Memoir 2.0; or, Confession Gone Wild

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s first confessional memoir—unless, of course, you count her name. As Strayed recalls about a third of the way through Wild, she authored that briefest of autobiographies on a ...

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s first confessional memoir—unless, of course, you count her name. As Strayed recalls about a third of the way through Wild, she authored that briefest of autobiographies on a set of no-fault divorce papers in 1994. Obsessed by the blank line where she was to write her new name, she toyed with outlandish possibilities—“names of movie stars and cartoon characters and strange combinations of words that weren’t rightly names at all”—before finally deciding on this two-word mea culpa.

Indeed, after her mother died young of lung cancer, Cheryl had strayed. She dropped out of college, started shooting heroin, pursued a few too many meaningless affairs, and generally drove her life into crisis. But like so many memoirists, she learned to wear her straying not as a mark of shame, but as a sign of power. “I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness.”

This paradox—the positive power of sin and suffering—was surely an important reason why Oprah Winfrey chose Wild to inaugurate the new, online-only version of her Book Club. (In a video on Wild’s page, Oprah exclaims, “I created Book Club 2.0 for this book!”) In the world of Oprah, people are always finding strange paths through suffering, degradation, and pain. Every evil is convertible to good; every despairing cry, to affirmation and uplift. Her show’s gospel is nondenominational, but it requires a very Protestant confession of faith and rebirth: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” The subtitle of Strayed’s memoir, then, should come as no surprise: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT) is the West Coast’s answer to the Appalachian Trail—a 2,663-mile path up the backbone of North America, stretching all the way from Mexico to Canada. Divested of her marriage and deprived of any meaningful family ties, Strayed set out alone to hike about 1,100 miles of this trail, hardly knowing why and certainly not knowing how. (On the morning of her first day on the trail, she packs her backpack only to find herself unable to lift it. “It was exactly like attempting to lift a Volkswagen Beetle. It looked so cute, so ready to be lifted—and yet it was impossible to do.”) Wild chronicles the absurdity, the sublimity, and the punishing difficulty of this hike.

By the time she reached her hike’s end at the Oregon-Washington border, Strayed had endured deprivation, exhaustion, and terror; had come to terms with her mother’s death, her divorce, and her years as a stray; had journeyed as far inward as she had outward; and had lost six toenails, to boot. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Wild, then, is Cheryl Strayed’s second confessional memoir—unless, of course, you count the regular advice column she wrote until last year for The Rumpus under the pseudonym “Sugar.” Reacting to her readers’ doubts, complaints, and tales of woe, Sugar constantly confesses her own. (Since Wild’s success, Random House has published a collection of these pieces under the title Tiny Beautiful Things.)

Trading story for story, Sugar has a strong sense of the use to which a life story can be put. It can show where you stand, it can catalyze connection or identification, and sometimes telling one just feels good. This, at least, is what the rambunctious and profane style of “Dear Sugar” would suggest. Sugar’s paragraphs tumble out with the rhythm and all the urgency of a sermon. She swings from a confession to a joke to a grand rhetorical litany in the span of a few sentences; she freely mixes aphorisms and expletives and pet names (“sweet pea” seems to be her default); and she writes with an unshakeable sense of her audience—not just the letter-writer to whom she’s publicly responding but also the readers who return week after week for correction and some sense of connection.

Trading story for story,
Sugar has a strong sense of
the use to which a life story can be put.

You may not be an ideal member of Sugar’s audience. (Here’s a litmus test: read the excerpted aphorisms on the inside flap of Tiny Beautiful Things. If you can keep from rolling your eyes, read on.) I personally find it all a bit much, but I can appreciate why she has developed such a devoted following. She manages to be charismatic and responsive and dogmatic all at once. The introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things aptly describes her as a purveyor of “radical empathy”; at the same time, her tough love and rough rhetoric can land like a blow to the chest.

