The 2014 Reese Witherspoon flick Wild came and went in the theaters without my thinking much about it. The story of author Cheryl Strayed’s journey across the Pacific Crest trail landed on my cable package via HBO late last year. For whatever reason, I started watching it without much in the way of expectations. However, by the end of the movie, I just sat there mouth agape, my raw face strewn with tears, wondering just what the fuck just hit me like a falling safe. Yes, I can get emotional, but I simply do not cry at movies. At least up until then.
Well, perhaps this was just a one-off. Maybe I was feeling very depressed and vulnerable at that very moment and this had nothing to do whatsoever with the movie. So I watched again. Same thing. And again. And again. Niagara Falls every time. I even had this happen while watching a YouTube clip of a scene at the end that really gets me, where a little boy sings “Red River Valley” and Witherspoon’s Strayed barely holds it together as the boy recites the lyrics, and then collapses in a quivering heap after the boy and his grandmother are gone. Actually, watching that scene, I found myself in a similarly quivering heap.
What is it about this movie? And what is it about me? I spent some time getting to the bottom of this question. Actually, the answer wasn’t very shocking, but it did require a lot of honesty about what had happened in my life over the past decade and a half and some discussion with the people who knew me best. I feel that what I have learned is worth sharing here – if you feel like this is about to become a major case of TMI, then please stop reading here. Otherwise, you have been warned.
I’ll first summarize the movie, which is based on the autobiographical book of the same name. Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed at a time when she hit rock bottom. Strayed, a married college student in Minnesota, was particularly close to her mother, having left an abusive father, endured poverty and deprivation and somehow came out OK. And then her young mother (played by Laura Dern) is diagnosed with cancer, given a year to live, and lasts only about a month before meeting an undignified end in a hospital. (Nobody notified Strayed that her mother had passed.) Strayed reacts by completely falling apart to the point of becoming emotionally numb. Sensing that her husband is incapable of feeling her pain, she wanders around fucking any dude with a heartbeat. She further slides into a heroin addiction. The cheating and drugs effectively end her marriage despite the fact that she still loves her husband. She hits rock bottom by discovering she is pregnant and not really knowing who the husband is. In line at a store to purchase a pregnancy test, she comes across a book about the Pacific Crest trail, becomes intrigued, and decides that she needs to hike this trail to put herself back together and be the woman that her mother raised her to be.
The story of Strayed’s 1100-mile journey across the rugged terrain of the PCT is interspersed with flashbacks from key moments of her life as thoughts she might have when trying to figure out how on earth she got here. Strayed, although someone who had known hardship and even lived in a house with no running water or electricity, is a complete novice hiker and requires a lot of help from kind strangers along the way. While dealing with the substantial difficulties of the hike, she eventually comes to terms with the meaning of her loss, acknowledging that she misses her mother terribly but knowing that she has a life to put together.
The story as I have described it is really nothing unique. There are plenty of stories out there about loss and redemption. Crap, it seems almost every Disney movie starts with a kid who lost a parent. But Wild succeeds because of the way the story unfolds. We get to know Strayed and really how bad she let things get – the multiple dudes at once, the heroin injections in an alley, the estrangement from her husband. This is a person in serious pain who has refused to really face it. The PCT becomes her mirror so she can finally come to terms with it. The rest of course is history – she remarries and becomes a successful author.
So, what does this have to do with me? I think I deeply identified with the movie because I saw so much of myself in Strayed. I too lost my mother to cancer at a young age, although not as young as Strayed. No, I didn’t react by cheating on my wife or taking drugs. But I certainly lost my way afterward. The movie killed me because it reminded me of how I had yet to deal with the pain of my similar loss.
I did not lead a life much like Strayed’s. Unlike Strayed, I grew up in a stable, middle-class family in Massachusetts. I never suffered her hardships. Although my family was close-knit, I was eager to move away from home and once I did, I was one of those call-once-a-week kids. I couldn’t say that I was close to my mother like Strayed was to her. For me, the decision to move halfway across the planet from my mother for a few years was pretty easy. (My mother was convinced that I would never return and until I met Laura, odds were that she was right.)
When my mother was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer, I was still 30 years old. I had just moved back to within a 3-hour drive from the parents with Laura and our toddler and infant. My life until then had progressed as I had imagined: Ph.D., marriage, job, kids. Good stuff. My parents were supposed to spoil and indulge my kids. But that was not to be. Instead, my mother was forced to fight a horrible, losing battle for a precious few months against insane odds. And my kids were denied their grandmother.
