Friday, October 12, 2012


An identity is an infinitely precious thing. Cheryl Strayed's best selling book, WILD, is about building an identity out of flawed raw materials. The book touches us in deep places because all of us are involved in the same struggle. All of us come from flawed raw materials.

In the past, in smaller, more coherent cultures, identity was imparted from that culture and its well-designed rites of passage. Walkabout, Vision Quest, the names are many but the concept, of moving from childhood to maturity, is the same. These passages into adulthood are achieved by ceremonial activity that could be dubbed Initiation By Ordeal. In WILD, Cheryl devises her own initiation, the Ordeal of walking alone for more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

When she began her long walk in the Mojave Desert, she was grieving the death of her mother from cancer. Cheryl's mother died at age forty five.

The spirit of Cheryl's mother inhabits this book. She isn't idealized, she isn't sainted, but Cheryl makes it clear that her mother provided the structure and the strength to enable her three children to cope and endure. This book, WILD, is Cheryl's love song to her mother. Its pages are Cheryl's way of working with her grief and giving it that alchemical fulfilment: turning pain into understanding.

Cheryl's father figures were at best shaky. The men with whom Cheryl's mother related were often negligent and sometimes brutal. They left Cheryl with a gaping hole in her heart. When her mother died, Cheryl was forced to wear the mantle of orphan-hood, too young. Far too young. Her childhood and adolescence were a confusion of conventional achievements and marginal lifestyles. She was a prom queen. She was dirt poor and lived on remote acreage in Minnesota. She straddled worlds. She was the popular high school girl who liked boys and was liked by boys. She was a thinker who struggled mightily with fundamental questions. Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?

The kernel of her desire was to be a writer. She wandered from Minnesota to Oregon and back again. She fell in love and got married to a good man. You know what people say about good men: they're hard to find. Cheryl loved this man but couldn't tame her own WILD side. She cheated and felt ashamed. Then she cheated again. And again. In Portland she met a man who consorted with dangerous diseases. He became Cheryl's heroin partner.

After her mother's shattering death, Cheryl came to one of those fateful forks in the road. After making a string of bad decisions, Cheryl summoned strength from within herself. The shame of her addiction was in conflict with her desire to honor her mother. She made the right decision. She would break off the flirtation with heroin and she would create her own Ordeal By Initiation.

She bought a huge backpack that she nicknamed Monster. She over-packed, weighed herself down with too much of everything and set out on an epic walk. Her feet grew blistered, her toenails fell off, one after another. She fenced with pain, exhaustion, doubt and the desire to quit. She didn't quit. She met people on the trail who touched her most quickened instincts. On the Pacific Crest Trail, you may walk with a person for an hour or a day. That person will be embedded within your psyche forever.

I didn't want WILD to end. I didn't want to leave Cheryl's company. I love this book and though I'm sometimes goaded to envy the success of other writers, I have no such feeling for Cheryl Strayed. She deserves her success.

She's experiencing one of those overnight triumphs that takes twenty or thirty years to prepare. It's my belief that Cheryl blasted a few doors open for other writers. I hope I am one of them. I too have my story, my memoir of my Initiation by Ordeal. I have been hanging on the edge of resignation, just about to give up, heartbroken with discouragement.

WILD gave me courage. WILD pulled me back from the precipice of complete capitulation. If Cheryl can become one of those rare black swans who appear as if from nowhere, so can I.


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