Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: Hiking, Surviving, and #TriggeringMyMotherIssues

Do you ever finish a book and find yourself fighting with it for days after you finished?  You devoured it so you must have liked it, but you are resisting. Maybe you’re pissed about some part of it.  Maybe you’re pissed it’s over and you miss it. Maybe it triggered you and brought some piece of you to the light that you thought was doing just fine molding in the dark recesses of your soul.

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That’s me right now. I’m fighting with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.  My thoughts keep returning to it, like a fresh wound I can’t stop looking at.  I have written and deleted the following sentence three times in the past five minutes: I loved this book.  It’s like I can barely bring myself to write it, but I’m not sure why.

Should you read this book? Yes.

Parts of the book were as compelling as any nonfiction I’ve ever read.  How an ill-prepared, recreational heroin user whose personal life is pocked by divorce, an abortion and the death of her beloved mother approaches a grueling months-long hike is as great a set-up for a story as I can imagine.  It beats the bear-shit outta Bill Bryson’s account of walking the Appalachian Trail in A Walk In The Woods.  I love a good journey story– and hers does a masterful job of tracking her physical and emotional progress as she advances through California in extreme conditions which would have left me deader than sage brush at high noon.

That’s probably all you need to know, and frankly, if Oprah says you should do something, do you really need to check with Outlaw Mama before proceeding?

But, I have so much more to say that I’ll pretend is about the book, but just know this: The following is all about me and has nothing to do with Ms. Strayed or her amazing book.

But there’s this whole mother theme that made me twitchy as I read about it on the bus.  When I start pacing while reading a book on public transportation, I can only assume a nerve has been struck.  Hard.  And Ms. Strayed’s book is like a mallet to my central nervous system.

As a mother, I read about Ms. Strayed’s adoration of her mother and thought, there is no way I am inspiring this kind of devotion in my children.  Strayed was crushed by her mother’s death, and the book has elegiac passages wherein Strayed tries to make sense of her mother’s too-short life.  The grief that Strayed describes upon the death of her mother twisted my stomach with shame.  First, I am not capable of inspiring that amount of grief (I assume), and second, I am not sure I could feel it for anyone other than my children.

Maybe her relationship with her mother was particular to the kind of family where the dad is a giant, abusive asshole– and maybe seeing your dad beat the shit out of your mom produces a certain fierce devotion and loyalty.  Trauma bond is a phrase that came to my mind while I read. I can’t picture my absence from my children’s lives grinding them down so thoroughly.  In fact, I hope it doesn’t.  It would be awkward if my 2- and 4-year-old children ditched school to walk the PCT.  When I pass,  I hope they feel sad for a while– I hope they listen to Willie Nelson on my birthday and fist pump me when they score a good sample at Costco.  I picture them leaving hydrangeas on my grave and apologizing for being such assholes when I tried to talk on the phone for five minutes.  For the record, I am OK if they skip the part where they destroy their marriages, dabble in hard-core drugs and sleep around.  A small, tasteful tattoo of my face (without bangs) would be alright.

As a daughter, I felt the same tug of should I feel this for my mother?  It’s not a fair question because my mother is alive, in good health, and living the purposeful life of a newly retired woman in the great state of Texas where her social life is teeming with more opportunities than mine.  When she passes, I hope I don’t go off the rails– I hope my journey to let her go (not anytime soon), involves tears, extra therapy, writing about all she meant to me and taught me and great appreciation for who she was to me and who I am because of her.  I don’t think I can spend the kind of energy mourning her that Ms. Strayed needed to.

Naturally, I am now asking myself if that means I don’t love my mother “right” or “enough.”  There’s a hovering question: What’s wrong with me that I don’t love like this? Should I?  Why is my love so bland?

Most importantly: Who’s going to shoot heroin and walk thousands of miles when I die?

As you can tell, this is a good use of my precious free time.  Instead of starting a new book, writing my own, or taking up equestrian arts, I am sitting here comparing myself both to Ms. Strayed and her mother.  I think it’s time to start a new book, one without any mother issues.  Note to self: Steer clear of Medea.


49 thoughts on “Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: Hiking, Surviving, and #TriggeringMyMotherIssues

  1. I just read that book last month and loved it! Wild is a challenge, for sure. I think your subsequent fight with the book is very normal and healthy – I also think you should definitely take up equestrian arts and write about it, after you finish your current book that you’re working on. 🙂

    • Seriously. She was wrecked by her mother’s death for years and years. I’ve never loved like that. Well, maybe I just haven’t lost like that. And had I suffered such loss at the tender age of under 24, I might have walked from Argentina to Canada. Who knows. I am STILL thinking abot it. Plus, I saw she went to Breadloaf and Sewanee so of course I am jonesing over her writing chops.

