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A death in Oregon sparks another look at 'Into the Wild'

Craig Medred
Eighteen-year-old Johnathan Croom was found dead not far from his abandoned car, and his parents believe some responsibility belongs to tales told of Chris McCandless, a young man who starved to death in a derelict bus near Healy, Alaska, while seeking wilderness solitude. Wikimedia user Erikhalfacre photo

Almost from the moment the father of 18-year-old Johnathan Croom suggested his son might have wandered off into rural Oregon inspired by the Alaska-based novel "Into the Wild," it was hard to avoid that uneasy feeling in the gut that says "something is wrong here."

The feeling only got worse when CNN's Piers Morgan and the parents of the late Chris McCandless teamed up on television to exploit the younger Croom's disappearance.

"We have a message for the family, including Johnathan, if he's listening," Billie McCandless said. "We want to say, young man, please call your parents. No one will ever worry about you, care about you or love you more than your mom and dad."

No one should have known better than the mother of the late Chris McCandless, the subject of "Into the Wild," how meaningless those words are. Chris was one of those troubled young men who suffer mental illness in their early adult years and flee family and friends for reasons hard to explain.

If you've known parents of children who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, you know about the wanderings. If you don't, go read the blog of someone who claims to be a 'Chris' who survived.

"For years I drifted from one menial job to the next, from one part of the country to the next, from one relationship to the next," writes the author of My Schizophrenia.

"Then I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: to live by myself in a wilderness setting for an entire year. So I saved my money, traveled north to Alaska found a location for a my camp, packed in some supplies and proceeded to live in isolation."

There is no way to know whether that story is true. It could be as big a fiction as Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild," which portrayed Chris as a young man on a noble search for the meaning of life. But "My Schizophrenia'' has the ring of truth to it. "Into the Wild" never did, no matter how many can identify with the idea of searching for the meaning of life.

Into the illness

Alaska is full of people who went into the wild, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades, as part of that pursuit. But they eventually came back because civilization has its attractions, and because they had the savvy to survive. McCandless lacked the latter.

Painting him as the representative seeker of wilderness truth -- instead of the messed up anomaly -- was a good way to sell books, and no more. That's understandable. A writer needs to make a living.

It's pretty obvious Krakauer wasn't going to hit a literary home run with a tale of a young man's descent, no matter how moving, into the depths of mental illness. Americans don't like to talk about mental illness. It's why we have so many crazy people roaming the streets homeless. We simply don't want to deal with them.

Hell, most the time we don't even want to look at them. They are the scary reminder of where any of us could be in minutes if somehow the wiring in our heads went sideways, as it did for poor, young Johnathan Croom.

His parents worst first fears were realized when his body was found Monday about 1,000 feet from where he'd left his car in a wooded area. Police had last week discovered his with Croom's wallet, ID and $200 cash inside.

Before Chris McCandless wandered north to Alaska, he abandoned at least one car, too, and burned his cash, and adopted the nom-de-plume "Alexander Supertramp." He then went into the wilderness to die. Croom, authorities say, apparently went into the wilderness and committed suicide.

Croom's parents wanted to blame "Into the Wild," and the Sean Penn movie of the same name that followed the book, for luring their son off on a dangerous wilderness adventure. They still might wish to blame "Into the Wild," but the book is really not to blame here.

Literature itself doesn't lead anyone to suicide. You have to have other "issues," as they say, before literature or life or love or any of those things we all experience convince you to end it all.

We should all feel for Croom. We should all feel for Croom's family. They are going through an emotional hell now. Many other parents can only thank their luck. The parents of the author of "My Schizophrenia" among them.

He started hearing voices in the wind and water, he writes. He describes living like Chris McCandless appears to have lived in his last weeks.

After about three months, my mental state deteriorated some more more, and I found myself just making it through the days. All I was doing was sleeping and getting up once a day to relieve myself and to eat.

To make a long story short, after six months of isolation I made an attempt to get back to the nearest town. It was winter, 20 degrees below zero, and I barely made it back. I'm missing parts of my toes to this day.

