Cheryl Strayed, age 26, on the PCT
Book Review of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild,
When Identification is the Thing That Happens
Almost a year ago, I emailed Cheryl Strayed's publisher, and suggested (thinking I was clever) that if they sent me a free copy of Strayed's 2012 memoir, Wild, I'd write a “glowing” review of it. Cheryl Strayed is a writer whom I have enormous respect and admiration for, and I knew that only a positive review would be possible for her new book “Wild” after having read her previous work.
The woman who responded to my email was appreciative and polite and a week later, I received Strayed's book in the mail. I was happy in a detached sort of way, to receive the book and I casually opened the package, feeling the heft of the book in my hand. As I sat down, in my favorite reading chair in my living room, I presumed I'd be reading an entertaining book on how Ms. Strayed had courageously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail while only a young woman of 26. I presumed the book would incorporate nothing more than a few amusing stories of her trials and challenges, disappointments and victories, while taking on the enormous goal of hiking the PCT.
So I sat down and read the first chapter. Reading that first chapter became an almost excruciating task. At the end of it, I felt I could not read any further. Within about six different sections of that first chapter I'd felt such immediacy and emotional connection or identification if you will, that I wept quietly and intensely and at the same time hated myself for doing so.
I didn't weep while reading books. It was just something I didn't do. Up until that point there was only one book that could make me emotional. The final two pages of Scott Turow's timeless classic “Presumed Innocent” in which the protagonist, Rusty Sabich, attempts to reach some understanding of what it was that compelled him to become involved with the “splendid” Carolyn Polhemus; the woman who is ultimately loved, murdered, remembered and mourned. I would brag to interested parties that it was only Scott Turow's book that had the power to reduce me to tears. Yet, there were so many passages in Strayed's book that I could relate to and identify with.
In achingly candid, and direct language, with creative and surprising word choices, Strayed conveys perfectly, with her elegant writing, the manner that her mother Bobbie struggled to keep her three children safe, loved and protected. The poverty, the admirable yet heartbreaking optimism of her mother, (something I could relate to on so many levels as a young mother myself) and then later the grief of Strayed losing her mother and knowing that her mother died without any of her chil
Name: Theresa Griffin-Kennedy
Hometown: Portland Oregon
Education: Portland State University
Majors: Criminology & Arts and Letters
Minors: Writing and English.
Activities: Freelance writer, poet, graduate student, tutor.
dren beside her; these were all things I could relate to in an immediate and very visceral fashion.
There are passages in the book, in which Strayed's skill as a writer is clear and evident, as when she describes living nearly off the grid in the wilderness of Minnesota.
“Each night the black sky and the bright stars were my stunning companions; occasionally, I'd see their beauty and solemnity so plainly that I'd realize in a piercing way that my mother was right. That someday I would be grateful and that in fact I was grateful now; that I felt something growing in me that was real and strong.” (pg 17.)
When I read the passage where her mother attempts to contend with their poverty and tells her children, “We're not poor” my mother said again and again, “because we're rich in love.” I was reminded of my own grinding poverty while growing up and I wept. I remembered my own mother's desperate cheerfulness, when I knew she was struggling to maintain, while raising nine Irish/Catholic children, as a newly divorced, uncertain and depressed single mother.
When Strayed's mother Bobbie, feeds she and her siblings sugar water, with food coloring, asking in comic affectation...“Would you like another drink, Madam?” once again, I was thrown back into the struggle and shame of my own childhood and the poverty that caused my siblings and I so much shame and resentment. And I loved Strayed's mother, that was effortless, for Strayed makes her mother Bobbie completely accessible for all and ultimately Bobbie is unforgettable. I loved Bobbie for trying to instill a sense of specialness and self esteem within her three children and reading about how Bobbie tried to help her children feel that sense of specialness brought me back to the manner that my own mother had attempted to do the same thing under incredibly difficult odds.
There are so many passages in that first chapter that tugged at my heart strings, for the simple reason that I could so easily identify with the struggle and the despair that Strayed describes so effortlessly. Later, when Strayed leaves her very ill mother for a few hours and comes back to the hospital to discover that her mother has passed away, I was instantly transported to the grief I felt in 2006, when I learned my oldest sister Maggie, had died of preventable uterine cancer, after years of suffering from mental illness and estrangement from her family.
My sister died New Years Eve of 2006 at the age of 49, in hospice, alone, on morphine and with no family members present or even her former husband, who had gone to work for a few hours, thinking he would be back in time the following day to visit his ex-wife before she finally passed away. She died before he got there. She died before any of us got there, before any of us knew she was in hospice, and ultimately with no one but the Hospice volunteers present. My sister died alone, with no family present, just as Cheryl Strayed's mother had died, also alone. The guilt and grief I felt when I learned the details of my sisters death was crushing. And the sorrow I felt, reading Strayed's book was immediate and total for that reason. And so I laid the book down on my nightstand and stopped reading at the first chapter. The following day, however, I reread the first chapter, and then read it again, the day after that. And I wept until I was exhausted. I wept for my sister.
The pain I felt was derived from such a complete level of emotional identification that it was excruciating. Finally, I put the book away, I could not revisit the grief and the guilt I shared so completely with Strayed. So, I left the book on one of my bedroom book shelves, where it began to collect dust. I saw the book nightly, its bright red spine glowing in the dim light, knowing I had not fulfilled my end of the bargain. And its presence became an accusation, each night as I lay down and pulled the comforters to my chin looking over at it, mulling over its presence, what I knew it contained and my unfulfilled obligation to it.
Finally, after taking care of the many goals and other commitments that had occupied my time, I told myself I could no longer avoid what I knew could be potentially very painful. So I picked up the book again and read it to completion. It was a task I knew I had to do, and yet I'd avoided it for almost a year, simply because that first chapter was so painful to contend with. The following chapters of Strayed's book, I found to be funny, reflective, original, and exciting. There were even sections that were quite unusual and really made me think about things I hadn't considered before.
I was extremely moved, for example, to know that Strayed had saved a couple of pieces of her mother's cremated body at her memorial service and then had later swallowed them whole. To me, there was something primitive, warrior-like and completely sympathetic about that action, and the need to share it without further exposition. No explanation, no further comment. Just that small section, by itself and simple. It spoke volumes to me.
The need to consume that last remnant, that last whisper of her mother's lost presence was something that demonstrated incredible humanness to me. Her love for her mother was illustrated perfectly in that short passage, and it brought me back, once again, to those moments after I'd learned of my older sisters death, shortly after the new year, and how I'd walked to my closet and grabbed the numerous blouses she had sewn for me years before, and clutched them to me, holding them, pressing them into my face, smelling them, making them wet with my tears, and trying in some desperate way to recapture and reclaim something of my sisters lost essence by holding those things she'd made with her own hands.
Cheryl Strayed's book Wild is about the devastating loss a young daughter feels when her mother is snatched away from her, and the prolonged confusion that follows tenaciously behind as she struggles to come to terms with that loss. And this is a loss that anyone can relate to, particularly if they've lost a loved one to cancer. The book is about youthful self-loathing and equal parts innocence. And finally, it is about redemption and finding oneself after a long time of feeling lost in the wildernesses of our own making, and the wildernesses that exist in this world.
As I read the last paragraph of Wild, I was struck by Strayed's wisdom and ultimately by her compassion for others...
“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to define precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dreams of a common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn't need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”
This is writing! This is brilliance! And we are all better for it!
By Theresa Griffin KennedyTheresa is a Portland, Oregon writer, interviewer, editor and poet
You can see more of her work at: https://sites.google.com/a/pdx.edu/theresa-griffin-kennedy/