Luther puzzled Erikson in much the same way that McCandless puzzled Krakauer: Both writers found subjects that they personally identified with and who, they felt, the culture or society had misunderstood or misinterpreted. Luther and McCandless were both in search of a new worldview, which would inject new forms of communal meaning and self-understanding into their historical contexts; both were engaged in a kind of adolescent moratorium period, taking reprieve from the adult responsibilities of their given society. A first major difference, however, between Luther and McCandless, aside from their historical contexts, is that one managed to survive his moratorium period:
It is probable that in all historical periods some—and by no means the least gifted—young people do not survive their moratorium; they seek death or oblivion, or die in spirit. Martin must have seen such death of mind and spirit in some of his brethren, and came to feel close to it more than once. Those who face the abyss only to disappear we will, of course, never know; and once in a while we should shed a tear for those who took some unborn protest, some unformed idea, and sometimes just one lonely soul, with them. They chose to face nothingness rather than submit to a faith that, to them, had become a cant of pious words; a collective will, that cloaked only collective impotence; a conscience which expended itself in a stickling of empty forms; a reason that was a chatter of commonplaces; and a kind of work that was meaningless busy-work. I am speaking of those “outsiders” who go their lone way…. (Erikson 1958, pp. 99–100)
In all honorable deference to Erikson, we do now know—in the case of McCandless—one who went on his lone, solitary way and faced the abyss of death and never came back. Additionally, because of Krakauer’s award-winning journalism, we have been made aware of droves of individuals who have faced the same kinds of challenges and only some have lived through the experience. In each of their cases, they cite a kind of falsehood or, in Erikson’s words, a culture of collective impotence in America that they could no longer bear to live in without at the very least experiencing a kind of psychospiritual death. In response to this situation, they risk their lives in order to establish some kind of new order of meaning and identity.
Like Luther as well, McCandless was not mentally ill but, as Erikson terms it, in a state of identity diffusion and coming to terms with his negative tendency. In such extreme forms of identity diffusion, there is a “mistrustful difficulty with mere living in time” (Erikson 1958, p. 100). We witnessed this in McCandless’s disappearance and his need to move geographically, never staying in one place for long. We also see it in his need to completely isolate himself, and when he did work manual labor jobs, he totally disregarded the exigencies of the time clock by working at a steady pace in spite of demands from customers and his bosses.
Other signs of McCandless’s identity diffusion are in his “torturous self consciousness” (Erikson 1958, p. 101): “A person with this self-consciousness often cannot work, not because he is not gifted and adept, but because his standards preclude any approach that does not lead to being outstanding; while at the same time these standards do not permit him to compete, to defeat others” (p. 101). Such a description fits McCandless perfectly, as he is described as a wildly gifted entrepreneur and intellect. This was perhaps one of the points on which Krakauer and others found themselves most confused: How could such a gifted individual ostensibly squander their gifts? This puzzle is solved here when McCandless’s case is considered under Erikson’s framework.
Next, those experiencing identity diffusion and resolution of the negative tendency “must shy away from intimacy” (Erikson 1958, p. 101). Here, again, Krakauer was confused. As mentioned before, McCandless could be garrulous and jovial in social situations but maintained a seemingly celibate lifestyle, ambivalent about his own sexual attraction. This is precisely what led Krakauer to refer to McCandless and the other seekers he documents as “monks” who went off into the wilderness. Such a description by Krakauer is somewhat accurate and serves to justify the association I am making here between McCandless and Luther. Both took on a temporary monastic or solitary period in life only to later abandon it or suggest they would abandon it (in the case of McCandless) if they managed to physically survive their moratorium period. Physical closeness is impossible for such individuals because it “arouses at the same time both an impulse to merge with the other person and a fear of losing autonomy and individuation” (Erikson 1958, p. 101). Ambivalence toward one’s own sexual desires—and desire, in general—is a classic symptom of identity diffusion.Footnote 5
Lastly, McCandless alternated between “extreme self repudiation and a snobbish disdain for all groups—except perhaps, for memberships whose true roots and obligations are completely outside his reach” (Erikson 1958, p. 102). Here, again, Krakauer was confused by McCandless’s refusal to associate with any one group for long without becoming completely abhorred by some kind of moral failing or error, just as he was equally self-loathing of any weakness or lapses on his own part. Additionally, this was combined with an unrestrained idealization of writers like Jack London or Tolstoy, who Krakauer points out had colorful lives that do not always sync with the images McCandless insisted on associating with them. Here, again, Erikson insightfully argues that this is precisely why the negative identity or negative tendency develops—under such conditions one must become or believe in values that are total, final, and “foreign to everything one has been taught” (1958, p. 102). Erikson (1958) writes:
We will call all self-images, even those of a highly idealistic nature, which are diametrically opposed to the dominant values of an individual’s upbringing, parts of a negative identity—meaning an identity which he has been warned not to become, which he can become only with a divided heart, but which he nevertheless finds himself compelled to become, protesting his wholeheartedness. Obviously such rebellion can serve high adventure, and when joined to a great collective trend (as in the case of Martin) can rejuvenate as it repudiates. In malignant cases, however, the search for a negative identity soon exhausts social resources; in fact, no rebellious movement, not even a self-respecting delinquent gang, would consider taking such a member… (p. 102)
The above passage from Erikson effectively illustrates one more major difference between Luther and McCandless, namely that Luther’s negative identity or tendency was linked to a great collective trend, which was the reform of the Roman Catholic Church. As a lone seeker, McCandless had effectively severed his ties to any major institutions or movements upon his graduation from Emory University. Unlike Luther or Stafford, McCandless saw no outlets or roles in contemporary American society where he could allow his negative identity or tendency to commit itself to rebellion. This fact, combined with the volume of cases Krakauer suggests (1996, p. 133 ff.), is revealing of a major crisis of the negative identity or tendency in American society—a systematic suppression of licensed youthful (and so often, innocuous) rebellion.
