Chris McCandless’ Conflict: Through an Ethical Communication Lens

You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living (Krakauer, 1996, p. 57).

This profound statement was written in a letter by Chris McCandless while living the vagabond lifestyle. After graduating Emory University, Chris set out to live off the land and explore the Alaskan frontier. He met many people on his journey across the nation, but that is not the most important context of the conflict in his story by any means; neither is his death on the Stampede Trail in Alaska. The day he set out, he essentially cut all ties to his family, and that is the true conflict of his story. Into the Wild by John Krakauer and The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless — the follow-up story that explores Chris’s childhood — illustrate a fascinating example of conflict within a family. Differing ethical assumptions between Chris and his parents, and Chris’ own sense of individualism propelled the conflict in his family.

Why was Chris so apathetic about cutting ties to his family post-graduation? “The family context — as young children’s main reference — is crucial to children’s social-emotional development. For this reason, exposure to an adverse family environment substantially increases the likelihood of the child internalizing and externalizing problems” (Muller, Perren, & Wustmann Seiler, 2014, p. 707). Understanding the conflict within the McCandless family is necessary to identify with Chris’ childhood and its impact on his personal development. While still married to his first wife Martha, Chris’ father, Samuel McCandless, had relations with Chris’ biological mother, Billie. He also had two children with Billie. Chris spent time at both Billie’s and Martha’s homes. His father was physically and verbally abusive to both of the women in his life and to his children — the six he had with Martha and the two he had with Billie. When Chris was quite young, Billie and Samuel moved to Virginia, and Chris was raised by both of his dysfunctional parents and his sister, Carine. He witnessed verbal arguments, his mother being beaten by his father, and was subjected to his father’s demanding academic and personal standards.

Chris’ parents believed since he was extremely intelligent, he should’ve been pursuing a career full of success and opportunity after graduation from Emory University. Chris, however, had a love for nature and solidarity, and he planned to explore the world. Years after Chris’ death, his sister Carine, in an interview with Good Housekeeping, alluded to the motive behind his plans to leave his family. “I don’t believe people have a valid understanding of how much Chris was hurting when he left. He didn’t leave out of angst or rebellion. We had a dysfunctional tumultuous childhood” (Cotliar, 2014, p. 74, para. 3). His desire to find solace in nature also stemmed from his stressful childhood and the strain it placed on his relationship with his parents.

To further analyze Chris, one must examine Samuel. Samuel had a strong sense of love for his family, but it manifested in destructive ways. He was unable to see situations pragmatically. An aerospace engineer with a self-made consulting business, he believed in hard work and pushing oneself to the limits in order to succeed. He imparted these ethical assumptions onto his children, pressuring Chris to make perfect grades, have memberships in as many organizations as possible, maintain a part-time job, and be a star athlete. Surprisingly, Chris managed to live up to these expectations, but he did so at the expense of his own happiness. Samuel was thoughtless and employed the tainted ground mindset, believing true happiness would only be derived from money and a successful career. He could not comprehend Chris’ happiness stemming from the peace he found in nature.

Not everyone sympathizes with Chris’ story. Critics view his journey as suicidal and as a slap in the face to his parents. After all, they raised Chris to be hardworking and sent him to a prominent university. Moreover, critics don’t believe he deserves to be glorified in film and print; they see error in his individualistic nature. Chris kept most of the people he met as he traveled to Alaska at arm’s length. He gave a fake name, Alexander Supertramp, and a fabricated background story. He didn’t communicate with his parents while he was gone and made it so they, even with a private investigator, could not trace his whereabouts. He burned his cash, and tried to live a life free of materialism or social connection. He believed his identity was not heavily influenced by his social familial ties; however, those ties, so important to his identity, ultimately drove his desire to find freedom in the Alaskan wilderness. His critics had truth to their judgments; they saw how his individualism drove the conflict of his childhood even further when he cut all ties to his parents.

What is the truth? Are his critics or supporters correct?  Robert (2007) wrote about the book’s adaption into the movie for National Geographic Adventures and explored the questions the book and the movie both pose. What made Chris tick? Was it emotional wounds from his childhood? Or was he simply “a clueless hippie from the lower 48…” like many of his critics — seasoned Alaskan explorers — say. There is no single concrete answer to these questions; there is no universal truth. Chris’ actions are framed differently based on what readers and audience members make of his story and to what they attribute the cause of his actions.