Reading the “Dear Sugar” column, I suddenly found words for a certain emptiness I had sensed in Wild. The move from “Sugar” to “Strayed,” from online column to printed page, had somehow erased or flattened her audience by generalizing it. She admitted as much in a live, online “book club discussion” on The Rumpus. When asked whether she wrote Wild “to help others,” as Sugar might have done, Strayed responded, “I just wrote it really out of a sense of wanting to tell a story that felt true in the biggest possible way.”

The result is a kind of blank lyricism—a disappointing approximation of what literary memoir must sound like to Strayed’s ear. These are words written nowhere to no one, and their sole duty is to proclaim their own resonance. Take this passage from Wild’s first page, in which she recalls losing one of her hiking boots over the side of a cliff:

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it.

Mate and baby? The tone is clear, but the image is beyond jumbled. An orphan forevermore? No matter how heavy-handed the symbolism, the whole drama of the situation somehow remains unclear. All this for a boot we just met? Sugar would never put up with it.

None of this is to say, though, that Wild isn’t a victory for craft. If you focus solely on its total form and flow, you will find it elegantly plotted. Strayed punctures her hike’s relentless linearity with flashbacks and rhetorical digressions that broaden the world of the memoir while refusing the reader any relief from its two-foot-by-thousand-mile claustrophobia.

On inspection closer than this bird’s eye view, though, Wild disappoints. Strayed spends much of the book reaching for a kind of lyrical and spiritual bigness that, time after time, eludes her. This makes for a tiresome insistence in her style. She’ll strike upon some suggestive kernel or other. Well done. Then she’ll suggest something more. Then she’ll tell you what she’s been suggesting. And then, as if to compensate for the long buildup, she’ll offer at least two unrelated climaxes. Consider the following early passage, where Strayed describes a game her mother used to play:

“Do I love you this much?” she’d ask us, holding her hands six inches apart. “No,” we’d say … , on and on and on, each time moving her hands farther apart. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained. It was the ten thousand named things in the Tao Te Ching’s universe and then ten thousand more. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Every day she blew through her entire reserve.

She might have stopped after the third sentence here, or the fourth, having measured the religious cliché of “unfathomable love” against the fathom of her mother’s outstretched arms. Beautiful. Instead, she wants this love to be infinite and Taoist and enveloping and bare—and something to be spent in profligate (yet finite) amounts.

Gone, too, is Sugar’s sense of how to balance aggrandizement with a reality check. Consider this passage, in which Strayed, caught monopolizing the shared bathroom in an off-trail hotel, responds to a knock on the door.

“Yes?” I said, but there was no reply, only the sound of footsteps retreating down the hallway. “Someone’s in here,” I called, though that was obvious. Someone was in here. It was me. I was here. I felt it in a way I hadn’t in ages: the me inside of me, occupying my spot in the fathomless Milky Way.

She writes this with a straight face, and I read on, waiting for the wink and a nudge, or the crack of a smile. Instead, the horrible reality slowly dawns on me: she wants me to follow her from these bathroom formalities to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Oh, no.

Only in Wild’s most harrowing moments does Strayed’s writing show the precision and punch for which she has been praised elsewhere.1 When it does, the results can be breathtaking. Take this passage, which immediately follows her mother’s final, dire diagnosis:

We went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t exchange a word. … I could feel my mother’s weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bathroom stalls to shake. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, watching each other in the bright mirror.

Or this one, which comes amidst the botched execution of her mother’s aging horse:

Her eyes were wild upon us, shocked by what we’d done, her face a constellation of bloodless holes.

In both cases, the palpable details of the scene lend a force to her feelings that no amount of cheap mysticism or more-is-more elaboration could do. These images are wild yet familiar. They verge on the surreal, yet we believe them.

