May 2012

Gina Frangello

features

An Interview with Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed, recently revealed on Valentine's Day as the anonymous advice columnist, "Sugar," on The Rumpus, is having what might, at first glance, be seen as a meteoric rise. Reese Witherspoon just acquired film rights to her memoir, Wild, which has been excerpted in Vogue (this included a photo shoot in which the already-quite-beautiful, though also-very-natural-looking Cheryl was airbrushed within an inch of her life, prompting Rumpus founder and curator Stephen Elliott to interrogate the process in one of his "Daily Rumpus" emails to his subscribers). In fact, one mutual FB friend actually recently posted as her status a question about what other writers "felt" about Cheryl's onslaught of success, and whether anyone was jealous.

But (although questions of writerly envy are interesting), such questions seem to fail to acknowledge that Cheryl has been... well, at this game for a long time. Her debut novel, Torch, was successful but got nowhere near the attention of Wild, and, in fact, while Sugar attained the status of a cult figure among devoted Rumpus readers, Cheryl toiled in that role in anonymity -- her identity known only to friends -- and also, as is common in the online community, without a salary for the gig. What I mean here is that this writer, now in her forties, has spent many years not just in the literal trenches of the wilderness, as Wild explores, but in the writerly trenches. Her success comes not out of nowhere, but precisely out of the kind of hard work, generosity of spirit, and years of prioritizing process above a checklist of "progress," that is less envy-inducing than inspirational to her friends and fans.

In Wild, the reader gets to encounter a very different Cheryl: rather than a rising author, a loving mother, and advisor to thousands of people, we meet a twentysomething young woman so reeling and alone that she turns to infidelity, heroin, and a (seemingly preposterous at first) solo hike spanning more than a thousand miles. Here, Cheryl and I discuss the Then and Now of her various hats and identities, and the consistent threads that guide her through...

The early sections of Wild focus on your mother's rapid death from cancer, and the deterioration of what had been your nuclear family -- siblings, stepfather, and even your relationship with your first husband, Paul. One thing that struck me was the way your stepfather and siblings seemed to be the ones forcing the separation from you, that you were in the role of trying to "preserve" the family, ultimately without success. Yet in your marriage, the opposite became true, where you began compulsively cheating on your husband and thrashing against the restraints of the union. When you look back, what do you make of the fact that you were essentially acting out opposing roles in different aspects of your familial life, as both the desperate uniter and the secret saboteur, simultaneously?

I think that's really perceptive. It's precisely what was happening. I was aware of it even at the time, which made my desire to break up with my ex-husband all the more confusing. I was devastated by the fact that I felt this deep need to leave the one person who was there for me. It was just so, so ugly and painful. I was tormented by it. Now, looking back, it makes sense to me. I was way too young to be married, but in addition to that, the years after my mom died were emotionally tumultuous it's no surprise I couldn't sustain a marriage in the midst of them.

You have "come out" as Sugar, the extremely beloved and widely read advice columnist at The Rumpus. There are a lot of questions that spring to mind regarding the complexities of holding two "writerly" identities, since Sugar is, of course, a writer too, and yet has had to maintain a certain distance from you -- from Cheryl -- in order to preserve anonymity. What the differences are between Cheryl and Sugar? Would Wild be a different book if Sugar had written it, and how would Sugar's column be different if written by Cheryl?

This is so meta that my head is spinning! I don't think anything would be different. Cheryl wrote both. Sugar is me. Her voice is mine. She does have a bit of a persona thing going on, but it's just for fun. All the stories I tell about my life in the Sugar column are true and they come from a place all the stories in Wild do. I craft them in the same way. When I'm writing as Sugar there are details of my life I don't get particular about -- the city where I live, the names of my family members, and so forth -- but I'm particular about everything else. Obviously, there is a vast difference in the two forms, the book-length memoir and the advice-column-that's-really-an-essay, but I don't think it has to do with identity or anonymity or persona. It has to do with the place where the writer is positioned in relation to the reader. As Sugar, I'm speaking directly to the letter writer and via the letter writer to the wider audience. You once described it rather aptly to me as "conducting a therapy session in the town square." In Wild, there is no explicit acknowledgement of the reader. It's a more traditional memoir POV. So those different forms lend themselves to different things, but it's always me behind those words.

