POETS & WRITERS – A Profile of Cheryl Strayed

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

by Leslie Schwartz
March/April 2012 [2]

Cheryl Strayed sits on her couch, sipping a cup of hot cinnamon tea, while a gentle rain falls outside her home in southeast Portland, Oregon. Marlo, a cat she adopted from the local pound, angles up to her for some affection and Strayed halfheartedly shoos him away. Her other cat, Gulla, which was nearly dead when she found it on a highway in New Mexico while she was a resident at the Wurlitzer Foundation fifteen years ago, hides in Strayed’s bedroom. She had intended to bury the cat when she found it, but it showed signs of life when she picked it up and, following a late night visit to a veterinarian in Taos, the cat miraculously survived. Gulla has been with her ever since.

When her husband of twelve years, the documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, arrives home briefly, the house brightens and fills with warmth. Strayed and Lindstrom chat quietly in the kitchen, and then he is gone again. Their two children, seven-year-old Carver (named after Raymond Carver) and six-year-old Bobbi (after Strayed’s mother), are at school.

More tea is served. Then the clouds part briefly, and the living room fills with an impossibly brilliant, golden light that seems to shine only on Strayed, making her bright eyes somehow even brighter. From all appearances this is a woman who has found her place in the world, both on the home front and in literary circles, where the buzz about her new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, published in March by Knopf, has steadily grown into a roar.

It is nearly impossible to believe that the woman sipping tea on the couch in the sunshine is the same woman who grieved so hard after her mother died of cancer in 1991 that she destroyed her first marriage by sleeping with other men, got tangled up with a punk rocker who introduced her to heroin, and lost all connection to her remaining 
family—which, for years, when Strayed was young, had lived below the poverty line in northern Minnesota. It is equally unbelievable that this is the same woman who, at the age of twenty-six, made “the arguably unreasonable decision” to spend three months walking eleven hundred miles, from California to Oregon, on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Alone. Without a gun.

“That’s what everyone asks me,” Strayed says. “They want to know if I was afraid and did I have a gun.”

The PCT is one of the world’s most grueling trails, zigzagging its way from Mexico to Canada through some of the West’s most breathtaking wilderness, from the searing Mojave Desert, through John Muir’s High Sierra, to Oregon’s startlingly blue Crater Lake, and onward to the remote Northern Cascades. Strayed admits she had no idea what she was in for, having planned for the trek as if it would be “just one long relaxing camping trip.” She began in June 1995, in the desert, not fully thinking through the idea that there would be no water for the first seventeen miles of the hike.

Seventeen years later, she credits the hike with saving her life—not only by giving her the chance to find the time and, quite literally, the space to grieve her losses, but also by giving her the mental energy to write her first novel, Torch, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. Though Strayed never actually put pen to paper on the trail, by the time she finished the hike she had composed the entire book in her head.

Torch, about a family reeling from crisis, was well received, praised by, among others, George Saunders, with whom Strayed studied in the MFA program at Syracuse University and who called the novel “a wonderful and heartening accomplishment.” But the more heartfelt and honest book Strayed was conceiving of on the trail—though she didn’t know it at the time—was the chronicle of the trip that forms the backbone of her new memoir.

Pam Houston, author most recently of the novel Contents May Have Shifted, published in February by Norton, read a prepublication copy of Wild last year and says it was probably the most profound reading experience she had all year. “Cheryl is so big hearted and so unafraid of her emotions, but she’s never victim-y,” Houston says. “There is no self-pity. And when you meet her you keep waiting for some sort of pretense, some false face, but it’s never there. She is right there just as she is in the book.”

“She’s into radical disclosure, radical honesty, and radical empathy,” adds Steve Almond, a frequent contributor to the Rumpus [6] who came to know Strayed through her writing for that website. “I think the reason her work resonates with readers is that we are living in an age of cruelty, where people are just desperate. Cheryl, on the other hand, is brutally, recklessly, ruthlessly honest. She’s always trying to reach for the good.”

“From all appearances this is a woman who has found her place in the world, both on the home front and in literary circles, where the buzz about her new memoir has steadily grown into a roar.”

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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.”

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.”

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

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Strayed’s new memoir is really two books in one. Initially it’s a story of grief and a chronicle of the loss of her mother, her marriage, even the loss of her last name. After her divorce in 1994, she changed her name to a word that she felt was appropriate for her circumstances. “Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life,” she writes in Wild, “and also struck a poetic chord: ‘to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress.’”

“There is a difference between a stray and a wild animal,” she says now. “And I became wild, really wild. And I use that word wild in a different way. What I was trying to say in my life then and in the book was that the wildest thing of all is to come to terms with your situation, to come to grips with it, to trust and accept and to have faith.”

And in this way Wild is much more than a book about grief and loss. It’s also a book about change and transformation. It’s an adventure story full of hope, friendship, and second chances at life. Or rather it’s a story, Strayed says, “about living with loss and letting it be.”

Near the end of the memoir’s prologue, in which Strayed describes how, halfway through the hike, one of her boots has fallen off the side of a 
mountain—forcing her to make do with a pair of camp sandals—she writes:

I’d started walking in the Mojave Desert and I didn’t plan to stop until I touched the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border with the grandiose name the Bridge of the Gods.

I looked north in its direction—the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled me and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew.

There was always only one.

To keep walking.

“The other choice is to stop,” she says now, as the light begins to dim and the rain outside her Portland home begins to pour. “And that means a sort of death. When my mom died, I got lost. I lost myself and, as I write in Wild, I had to find my way out of the woods. And years afterward, when I married my husband and had children, I knew that I still needed to develop myself, to be conscious always, to make amends where I’d wronged people, and to develop the craft of writing, to develop myself as a writer, an artist, and a person.”