This argument is confirmed by additional recent scholarship and trends in the scholarly literature mentioned previously. Furthermore, Capps (2010) shows that acute identity diffusion is rising to the point of being described as an “epidemic” when viewed in its most extreme form of psychotic symptoms (p. 7). Readers may be confused here because Krakauer makes it such a stern point that McCandless and the other seekers were not mentally ill, as was cited earlier. This is true and, for the record, Erikson does not find Luther mentally ill either. However, as Capps (2010) and Erikson (1958, p. 103) explain, identity diffusion and the negative tendency both come in gradations and, at its most extreme form of totalism, may take on psychotic symptoms. Erikson attempts to take the gradations of severity in the negative identity into account by differentiating between the negative identity and the negative tendency.
In Erikson’s Identity and The Life Cycle (1959), under the chapter “The Problem of Ego Identity” (pp. 139 ff.), Erikson shows there is a marked difference between the negative identity and the negative tendency. Taking on a negative identity implies, for Erikson, a much graver commitment to totalistic thinking—it implies the crossing of a Rubicon. Erikson (1959) cites the example of an African American daughter of an influential Southern preacher found among the narcotic addicts in Chicago (pp. 131–132) as a classic example of a totalistic commitment to become what one was not and assuming a set of values that are entirely foreign to what one was taught.
The negative tendency, however, is properly entrenched in every human person as their discretionary faculty that appropriates the right amount of suspicion in any given circumstance. I am suggesting in this article that McCandless and the other seekers described by Krakauer were treading on a careful line between the negative tendency and the negative identity, simply because they appear to have not made their minds up about just how totalistic their thinking would be and this lack of commitment was witnessed in the way ambivalence was fraught in all of their relationships and decisions. Sadly, society had no constructs to help them navigate this dubious psychological battle, and surely, this contributed to the death of McCandless, as well as the other individuals that Krakauer profiles in his book.
Capps (2010) makes a very similar argument in his book, Understanding Psychosis. In the second chapter of this book, titled “The Deinstitutionalization Era: Its Personal and Social Impact” (pp. 25–52), Capps argues that the steady increase in mental illness in America is largely attributed to the deinstitutionalization of mental health care facilities and social supports. This is truly a point of irony in considering it in relation to the case of McCandless, for the very Republican president he admired (Ronald Reagan) assisted in this demolition of social and governmental supports for the mentally ill, as well as the concomitant building of the American prison industrial complex. As Capps (2010) puts it: “In the interests of protecting the mentally ill persons’ rights not to be involuntarily confined in a state mental hospital, they were being involuntarily confined in county jails” (p. 32).
Such a connection in the evidence and historical context shows that the near ubiquity of suspicion of authority in contemporary America that I am arguing began with the death of modern liberalism has been used to promote the kind of dangerous seeking that McCandless and others have been doing on their own, not to mention the fact that a certain percentage of those seekers eventually do become mentally ill and are without any supports. Krakauer’s protestations of McCandless being free of mental illness are, indeed, correct. However, these repeated protests are revealing of the very truth that Erikson and Capps elucidate: Such totalism ultimately can and does become intractable mental illness.Footnote 6 My contribution here is to show that contemporary American culture works to promote such extreme cases (such as McCandless) through its near totalistic suspicion of any kind of authority but specifically governmental authority, the origins of which are found in the death of modern liberalism. That McCandless himself bought into the conservative ideology that promoted his demise in spite of his refined and even extreme discretionary faculties is a testimony to the effectiveness of this insidious cycle of mistrust that brought about the death of the liberal class in America.