You had no extensive backpacking experience when you embarked on your journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. You were an athletic and outdoorsy kind of person... which is a very different self-identification than I have, so I realize that I bring my own deep bias and fears to the table with this question... I would be the first one eaten in the Donner party. Still, I have to say that this book -- your journey, as a young twentysomething woman alone with a backpack heavier than that of any of the men you encountered, with no real knowledge of the land -- freaking terrified me. Even though I knew you had lived to write it, I was fairly certain throughout the entire thing that you were going to end up dead. There were many moments here when that is precisely what could have happened. How conscious of that fact were you, really, at the time? Looking back now at your young self, would it have been a risk worth taking, or would it have changed the entire Truth of the trip if you had embarked out on this healing journey, but the form "healing" had taken had been, actually, death?

I think it's interesting that you identify the hike as the place in the narrative where you felt the most afraid for me. I don't go on and on about shooting heroin in Wild, but it is mentioned. I did it the night before I flew to California to begin hiking the trail. I think I was in far more danger of dying when I did that than when I walked alone in the wilderness. I point this out because a big part of what enabled me to hike alone as I did was to look closely at what it is I was afraid of and why. It's more dangerous to get into a car than it is to walk alone in the woods, but most of us don't perceive it that way. I was in a self-destructive spiral when I decided to hike the PCT. It was more dangerous for me to stay in the life I was living than it was to go, even though going took me into the wilderness alone. I was okay out there. Yes, it's true I took some risks and I found myself in situations at times that were not entirely what you'd call safe, and yet the profound realization for me is that I was -- as I say in the book -- "safe in this world." I didn't feel safe in this world before my hike. Testing my strength, being daring, and taking risks in healthy ways -- those things allowed me to inhabit the world in ways I'd never previously imagined. So that was powerful, but I was also aware of how fragile it was too. If I had died out there the whole journey would be viewed differently, of course. But I didn't die. I'm here.

This book ends pretty much when you end the physical journey. You have a brief flash forward in the final pages of meeting your husband and having your children, and also of the loss of your friend and fellow hiker, Doug. But by and large you stay away from what happened "after" the PCT. You emerged from your trip feeling radically changed. But once you were back in the urban world, how consistent and sweeping were those changes? Were there old habits you slipped back into, at least temporarily? Did it all feel as consistently transcendent as it did at the end of the journey, or did a "former Cheryl," as it were, continue to mingle with a "transformed Cheryl" for quite a while? How different do you think you would be now, as a woman in your forties, as your mom was when she died, if you had never made this trip?

The transcendent thing for me about my hike is that I was radically altered by it while at the same time I was the same person. I came back different inside, but I'm sure most people who knew me perceived me as essentially the same. I made better choices for myself after my PCT trek. That doesn't mean I no longer made stupid choices -- I still do that on occasion -- but I more consistently made better ones. My grief sat on my heart more lightly. I accepted the circumstances of my life with more serenity. I let my ex-husband go and I forgave myself for ruining our marriage.

Those are some big changes, but they're internal, private. "Change happens on the level of the gesture," I wrote in one of my Sugar columns and that's how my hike changed me. On the level of the gesture. The shift was both gigantic and subtle. This runs counter to the redemption narratives we're so often told. I think we want to think you can do something and then be a completely different and better person from having done it, but life doesn't work that way. That's why we roll our eyes at those stories. We know they aren't true. Real redemption is complex and contradictory. There is no "former Cheryl" or "transformed Cheryl." There is only me. Because I had the experiences I did on the PCT, I felt compelled to reach with greater intention toward the light.

You changed your last name to Strayed following your divorce. The name has stuck, and you've retained it throughout a long second marriage and as a writer. What continued significance does your chosen name have to you now?

I love my name. When I took it I knew I would be mine until the day I died. I was an orphan by the time I renamed myself. My safety net was incredibly loose. I needed to build my own life, to create my own sense of family, to make a home inside myself. Taking on my own name was symbolic of my desire to do those things. I feel deeply connected to the word, strayed. It's my heritage.

The "middle aged" (I hate that term, and I think people like you, or women like us, fail to embody what that term meant to us as children, but yeah, we're not likely to live past the age of 85 or 90, so okay, middle-aged) Cheryl is very conscious of the young Cheryl's reliance on her pretty, girlish youthfulness in terms of identity formation and the role you often played with men. In some ways, the PCT beat that reliance on beauty out of you, as you were forced to wear smelly, dirty clothes, as your toenails fell off, as you went without washing for weeks. Yet fairly near the end of the book, when you have a brief but beautiful liaison with a hot Michelle Shocked fan named Jonathan, you remained so worried about the patches of rough skin on your hips that you . . . well, first you fail to bring a condom, even though you really want to fuck the guy, and then you kind of freak out when he's finally taking your pants off, and seem to truly believe he isn't going to want you once he sees what you have going on down there. This moment -- god, it seems really real to me. Really cringe-worthily real, if you don't mind my saying. That this woman who's gone out on an 1100 mile hike alone and kicked serious ass, who's lived through her mother's death and a failed marriage, is still quaking in her boots that some guy she barely knows is going to judge her body as wanting. I'm not sure I have a question here per se. But can you talk about that?