In the end, who knows how to count Wild among the many confessions Strayed has offered the world. I haven’t even mentioned her semi-autobiographical novel, Torch, or the personal essays she published about her mother’s death and its aftermath.2 While we’re at it, we might even count the many talk show interviews and online discussions, and the book tour appearances she’s made in the last few months. Amid this sprawling autobiographical event, the book itself begins to feel like a mere temporary bottleneck in Strayed’s continuous confessional career. And yet I set out in this essay to review Wild. What on earth are we to do with this book?

Maybe it was simply my exasperation with the leap to this “biggest possible way,” but I found myself looking for pettier ways to connect to this book.

Directing our gaze out over the deserts and mountains of the Mojave, early in Wild, Strayed muses, “They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing. My new existence was beyond analogy.” Sometimes, though, it feels as if every mass-market memoir must reduce its author’s existence to an analogue for the existence of every possible reader. This criticism has often been leveled at Oprah and her Book Club, but Strayed is more accomplice to than victim of this reduction. As Kathryn Lofton observes in her recent book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, “Oprah’s Book Club episodes are, by Winfrey’s constant contrivance, not about the book; they are about what people do with books,” and what Oprah mostly encourages people to do is to re-describe or re-imagine their lives with the help of the book at hand. It’s a fine approach, if supported by a rich understanding of the book in question, but that’s not how it usually works. Instead, in order to make such re-description easy, Oprah gears her discussions “toward abstracted versions of character dilemmas rather than textual specifics” (Lofton again). The individual life is trampled in the rush to make every story, in Strayed’s words, “true in the biggest possible way.” Surely we can have particularity and truth—if not in memoir, then where?

Maybe it was simply my exasperation with the leap to this “biggest possible way,” but I found myself looking for pettier ways to connect to this book. I first “read” Wild as an audiobook while making a few weeks’ worth of commutes on the Massachusetts Turnpike. If Strayed was straining to connect her hike to every grand narrative—her backpack was, she reminds us, her “burden to bear,” and the trail was her path to grace—why couldn’t I simply connect it to my trivial ordeal: the two-lane-by-hundred-mile site of my weekly suffering. I suddenly imagined a nation full of people on highways and exercise bikes listening to Strayed (or rather, the actress Bernadette Dunne) preach her gospel of one foot in front of the other, suddenly finding some shred of meaning in their own self-imposed tedium.

But maybe Strayed has found a way to short-circuit this interpretive race to the bottom. One persistent and intriguing feature of Wild is her constant reference to the books she read while hiking the PCT, then burned, to save weight. A helpful appendix lists them, and many of her readers seem to have treated it as a shopping list. When I visited the product page for one of these books, told me that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” others on the list, and when I clicked through to those books’ own product pages, their “Also Bought” lists began to look more and more like Strayed’s appendix.

I find it strangely comforting to think that somewhere out there people have decided not to read Strayed’s life story as if it were their own, but to read great works of literature as if they themselves were Strayed. What expressive depth does Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying gain when you read its story of transporting a mother’s corpse as if you were on a thousand-mile hike and mourning your mother? What pathos is added to James Michener’s The Novel when you read it as the sticking point between the middle-brow tastes you used to share with your mother and the high-brow taste you somehow thought you’d gained at her expense? And does Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language feel more electric when you try to imagine its language coursing through your head as you perform an extraordinary feat of strength and endurance?

Do that, and the “common language” you discover won’t be the bland generalization of a Book Club memoir or the thin pablum of a secular / ecumenical / Taoist / New Age spiritual autobiography. You’ll keep all the pleasure of identifying with Strayed, but you won’t have reduced her existence to your own, and you’ll read a damn good list of books while you’re at it. In the end, I can’t say I always enjoyed hiking with Cheryl Strayed, but I think I just might enjoy reading with her—as her. icon

  1. I’m thinking, for instance, of reviews by Fiona Zublin in The Washington Post and Dani Shapiro in The New York Times.
  2. See “The Love of My Life,” The Sun (September 2002); and “Heroin/e,” Junk blog, September 16, 2012.
Featured image: The author with some of the books she read while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Holly Andres for the Oregon Cultural Trust