The Beauty of a Brutal Honesty: A Profile of Cheryl Strayed

Leslie Schwartz

Strayed’s candid sincerity, on full display in her new memoir, stems in part from the hardships of her youth, which she endured in a small town an hour outside of Minneapolis. Her mother was married at the age of nineteen, and by twenty-six she had three children. (Strayed is the middle child, born between an older sister and a younger brother.) Strayed’s father was a violent and abusive man, but her mother stayed with him for ten years before finding the courage to leave him. With three children and little money, Strayed’s mother moved from job to job, working as a waitress, or in a factory—whatever it took to pay the rent in any of the various small apartments they lived in. “There were times my mother had two dollars in her purse,” Strayed says. “We were always in jeopardy.”

“I think that in some ways living in the wilderness gathered me,” Strayed says. “Hardship gave me a sense of strength and power.”

In 1980 Strayed’s mother remarried, this time to a man who was a loving father figure to young Cheryl. A year after the wedding, Strayed’s stepfather, a carpenter by trade, fell off a roof on the job. As a result he received a settlement of twelve thousand dollars and, in 1982, purchased forty acres of woods in rural Aitkin County, Minnesota. While her stepfather built the family home, Strayed, her mother, and her siblings lived on the property in a one-room tar-paper shack with no running water, electricity, or plumbing. Though her mother’s income paid for most of the family’s basic needs, they drew much of their sustenance from the land, growing their own food and making their own clothes.

“I think that in some ways living in the wilderness gathered me,” Strayed says. “Hardship gave me a sense of strength and power.” As it turned out she would need that strength to overcome a devastating blow that neither she nor her family saw coming.

When she was eighteen, Strayed began her undergraduate studies at the University of St. Thomas, a small college in Duluth, Minnesota. The school allowed for parents of students to attend for free, and to Strayed’s dismay, her mother decided to go back to school with her. They both majored in women’s studies. 

Strayed laughs about it now: “I was a teenager, trying to be different from my mom, but I felt a loyalty to her and the sacrifices she made for us so I told her we’d just have to have some rules.” Those rules, which were only occasionally broken, prohibited any acknowledgment of each other in public. Eventually the school proved too expensive, however, so they both transferred to the University of Minnesota. Her mother attended the Duluth campus and Strayed moved to the campus in Minneapolis. While living there she met her first husband, whom she calls Paul in Wild. The couple were married in 1988, two months shy of Strayed’s twentieth birthday.

Then, in 1990, just before she was about to graduate, Strayed’s mother found out she had lung cancer, which had already spread throughout her body by the time she was diagnosed. She would live only seven more weeks. She died, at the age of forty-five, two months before she would have graduated. (The University of Minnesota awarded her mother a degree posthumously; Strayed quit school and did not complete her degree for another six years.)

After her mother’s death, everything Strayed had known to be true about her life simply vanished. “I tried to keep everything together,” she says. “But my family fell apart.” Within months her stepfather began seeing another woman, and her brother and sister found their own antidotes to grief, which further dissolved the family dynamic, splitting them apart forever. “I did everything I could to keep it together,” Strayed recalls. “I did all the funeral arrangements. It was around Easter so I made the Easter dinner. I wrote hundreds of thank-you cards. But after a certain point, the ship was sinking and I was the last person on board. So I finally had to jump off.”

In her essay “The Love of My Life,” which was published in the Sun in 2002 and subsequently appeared in The Best American Essays 2003, Strayed is ruthlessly honest about her self-destructive response to the family tragedy. “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead exactly one week,” she wrote.

“I loved my mother extraordinarily,” Strayed says now. “She was my hero. She was my only parent. I was kindred spirits with my mom, so when she died I was an orphan.”

Strayed was twenty-two, and the realization that she would never get to make up for those teenage years when she pushed her mother away was devastating. “I lost her at a time when we are typically separating from our mothers. We were pushing her away,” she says of herself and her siblings. “And then we had the guilt for all the teenage crap we pulled, but because we were technically adults, no one swooped in and cared for us.” 

In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Strayed separated from her husband, spent time in various cities in New York, Texas, Arizona, California, and Wyoming, slept with men she barely knew, hooked up with a punk-rocker heroin addict she met in Portland, Oregon, and began shooting heroin herself. “I’m being literal when I tell you that heroin was the only thing that worked. It actually cured the pain,” she writes in Wild. “It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like I’d found an actual planet that I didn’t know and had been there all along. Planet Heroin.”

But ultimately Strayed didn’t follow the predictable path of a heroin addict. Her estranged husband learned about her adventures with heroin and drove from Minnesota to Portland to take her away from what he knew would ruin her. “I sat in the passenger seat as we drove across the country, feeling my real life present but unattainable,” she writes in Wild. “Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our rage. We were monstrous in our cruelty and then we talked kindly afterward, shocked at each other and ourselves.”

Eventually, after several days and nights of talking, the couple decided to split for good. Soon thereafter she remembered a guidebook she had seen about the PCT, and the idea of hiking it became an obsession. She writes in Wild about how she began to see the trail as “a sign. Not only of what I could do, but what I had to do.”