Nine days after she finished her hike on the PCT, Strayed met Brian Lindstrom at a Tex-Mex restaurant called Esparza’s, just down the street from where they now live. “I liked him and he liked me,” she says about the chance meeting during a dinner among shared acquaintances, “but neither one of us was looking for a relationship at the time. We fell in love anyway. We got married nearly four years later, on August 7, 1999.”

The ceremony took place on the banks of the Columbia River—on the Washington side, in the town of Stevenson, which sits opposite Cascade Locks, the exact location where Strayed had finished her hike. “There’s a sort of sweet symmetry to that,” Strayed says.

The couple spent their honeymoon driving a U-Haul across the country to New York, where Strayed had decided to pursue her MFA in fiction at Syracuse University. Though she was offered the Truman Capote Fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she chose instead to attend Syracuse. “I talked to students at both schools and people were telling me, ‘You have to go to Iowa,’ but I just had a gut feeling,” she recalls.

“She was just a luminous presence,” says George Saunders, her mentor at Syracuse. “She distinguished herself from the very beginning. Out of the four hundred or so applications we received that year, Cheryl’s stood out to all of us because you could see in her writing she was someone capable of crediting the goodness in life. It was clear that long before she came to us she had this very happy, serene spirit. In her writing there is always hopefulness. She’s a great reviser, and the decision she always took was one that was directed toward honesty.”

At Syracuse, Strayed started committing the novel she had envisioned on the PCT to paper, but she was also working on essays, one of which, “Heroin/e,” was published in DoubleTake in 1999 and subsequently selected for Best American Essays. One of the writers who took notice of her work was Stephen Elliott, and before long he initiated contact. At the time, Steve Almond wrote the advice column known as Dear Sugar for Elliott’s website the Rumpus. When Almond could no longer keep up with the workload, Elliott asked Strayed to take over.

At first, she thought it would be a fun gig. “But then I thought, ‘Uh oh. I don’t know anything about giving advice.’”

“There is a difference between a stray and a wild animal,” she says now. “And I became wild, really wild.”

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Strayed had no idea that within a very short time thousands of readers would be tweeting about her column and e-mailing her on the Rumpus website, and that her decision, like Almond’s, to remain anonymous would be part of her allure. Most important, she began to see how her answers became for her a meaningful, hybrid art form: part self-help, part memoir, and part personal essay. Her answers to the queries from her devoted readers often ran up to four thousand words. She took the questions seriously and spent days writing thoughtful, provocative answers.

In one of her most famous installments a young woman wrote, “I write like a girl, I write about my lady life experiences, and it usually comes out as unfiltered emotion, unrequited love, and eventual discussion of my vagina as a metaphor…right now, I am a pathetic and confused young woman who can’t write.” The writer went on and on, lamenting how she would never be a great writer like David Foster Wallace.

Strayed replied: “The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace—a genius, a master of the craft—while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.”

She concluded: “So write.… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.” The quote is now featured on a best-selling coffee mug that readers of the Rumpus can purchase from the website.

“Some of my best writing is in that column,” Strayed admits. “I gave my whole heart, my whole spirit to that column. It became so much bigger and more meaningful to me as an artist than I ever dreamed it would.”

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Last month Strayed revealed her identity as Sugar to a crowd of faithful readers and devotees of the column at a special Valentine’s Day party sponsored by the Rumpus at the historic Verdi Club in San Francisco’s Mission District. The party featured a conversation with Strayed and Almond, the original Sugar, as well as the announcement that a collection of Strayed’s most memorable Dear Sugar installments will be published by Vintage in June.

If Strayed is ruffled by the growing attention, which recently included a Vogue photo shoot replete with a team of stylists and makeup artists who descended on her humble Portland home and, she says, turned her into “someone I did not recognize when I looked in the mirror,” she doesn’t show it. She remains, as Pam Houston says, “completely herself. There are no facades, no masks.”

Even now, though not often, I still grieve the loss of my mom,” Strayed says softly as we search her home for her elusive cat Gulla. “At first I was frozen and trapped without her, and if I admitted anything except that I loved her—and back then, that was the greatest truth—if I let anything else in, I would lose my grip on her. Now I honor my mom in a different way. For the longest time, I was only defining her in relationship to me. It took hiking the PCT to understand the fullness of my grief—to see that, outside of being my mom, she was a real person who had, at such a young age, lost her life. I came to see that my grief could transform itself from how her death had affected me, to how it had taken her from her own vibrant life.”

We search high and low for the cat. Strayed’s office is lined with books, and her bedroom, where Gulla usually hides, is neat and cozy. But Gulla is nowhere to be found. Strayed explains that when she first brought the cat home after finding it half-dead along the highway, she found out the hard way that a scared animal could literally climb the walls. “She was crazy—wild,” she says. “I grabbed her when she was halfway up the bathroom wall and as soon as I held her against my body she went limp. Then she was purring.”

For now Gulla is hidden away. She is watching us, or stalking us, or maybe just resting somewhere in a patch of sunlight that pierces the bedroom windows as the dark clouds part again.

Leslie Schwartz is the author of the novels Angels Crest (Doubleday, 2004) and Jumping the Green (Simon & Schuster, 1999). The film version of Angels Crest debuted nationwide in January. Her short stories, essays, and articles have been published in various venues, including the Los Angeles Times, Teachers & Writers, Sonora Review, Kalliope, and Jacaranda Review.

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