  2. I started reading Wild several months ago and put it down. Her grief seemed over the top to me in a way that I questioned whether or not I was missing a piece of my soul or part of a chromosone or something for not feeling that same level of devotion for my mama. Or guilt. Or something. Maybe I’ll pick it up again? Or not?

    • Exactly. I would say if you pick it up again, keep reading to the part where she talks about what her mother and she endured in the early years. THat piece was instrumental in me enjoying the rest of the book. She and her mother went through some ugly stuff together and that contextualized her grief more for me. But like you, I had such a strong reaction that was basically me thinking I am shitty daughter and I don’t know how to love.

  3. I’m going to add this book to my never ending list of things to read.

    Having been in the dead mother camp for 3 years now, all I can say is this: I thought I was prepared for it. I thought I’d know how I would feel. I still continue to be surprised about my initial reaction and how I’m still reacting to it. There’s no right or wrong way to love, no right or wrong way to grieve. How ever you feel is and will be right for you.

    And yes, please go read a happy book 🙂

    • Well, that’s a good point. I am not sure that I (or Strayed) would hold herself up as a model for how to move through grief. It’s actually uncool of me to judge her process because she was doing what she had to do, as I will do when I face my mother’s death. There’s something inside of me that loves the drama– the agony and the wretchedness of being ruined. It feels like ‘real’ love, but I recognize that’s mostly like something self-destructive in me that is better tempered with balance and support and moving through grief in a different way.

      On Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 10:05 AM, Outlaw Mama

  4. I will be stalking this page all day to read other people’s responses. Until then, I’m downloading the first chapter right now. Should I read it?

    I haven’t read any of it yet, but I am attaching (personally) to what sounds like a wildly addictive personality. Given that I had primal urges to blow up my own life JUST BECAUSE I TOOK A JOB (not to mention a JOB I HAVE HAD BEFORE — like the same bosses, same clients, same GD office), I am guessing I will be able to relate to this book. I mean I’m not kidding. I wanted to blow up my entire life, give away my kids to my mother, divorce my husband, throw away any device with which I once wrote and die. In fact, I pretended I did die. Over a ridiculous job. In that context what you describe Strayed did sounds pretty reasonable. I see I have serious issues. Gotta go book an extra session with my energy healer (not kidding)!!

    PS – I still loved this post.

    • You’re right. It’s almost like I was avoiding the term “addictive” personality for some reason. But I identified with so many of Strayed’s choices and ways of thinking/coping/being because I battle that in myself to some degree. I think you will love this book and I am half-begging you to read it so we can discuss. Her passage about unwanted sexual advances on the trail made me cringe like nothing else. This woman can write and she’s generous to show us the parts of herself that were broken/frayed/in need of healing so I feel super assholey judging WHO she was, but it’s part of the story so I can’t help myself.

      On Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 10:12 AM, Outlaw Mama

  5. I am an only child, extremely devoted to my mother–and yet I neither shot heroin nor walked through the wilderness when she passed. Nor did I blow it off. I think there’s a middle ground in there. 😉 (P.S. I will consider heroin when you pass if you can’t find any other volunteers.)

    • I knew I could count on you. I think you are the sole volunteer so I’ll sign you up. I’ll give you my costco membership in my will.

      And PS: I didn’t realize you were an only child. Fascinating.

      On Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 10:17 AM, Outlaw Mama

  6. I can tell you, that writing and thinking of your mother from and after the perspective of loss, the relationship is viewed differently. All is forgiven and the ugly almost, not quite, but almost, forgotten, when they’re gone. I’ve only beet without my mother a month, and what comes to the forefront of my heart every day and screams in my brain, is my mother is gone. All that clouds over any blandness, the kind of blandness and every day ness that comes with them being alive. When they’re gone, we wax poetic. It’s human nature. We write of them with the theme of no longer having them. Impossible, impossible, and yet again, impossible to do when they’re alive — because we can’t imagine the weight of the loss on our hearts. It feels like a 100 pound brick tied around our rib cage.

    • AGggggggggggggg, reading your post reminds me that this is something I can’t possibly fathom yet. You remind me that it’s personal, intimate and impossible to wrap my head around before it’s happened (and after too). I hope you are finding peace and relief in the process.

