Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review of 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed.  That is a complete sentence ... with a subject and a verb.  It is also both the adopted name of, and a self-avowed characterization of the author of ‘Wild:  from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’.

'Wild' is not so much a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as it is an autobiography, using the vehicle of a hike, with ample flashbacks, to tell the story of the unraveling of Cheryl’s life following her mother’s sudden death.  And the hike was not so much a hike as it was a retreat, allowing her time for ample reflection to begin to repair that life.

‘Wild’ was selected by Oprah Winfrey as the first featured book for her re-launched book club 2.0.  As a result the book quickly catapulted to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list in July 2012.

‘Wild’ is a book about a tough woman doing a very tough thing, written for women who want to be tough, or at least to feel tough vicariously.  It’s not for men, and it is definitely not a book to give a hiker who wants to learn about long distance hiking, or about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  It’s a carefully crafted story, and most of it does not even take place on the PCT.  Cheryl hiked pieces of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, skipped the High Sierras because of heavy snow cover, and bypassed several other smaller sections.  Her actual trail descriptions are well-done prose, but for the most part they are generic – the kind of stuff you find yourself wanting to skim through quickly.

Again, the book isn’t really about the hike.  The most memorable part of the book for me took place a year or so before her hike began.  Presented in the vivid detail that is her style, it is a description of the shooting of a horse.  It made me cry uncontrollably.  This was even more heart-tugging than the prolonged and agonizing description of the death of Cheryl’s mother, which just made me a bit misty.  More on her mother in a moment …

Despite the accolades, I didn’t like 'Wild' very much.  It really is targeted to women—a shrewd marketing choice, since polls show that women read more than twice as many books as men these days.  Women writing stories for women about women-with-grit sells big.  (That’s rather disheartening for me as a man writing a book about a man [Eden's Womb]). 

But more important than the gender bias is the fact that I just don’t like Cheryl Strayed as a person.  I can’t look at a photo of her without cringing – those eyes just creep me out.  When I read ‘Outlander’ I had the same reaction to its author Diana Gabaldon, though for different reasons.  And I’ve had the same negative reaction to a few male authors, notably Isaac Asimov.

Personality of the author is something that matters to me.  I sense it in their prose on many levels from subtle style cues and references to choices of emphasis and subject matter in individual scenes.  Strayed is fundamentally a slut and a mental cripple, permanently damaged by her mother and the life her mother lived.  As a result, she’s a ‘one trick pony’ when it comes to writing, or at least she has been so far.  She burst on the literary scene with her debut novel ‘Torch’ which is a thinly veiled recapitulation of her personal trauma at the death of the mother on whom she was (and remains) cripplingly dependent.  And ‘Wild’ is little more than a variation on the theme.  Her mother’s life, death, and cloying presence permeates the story.  Cheryl's hike was an attempt to force direction into her out-of-control physical life, and that succeeded, at least superficially.  But the text of ‘Wild’ is testament to the fact that she’s still as dependent on the cancerous relationship with her mother as she has ever been.


  1. The fact that you feel the need to slut shame completely downgrades anything of worth you could've written in this review. Gross. Also while I don't agree that this book can't be enjoyed by a man even if she didn't write it with that intention (though she says she wrote it with the intention of anyone being able to enjoy it), why would that be necessary? If you look at the wide range of entertainment spanning books, films, and tv - most of it is catered to men. Not everything is supposed to be about you.

  2. Joey -

    Thanks for taking the time to thoroughly read this review and to write the comment.

    I accept your criticism. I deserve it. Usually, when confronted with a personal attack such as the one I wrote: "Strayed is fundamentally a slut and a mental cripple" I respond with: "derogatory comments like this tell us more about the person who says them than about the person being targeted."

    It's true. That comment of mine says more about me than it says about Cheryl Strayed. In the review I tried to preface it by explaining that for me the personality of the writer comes through in their writing, that I just don't like this person, and that this has happened to me before with other writers.

    But that's no excuse for bad-mouthing her in public.

    There's another nugget of wisdom that I generally try to adhere to, which I call 'Thumper's Rule', named for the young rabbit in Disney's classic animated movie 'Bambi'. Thumper repeats advice given to him by his mother: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."

    In other words, with some people it's just best to just shut up and walk away. In this case, I chose not to follow that good advice.

    I have unlimited control over this blog and could delete the comment, however it has come to my attention that Cheryl Strayed has actually personally read and responded to my comment:

    The last two paragraphs of this article, written by Lou Fancher and published in the Contra Costa Times state, quoting Strayed, who was speaking before a packed audience at a local high school:

    "One comment said I was essentially a slut and a mental cripple. After a week, it's funny, but it's so mean!" she exclaimed, emphasizing how the word "slut," this time not written in jest by her husband in the margins of her manuscript but delivered anonymously and with animosity, caused pain.

    "We can't make everyone love us," she concluded. "Everyone who makes art, who puts themselves out there in a public fashion, has to endure things. Good art is made by telling your truth."

    The only error in the article: My comment wasn't anonymous. Everywhere I have posted this review I used my full real name.

    So now, in retrospect, reading that my comment actually reached the author and hurt her, I am both surprised and regretful. Obviously I failed to follow yet another of those hackneyed old canards: The "Golden Rule". I've been flamed enough in unmoderated internet discussion groups to know that the negative stuff can indeed hurt. In this case my only excuse is that I was relying on what I perceived to be a 'shield of celebrity' -- believing Strayed to be a larger-than-life public figure who is bombarded by critics' remarks to the point that they surely just roll off her back, if they are noticed at all. I'm still rather in shock to learn that she actually read my review.

    The lesson: Behind even the stoutest 'shield of celebrity' lives a real human being. If I were to speak with Cheryl Strayed in person there's no way I would have called her a slut and a mental cripple to her face. And that makes me a hypocrite, or at the very least a victim of the hypocritical mores that impersonal internet communication fosters.

    Bottom line: I failed to 'practice what I preach' and for that I'm sorry. I apologize to you and to Ms. Strayed, and I'll be making every effort not to make the same mistakes in the future.