Unlike Strayed’s mother, my mother did not go that quickly. Under a then-new protocol, my mother survived a shocking 22 months after her diagnosis, when not long before, most of us would have been grateful for two. A lot of those months were good. We were even able to go on vacation together at one point. But the decline was inevitable, and as ugly and dehumanizing and terrifying as one might fear and sadly expect. My father retired from his career to care for her 24/7 and shielded my brother and I from the worst, but I saw enough to know just how bad life had gotten for my mother.
The end came abruptly. I didn’t have much time to contemplate it – I had to pack the family up in the middle of the night and make the three-hour drive east to the hospital in Boston. When I got there, my mother lay in a bed hooked to a machine. She had undergone multiple organ failure and blew up like a balloon with fluid. The doctors of course could keep her going arbitrarily long on that machine, but what was the point? Although my mother had a boatload of morphine going through her system, we could see her wincing in pain in her coma. Unlike Strayed, we had the choice to take her off the machine and complete my mother’s life in our presence. We took that choice.
While all this was going on, and over the next week and a half of funeral, shiva, and purging the house, my brother was a train wreck, crying all along the way. My father had already been through the mourning process and was pretty steady. As for me…
…nothing. I felt cold inside. The death and all the events that followed didn’t seem to affect me in the least emotionally (my horror at witnessing the dying process aside). I quickly tired of having people come up to me and ask me how I was holding up – but I couldn’t get mad of course. I actually started to worry that I had felt nothing. I just wanted to do what we needed to do to pay proper respects and then go on my way back to my life.
Over the next several months and years, the truth would begin to emerge. The fact is that my mother was a super-important presence in my life, even when I was as far away as one could get. I had up until then lived my life to impress my folks, to prove to them that I could succeed on my own in my own way. And now a lot of that motivation was gone from this earth.
Soon after I returned to work, my work performance suffered. I got my first negative review at work, although it was explained to me that I was being judged assuming I was about to be promoted. But still, everything for me up until then was a steady climb. With that review, all that would end. Basically, I stopped giving a shit.
I used to be unable to sleep if I went to bed with a problem unsolved. I would get back up and work things through until I came up at least with what was getting in my way. I would think about my work constantly because I loved it. And to be honest, I loved proving to myself and to my parents that I got here my way. With my mother’s death, for reasons buried deep within my psyche, all that went away.
Instead of trying to improve things, I took a new job that offered me my effective promotion. But of course, one cannot escape one’s problems and I lasted 2 1/2 years in that position before getting a bad enough review to be shown the door. From there, I decided that a change in career was necessary because I no longer had the desire to do what I had been doing for the past 10 years. I went into patent law after thinking that would be a different enough field to get my juices flowing again, but that turned out to not be the case either. Within 8 months of joining my firm, I was being told that I was about to be let go.
Meanwhile, things at home weren’t going all that well either. Laura had been putting up with a husband who had grown forgetful and got almost nothing done in the house. I had also stopped watching our finances at a time when they needed to be watched very carefully, as I took a huge pay cut to start over in patent law and Laura had stopped working. We ended up in a huge amount of debt with unpaid bills and the house falling apart due to my neglect. And I was about to lose my job because I just couldn’t get myself to give a shit.
The reality of my situation had caught up with me and I suffered what I now see as a nervous breakdown. I called an employee help line and got an emergency referral to a counselor and a psychiatrist. We got to work on the long and sometimes tortuous journey back out of the hole I had dug for myself and my family. My goal, although then I could not articulate it well, was to learn who I really was and what I needed for motivation.
9 years later, I am still on that journey, although I will say that I am a lot better. I did not end up losing my job at the firm; they gave me a second chance and I used it well. Over time, I would go on to another, smaller firm and would steadily improve and learn my strengths and weaknesses better than I could have imagined. Steady counseling and a loving family have helped me through the dark periods which occasionally come back to haunt me. But I would say that I now have a healthy respect for what has happened and why it happened.
Seeing Wild brought all of this truth from deep inside my gut. Here was a person who lost their mother, too, and depended on her in a strange way like me. She also just stopped giving a shit and hit rock bottom. I saw in her emotional journey back everything that I had gone through too. As I watched this film, I could feel all of the pain I had experienced for the past 15 years come rushing out, because Strayed’s pain felt like my pain. And then, when that little boy (whose mother had died or left) sang “Red River Valley” – a touching song about loss and sadness – the tears just ran. It was no surprise to watch Witherspoon just collapse in that quivering heap under her backpack, loud tears streaming as she declares how much she misses her Mom. And I get it now.
So there you have it: I cried at a movie and I therefore had to write a novella analyzing it. That said, Wild is a good movie with a very solid performance by Witherspoon. It just hit me hard because of my own history and because Witherspoon does a great job portraying this person. But I hope to never see another movie like it.