While Chris is no longer living, understanding what may have resolved the conflict provides a sense of closure and healing for readers and, most importantly, for the McCandless family. Chris’ father engaged in divisive conflict, verbally and physically abusing his wife and children. Samuel was hiding his underlying dissatisfactions with life, choosing to harm his wife and children instead of facing his own intrapersonal conflict. He destroyed the communicative environment Chris needed in order to feel secure talking to his father and to develop a strong relationship. This caused Chris to withdraw, leading to even more conflict.

Additionally, Samuel failed to have internal dialogue before communicating interpersonally with his children. He was harsh and brash with his words, demanding his children behave a certain way and appear a certain way for Samuel and Billie’s colleagues and friends. If he had taken a pragmatic approach, dealing with his own intrapersonal conflict rather than taking it out on his family, he could’ve cultivated healthier familial relationships. Perhaps Chris failed to have internal dialogue as well; he didn’t take the time to realize the effect his reckless journey would have on all members of his family — not just his parents; he was also rather thoughtless.

The father-son conflict can be viewed in terms of emotions. Both Chris and Samuel had different emotions driving them into conflict. Samuel was angry when his children did not perform or achieve as he thought they should. In turn, Chris was hurt by Samuel’s words and actions. Samuel and Chris needed to have metacommunication because their communication and lack thereof was destructive and unhealthy. Samuel would yell, and Chris would retreat, failing to communicate at all because he didn’t perceive an environment conducive to effective communication. Samuel’s emotions drove the initial conflict, and Chris perpetuated the conflict, failing to communicate out of fear, hurt, and mistrust.

Samuel’s employment of divisive conflict and Chris’s resulting lack of communication can be seen as a demand-withdraw pattern of conflict. Psychologists from the University of California examined family conflict between parents and adolescences. They note that while conflict between Chris and Samuel may have been inevitable as Chris was striving for independence and personal identity, the conflict was aggravated by the demand-withdraw pattern exhibited (Saxbe, Timmons, Rodriguez, & Margolin, 2014). Samuel made demands, and Chris, rather than lashing out in anger, retreated silently, thus further fueling Samuel’s dissatisfaction.

The conflict between Chris and Samuel is multi-sided and is based on how audiences frame their actions. Chris’ belief in individualism and his failure to properly communicate can be seen as the driving force behind the conflict, as can his lack of internal dialogue prior to embarking on his Alaskan expedition. However, Samuel’s lack of emotional intelligence, lack of internal dialogue, and thoughtlessness can be seen as driving forces. The conflict can also be framed with both Chris and Samuel at fault; they both contributed to the conflict and failed to properly communicate to end the conflict. Chris needed a communicative environment developed by Samuel to properly discuss his emotions of hurt and mistrust. Samuel needed to deal with his angry emotions internally, engaging in intrapersonal communication rather than allowing them to manifest into interpersonal conflict. “We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again” (Krakauer, 1996, p. 96). Chris may not have liked his father much, but he loved him as his family. He liked the companionship and sense of belonging, but he could not take the toll the conflict with his father had on his well-being. He got out, died, and is unable to come back. Would things have gone differently if he didn’t die on the Stampede Trail? Would his conflict with his father ever have been resolved? These questions will remain forever unanswered.


Cotliar, S. (2014). A sister’s tribute. Good Housekeeping, 258(12), 74. Retrieved from

Krakauer, J. (1996). Into the wild. New York: Anchor Books

Muller, E., Perren, S., & Wustmann Seiler, C. (2014). Coherence and content of conflict-based narratives: Associations to family risk and maladjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(5), 707-717. doi:10.1037/a0037845

Roberts, D. (2007, October). Back into the wild. National Geographic Adventure, 9(8), 55. Retrieved from

Saxbe, D. E., Ramos, M. R., Timmons, A. C., Rodriguez, A. R., & Margolin, G. (2014). A path modeling approach to understanding family conflict: Reciprocal patterns of parent coercion and adolescent avoidance. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(3), 415-420. doi:10.1037/a0036817


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