      On Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 11:01 AM, Outlaw Mama

  7. This post made me think of the days after my grandmother passed away a couple years ago. During shiva, I sat and watched my mom and her two sisters, and was amazed at how differently they coped with the loss. They were equally close to their mother, but handled her death in three entirely different ways. My mom steadily and actively walked through the steps that characterize Jewish death and mourning. One of my aunts rushed around answering the door, doing errands, and making sure there was enough food in the house to feed everyone, and my other aunt just sat quietly, taking everything in. None of these reactions was wrong, they were just different. And I think not walking to make off and walk the PCT doesn’t mean that you don’t love your mother enough or the right way. It means you are different than Cheryl Strayed. Just different. And different is good.

    • I think you are right. I realize I haven’t seen much up close reaction to death. It’s been a while since I had to deal with this or watch it up close, which makes me feel blessed beyond measure.

      On Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 12:20 PM, Outlaw Mama

  8. Just like all love is not the same, all grief is not the same. Everybody goes about it in their own way. No way is your love (or your grief) “bland” just because you don’t go to extremes to express it. Both things are intensely personal. I do totally understand thinking about a book for days and days after you put it down. It’s the mark of a good book IMO.

    • I agree. I am immensely grateful for this trigger, thinking about what makes a “good” or “strong” relationship….is it the quality of the grief or the intensity of the reactions or something else. Is being steady (my word: bland) and faithful and non-dramatic less loving or does it just produce less of a story?

      On Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 12:49 PM, Outlaw Mama

  9. Great questions – love this topic. Twitchy indeed. I wonder about these same topics about my parents – how devastated will I be? If I’m not, does that mean I’m incapable of love? My hubs better be damn devastated if I go before he does no matter what age I am. I think I am just vain enough to want my kids to be devastated by my death, but then rebound brilliantly and go on to live love-filled, drug-free lives. What a great take on this topic. Now you’ve given me more to obsess about.

  10. I read that book and loved it too. I agree with you though, I was struck by how that affected her. I think if my husband or children died, then maybe. MAYBE. But, even then, I’m not sure. And, having a less than perfect relationship with my own mother, that was a completely foreign concept to me. But, I think there are people in this world that love more fiercely than others. That doesn’t mean they love better or deeper than us, but more fierce. I feel like I do love deeply, but fiercely? (which google says is “intense or ferocious aggressiveness”) Nope. That’s not me. I don’t think so at least.

  11. I suspect the only people who react to the loss of a parent with such intensity are feeling a great deal of guilt, warranted or not. Emotionally healthy people don’t react this way, I think. 🙂

  12. I’ll fist pump you over Costco snacks even while you walk the earth….edamame lentil chip? yes, please…this one’s for the Outlaw!!! I laughed out loud at the Medea reference. And I’ve had the sample of this book in my queue for a while. I think I’m going to need a bit more time and a couple more light reads before I tackle it. But I’ll find myself a nice padded room somewhere when I’m ready.

  13. It has been over thirty years since I lost my mother. I know at the time it was a horrible shock. I was 23. She only fifty. She was only about the second “important” person I had lost in my life at the time. Now, I haven’t read the book, so I can only comment on what I know. The loss of a mother, especially for a woman, is hard. As, I think a loss of a father for a man would be as well. We look to our mothers to show us how to be woman and for all those unsolvable questions we have along the way. I missed her terribly. But, I did move on and I found women, who although they were not my own mother, eventually filled that void. Thankfully, when my father remarried, I could easily look to his new wife for support and some guidance. Still, she was never my mother. As time moved on, I got to thinking about her only on certain occasions. One of the big ones was when I hit 51. I realized I had lived a longer life and still felt so very young. In short, everyone grieves differently, loves in their own fashion. When the time comes (and I hope it is many years from now), you will do these things as you do them. And, they will be correct.

  14. If “trauma bond” is not already a known phrase, it should be! I believe in the idea of trauma bond through family illnesses or the unthinkable.

    I believe that your amount of love for your mom, is the healthy kind. Her’s sounds a bit twisted.

    I have this book, but haven’t started it and now…I might wait because I already have too many things that make me want to pick at an open wound

  15. I just couldn’t bring myself to like this book. Really, I just couldn’t bring myself to like this author. It seemed like this grief she experienced, so consuming, was an excuse for the bad behaviour that followed. I just don’t get that. I am glad you liked it and got something out of it. It just made me uncomfortable so I stopped reading it .I really didn’t like her.

  16. I forced myself (genuinely caught myself forcing myself) not to think about my mother or our relationship while reading Wild. It was hard. It resulted in my putting the book down multiple times. It resulted in my not finishing that book for over a month or longer. While it was inspirational on so many levels, I simply did not read it at a good time in my life as far as my relationship with my mother or where I feel I am in my goals as a mother in my own right. Meh. I enjoyed it but I think I could have identified with her more had I opened myself up to it.

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