Quote 3

“As she studies the pictures, she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow. (132)

While regarding photographs of Christopher McCandless’s childhood, Billie McCandless reveals to the narrator the depth of her sorrow at her son’s death. Into the Wild contains many inset examples of storytelling about Christopher McCandless undertaken by characters other than Krakauer. Billie McCandless’s pictures affect her because they enforce her sense that his primary role in life pertained to their family and to his childhood. Thus she weeps as “only a mother who has outlived a child can weep.” Her life and Christopher’s life are primarily defined by their family roles. Beyond their psychological usefulness to her, the pictures she has arranged present the reader with one of many alternative means those close to Christopher McCandless have used to try and make sense of his life and his disappearance. Each mention of those alternative means allows the reader to experience the process of trying to make sense of McCandless’s choices and to consider how the narrator himself has arranged his investigation, his evidence, and his conclusions.

In the passage, Krakauer weighs in strongly on the recklessness of McCandless’s behavior, presenting a turn in the narrative of his investigation into McCandless’s character. Until this point, Krakauer presented evidence against allegations that McCandless was incompetent or too dreamy to ever have understood the nature of his actions. Here, Krakauer condemns him. McCandless’s absence, that is, his death, will prevent him from ever seeing the damage he has done to his mother, which is re-emphasized by the phrase “witnessed at close range.” Generally speaking, Christopher McCandless avoided intense emotional encounters “at close range” even while he was alive. Krakauer thus repositions McCandless’s escape into the wild as less than idealistic and instead as a shirking of responsibility to those who love him. The idea that Billie McCandless’s grief is unfathomable, that it makes “the mind balk” only underlines the moral and ethical imperative not to abandon others.