I did not know it at the time, but I was experiencing the so-called negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

There are, some people might be surprised to learn, "positive" symptoms of schizophrenia as well. Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, the subject of the movie "A Beautiful Mind," suffered from schizophrenia. He was not, and apparently is not, alone. Research now suggests that those most vulnerable to schizophrenia might be those generally smarter than the rest of us.

Stigma and denial

But it doesn't matter. There is such a stigma attached to this illness that some in the world of public health have suggested changing the name. There's no indication it would matter.

Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, pick a mental illness at random, nobody wants to talk about any of them or, in some cases, even concede they might exist. More than 20 years after the 1992 death of McCandless, his family is still in denial of everything that led up to it.

How else do you explain the parents of a long-dead young man who went out of his way to cut off any contact with his family going on national television to plead with another young man obviously doing the same to "please call" his parents?

The last thing the young Crooms or McCandlesses of the world are going to do is call their parents.

New theory, same dilemmas

If you are human, you have to feel for the McCandlesses here, but they would be doing everyone a favor if they would take an honest look at the history of their son's death. Instead, they seem to want to help propagate his myth.

There is a new theory out there now about his death. Krakauer's theory that Chris McCandless poisoned himself on the seeds of the wild potato having been long ago debunked, the latest idea is that he was poisoned by something else.

"I can remember happening upon ("Into the Wild") and leafing through it (sic) pages idly for a moment, before suddenly thinking to myself, with strange certainty, 'I know why this guy died,'" the author of the theory writes at ChristopherMcCandless.info, a website where the family tries to help keep alive the fable of "a moving story about a young man chasing after his dream and ultimate Alaskan adventure."

That this story ends with Chris somehow killed by the wilderness of Alaska is key to his myth. The reality is, of course, that if the Alaska wilderness was half as murderous as the believers of this nonsense like to make it out to be, then this author and most of his friends would be long dead.

But the reality of the situation doesn't stop the desire for some explanation, other than the obvious one, for Chris's death. The latest theory starts off with certainty.

"A more comprehensive reading of the book and further investigation into my initial sense of certainty about the cause of McCandless’ death seemed to demonstrate that neither my initial response, nor my certainty as to the cause of his death were unfounded," writes Ronald Hamilton, a man widely referred to on the Internet as an "academic."

The McCandless website describes Hamilton as "a staff member of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a published author who has won numerous awards for fiction, nonfiction and poetry." For someone so accomplished, he seems unusually hard to find. Internet searches for "Ronald Hamilton Indiana University author" track back only to the McCandless website or others that link to it.

Still, the man with the "initial sense of certainty" has a theory now buttressed with six pages of the history of "lathyrus sativus," or grass pea, which has killed some people in Europe. It's an interesting theory. It could even be true. Someone should exhume Chris McCandless's body and find out. The theory does not, however, explain Chris's strange behaviors leading up to his journey into the wild.

Nor does it solve the problems for Alaska created by Krakauer's book and the Hollywood nonsense that followed. Sad to say, they attract generally competent young people north to visit the bus near the north edge of Denali National Park and Preserve. Most of these visitors do not suffer from mental illness. They are simply young, foolish and adventurous -- not necessarily in that order.

Temptations

Croom's parents are right to fear what "Into the Wild" might tempt young people to do. It has already tempted too many. At least one hiker has died trying to get to or from the bus. Three more had to be rescued this year when they went to the bus and couldn't get back. There have been a lot of other rescues over the years.

State officials seem baffled about what, if anything, to do.

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters this summer told Fox News that "the bus is a destination like anywhere else in Alaska, and noted (troopers) have been involved in far more rescues of people trying to hike Flattop Mountain in Anchorage."

"Getting rid of the bus wouldn't help," Fox assured viewers. "'Even if you remove the bus, I'm pretty confident somebody would do some kind of makeshift memorial or people would just go out there anyway,' Peters said. 'And it's one of those things whether it doesn't matter whether it's a structure or not, it's the infamy.'" Maybe instead we could just ban the book and the movie? Because, as the Crooms and others have noted, there are reasons to be concerned one or both could lead the impressionable into trouble. They already have.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com