In the first quoted passage of this section, I quoted Erikson’s comment on how these seekers are often times some of the most gifted and talented people in society and that there is some kind of correlation between their giftedness and their inability to develop or sustain faith in the values of their time, context, or group; this is what leads to their moratorium experiment. In the case of McCandless, this connection is very clear in his ostensible boredom with the pursuits of his age. Of his youthful entrepreneurship, Krakauer quotes a family member who talks of the various businesses and jobs McCandless had, impressing all around him with his ease in making a lot of money:
He made a pile of money. I remember he’d come home every night and do his accounting at the kitchen table. It didn’t matter how much it was; he’d figure out how many miles he drove, how much [gas he had used], what gas actually cost, his net profits for the evening, how it compared to the same evening the week before. He kept track of everything and showed me how to do it, how to make a business work. He didn’t seem interested in the money so much as the fact that he was good at making it. It was like a game, and the money was a way of keeping score [my italics]. (Krakauer 1996, pp. 120–121)
This passage is illustrative of McCandless’ boredom with the prospects of making his work meaningful, and this was apparent to other family members—as they called it, it was a “game” for him. The accumulation of cash nor the efforts involved in making it offered any kind of satisfaction or meaningful worldview to McCandless. Krakauer seems to grasp this himself, at least by identifying that the other seekers he profiles—including himself—mostly worked dead-end manual labor jobs even though they were often highly qualified for other positions, for the sole reason that no job ultimately offered much meaning or supplied a rich worldview.
Escaping into the wild allowed these individuals to construct alternate identities (such as the Wanderer or Alexander Supertramp) that show their protestation against the hallowed or pious acts of their contexts. In the case of McCandless, they are furthermore faced with a real challenge of survival where the stakes are much higher than the “games” they were playing of making large sums of money. McCandless and the others desired much more than money—they wanted a means to survival that provided them with a rich worldview where every action was fraught with significance (such as in a monastery) and where such significant action is then applied to one’s sense of self-worth and identity in their community. The bush, or the wild, appears to have become the chosen context for contemporary American youth in search of such a meaningful and challenging situation; in the case of McCandless, his search appeared to prove fruitful.
In spite of his rocky relations he had with companions along the way, by the time McCandless arrived and got settled in Alaska, he begins to learn the lessons of being accepting of human error (Krakauer 1996, p. 167) when he kills a moose and after following all the rules of how to properly clean and store the meat, he ends up loosing most of the carcasses to infection and is forced to abandon it. McCandless refers to this in his journal as one of the greatest losses of his life, ostensibly because he followed all the proper measures of cleaning the meat and, nevertheless, tragic circumstances still set in. This teaches him, in his own words from his quoted journal: “Henceforth will learn to accept my errors, however great they be” (Krakauer 1996, p. 167). This is a lesson that, I would argue, only nature itself could teach him as no other authority could. Almost on queue, after his willingness to accept error on his own part, Krakauer notes on the same page that McCandless had begun to think about returning to human community, the prospect of marriage and adult commitments. Nevertheless, McCandless had seemingly particular thoughts of returning to a blue collar community that meshed with the simplicity of life he desired, another sign his moratorium was successful in that he had managed to sort out his own values and what kind of an identity he wanted to assume.
McCandless’s and the other seekers’ willingness, however, to risk their life indicates not only their level of bravery but also the peace they found in a kind of moratorium or worldview where they knew they could not fail, whether they lived or died. Krakauer (1996) quotes McCandless’s critics as saying he was consumed with apathy or carelessness, and this is what explains his risky, seemingly suicidal adventure. My analysis here, however, has attempted to show that individuals such as McCandless found the perils of American society far less forgiving than what they could find in the wild, for in the wild death was an accepted part of life. In the wild, one could have detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself.
In American society, however, unless one plays “the game” (as McCandless’s family members call it) well and accumulates the money, one suffers a kind of loss of self-esteem—a kind of social death one is forced to then endure until they physically expire. McCandless of all people was acutely aware of this “living death,” as he did a copious amount of charity work with the homeless in the Washington, DC, area throughout high school (Krakauer 1996, p. 113). There is, therefore, a critical difference between how salvation is socially, religiously, and culturally construed in American society compared to the wild and the nature religions of Stafford, McCandless, Krakauer, and the other seekers. Trust and autonomy were, additionally, major problems that McCandless and the seekers witnessed in American culture that drew them into the wild where they could feel a sense of total freedom, trust in the land to provide what they truly needed, and acceptance of personal responsibility for their own mistakes (which was ultimately what spurred McCandless to attempt to return to human community in American society). McCandless and the seekers found in American society a vacuous and despair laden culture that ultimately would have meant a psychospiritual death if they did not first risk death in the wild in the hopes of acquiring a sense of identity and life cycle virtue. Thus, they set out on their perilous (and sometimes deadly) monastic quests to resolve their crisis with the negative tendency.