When I wrote that scene I wanted the reader to feel what it was like to be me with that man -- the nervousness, the desire, the tenderness, the vulnerability. I'd walked so far and finally I was skin-to-skin with another human being in a tent. I was so worried about those callouses on my hips that my backpack had given me, so self-conscious, and though I now see it as ridiculous, I also remember that experience with a lot of sweetness. Even though by then I had "kicked serious ass," I needed to be reassured about my attractiveness. I didn't want that to be true, but it was.

There are many stunning moments in Wild about your grieving process around your mother. You have a beautiful line where you say, "Grief doesn't have a face," referring to how you seemed to be coping fine but in fact you were falling apart. At one point on your hike you sob over your mother, at other times you yell, you recall swallowing bits of her bone, and there's a fabulously real moment when you begin chronicling all the mistakes she made as a parent, in an attempt to stop loving her so much, to make the hurt fade by vilifying her. In the end, though, it's your continual intense love for your mother -- and even more than that, your faith in her total love for you -- that permits your grief to recede enough to permit the rest of your life to blossom. As an advice columnist -- and of course, a human being -- you must have encountered many people who did not have this kind of unconditional love from their mothers. What's your opinion regarding how being unconditionally loved affects a child's life forever?

I think it affects your life forever. I could die tomorrow and my children -- who are ages 6 and 7 -- will have gotten what some people will not get from their mothers in a lifetime. They'd miss me and there would be great difficulty around my absence, but they wouldn't have a hole inside of them where my love should have been. I've always been acutely aware of that with my own mother. Even when she was dying, I knew how lucky I'd been to have a mother who loved me well. I knew that would be with me always. And it has been. It's so important, so enormous. I'm in awe of the people who did not get unconditional love from their mothers who have healed that wound. It's a big one, a deep one. To heal it they had to work like motherfuckers.

How has being motherless -- parentless, really -- shaped you as a mother to your children?

I pour everything my mom gave me into my kids. To parent them has been another branch of my healing. My children make me happy in this incredibly deep way. It's sad to me that my mom will never know them and they'll never know her, aside from the stories I tell them about her. Being a motherless mother is lonely in all the predictable ways. I don't have the mother who came and stayed with me to help out after I gave birth, I don't have the mother I get to ask for advice about mothering, I don't have the mother who babysits my kids. I don't have the mother who... I think you get my point. I don't have the mother. (I'm so used to not having the father that it doesn't even feel like an absence anymore.) But I have my children. They are more than I'd ever wished for. My mother lives in them.

Speaking of your children, you talk fairly early in the book about "radical aloneness" and being Alone as if it were "a room" you could always escape into. Along your journey, you often do volitionally forgo the company of other hikers in order to continue your route solo, and the concept of aloneness seems to be crucial not just to your healing, but also to a core part of yourself predating your trip or your mother's death. How has being married and having young children affected this Alone space in terms of your practice as a writer, and your current interior spaces? Do you still have this need, and if so how do you honor it amidst a busy life?

I love being alone. I think a lot of people who know me would be surprised to know that I'm actually a hermit because I'm also a total extrovert. I'm an absolute social butterfly, but solitude nurtures me like nothing else. My husband loves to be alone too, so it's easy for us to give each other space. Before we had kids, I would go off for weeks on end to write and he'd go off to do his film projects. But the kids have made these things far more complex. As soon as they were beyond the toddler stage I started going away on occasion. Often it would be just for forty-eight hours, to hole up in a hotel room and write. A few times it was longer. I don't know how you finish a book without going away and being alone. There's a level of concentration I must have in order to get all the way there. With each of my three books, I was away from home when I wrote the last pages. I couldn't do that without the support of my wonderful husband. He's amazing.

My favorite scene in a book rich in vivid, harrowing, gorgeous scenes, is the one in which you and your brother Leif -- badly, disastrously -- put down your mother's horse. Every possible thing, it seems, goes wrong. And yet there are healing elements even in the worst horror, as Leif helps you envision your mother riding her horse away into some sort of afterlife. This acceptance of mistakes, of horror even, has echoes later in the book, when you forgive yourself for your infidelities and allow yourself to wonder if heroin and other so-called-mistakes were not "mistakes" at all but taught you something. I believe the way you put it was, "What if yes was the right answer instead of no?" Is it?

Yes is the right answer, yes, indeed. Except when the better answer is no.