out of such turmoil. It’s clear that the formation of her own adult soul parallels the formation of the lake. Inner peace is hard-won. It’s the result of a great deal of stumbling and some self-recrimination.
There’s quite to bit to admire about Wild. For example, there’s the fact of Strayed’s charming personality. It has been observed that, when you’re reviewing a memoir, you’re really reviewing the soul of the person who did the writing. Fortunately for Wild, Strayed-the-Person is mostly likable. She’s relentlessly honest; she recalls her various adulterous follies without making excuses for herself. In one passage, she recounts in great detail a rather embarrassing sexual encounter on a beach; honey and sand are involved, along with a slightly foolish man who likes to say that things are “rad”. When you get to this passage, you understand that Strayed will not withhold anything from you. She’s a brave and clear-eyed narrator; she gives until it hurts.
There are also fascinating snapshots of minor characters throughout. There’s the slightly drunken, semi-civilized man who might want to bed Strayed, but who instead angrily tolerates a long and fruitless evening with Strayed and three of her fellow hikers. There’s a Thenardier-esque couple—a man and woman who brutally refuse to offer lodgings when Strayed is clearly in desperate need. There’s a man who may or may not be a rapist, and who circles the newly-wizened Strayed like a wild animal in the memoir’s climax.
That said, you might occasionally wish that Strayed had more of a sense of humor. Before reviewing this memoir, I reviewed the novels of a similarly toughened-up survivor, Edward St. Aubyn. St. Aubyn and Strayed have many things in common; they both turned to heroin and to adultery in their 20s as a means of coping with messed-up family situations. But St. Aubyn has something that Strayed doesn’t have: wonderfully comical rage. St. Aubyn is able to milk all of his suffering for some brutal, shocking humor. You may wish that Strayed could do the same. There’s an unyielding earnestness in Wild that can become frustrating. It may not be possible for Strayed to tell an angry joke; her goodness and gentleness seem to be bedrocks of her adult personality. Still, she might at least want to make an occasional stab at dark humor.
What’s more, Strayed’s style leaves something to be desired. She’s a fine writer, but her prose isn’t sparkling—at least, not always. At its worst, it takes this shape: “Each of Dermout’s sentences came at me like a soft knowing dagger, depicting a far-off land that felt to me like the blood of all the places I used to love.” ...A “soft knowing dagger”?
Anyway, these are small quibbles. Strayed is still in the early stages of her career; she has this memoir, along with a novel, behind her. And having read Wild, I’m indebted to Strayed for her energy and her spirit of adventurousness. Lately, I’ve found myself more and more interested in taking long walks through the wilderness…