Whose Anecdote Is This Anyway?

December 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
(This is a revised post. The original version was different in tone.)

How much can we trust the memory of a memoirist?

In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon), a man she meets on the road tells her a very unusual anecdote. A few days later, she will read that same anecdote in a book.  The echo cannot be coincidence. The anecdote is too special.

According to the jacket flap, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is  “A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike.”

Strayed leaves the trail at times to check back in to civilization or to circumvent stretches of the trail locked in by snow. After one such detour about halfway through her journey, she is hitching back to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). An old Ford Maverick stops to offer a ride – a woman and man in the front seat, another man and a dog in the back. She accepts.

The man sharing the back seat with Strayed is Spider – “his dark hair woven into a thin braid. He wore a black leather vest without a shirt underneath and a red bandanna tied biker-style of the top of his head.”

“What are you doing on the road anyway?” Lou asked from the front seat.

I went into the whole PCT shebang, explaining about the trail and the record snowpack and the complicated way I had to hitchhike to get to Old Station. They listened with respectful, distant curiosity, all three of them lighting up cigarettes as I spoke.

After I was done talking, Spider said, “I’ve got a story for you, Cheryl. I think it’s along the lines of what you’re talking about. I was reading about animals a while back and there was this motherfucking scientist in France back in the thirties or forties or whevever the motherfuck it was and he was trying to get apes to draw these pictures, to make art pictures like the kinds of pictures in serious motherfucking paintings that you see I museums and shit. So the scientist keeps showing the apes these paintings and giving them charcoal pencils to draw with and the one day one of the apes finally draws something but it’s not the art pictures that it draws. What it draws is the bars of its own motherfucking cage. Its own motherfucking cage! Man, that’s the truth ain’t it? I can relate to that and I bet you can too, sister.

“I can,” I said earnestly.

“We can all relate to that, man,” said Dave, and he turned in his seat so he and Spider could do a series of motorcycle blood brother hand jives in the air between them.

Twenty pages later, Strayed is reading a book. Before she started her journey, she mailed packages to herself, addressed to post offices along the Pacific Crest Trail.  The packages contained replenishment of food, supplies, and books.  On the trail, Strayed would tear out and burn the pages as she read them – no sense carrying around the extra weight – and start a new book at the next postal station.

A few days after her ride with Spider, she picks up one such package. “I sat for hours reading the book that had come in my box – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – while waiting for my boots to arrive.”

Strayed doesn’t mention it, but at the end of Lolita is an afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” that Nabokov added for the US edition (Lolita had originally been published in France.)  Here, in part, is the third paragraph:

The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris . . . . As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.

Here is the sequence according to Strayed. Spider tells her the ape-cage/art-bars story. A few days later she reads Lolita, which, though she does not mention it,  contains this same story.  Did she really encounter this anecdote twice? Whose memory is speaking – Spider’s or Nabokov’s?

Spider, despite the “I was reading about animals” intro, doesn’t seem like someone who has read much literature or zoology.  Maybe in writing her memoir fifteen years later, Strayed remembers the ape parable, probably because it so perfectly reflects her state of mind at the time.  In her memory, the story sits in the heat and the mountains, someplace near the Trail. In a hike of three months and 1100 miles, her memory is off by only a few days and a hundred miles.  But that’s enough for her to confuse her sources. She gives the story to Spider and rewrites it in his idiom.

At first I thought that Strayed might be deliberately copying Nabokov, appropriating his remembered throb and translating it into the voice of one of her characters. Maybe she did. But the passage certainly does not seem like an homage to Nabokov or evidence of his influence or inspiration.* Besides, if she had been consciously ripping off the master’s material, wouldn’t she fear that some readers might notice? 

Till now, apparently nobody has.
* I’ve mentioned this problem before (here) in connection with a Kate Walbert story that appeared in the New Yorker.  Lorrie Moore’s 2012 story “Referential” very clearly references Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” (My post on that is here.)


claire b goodbody said...

Memory is confusing at the best of times. I believe the author when she tells her story. A remarkable feat of endurance and growth.

Jay Livingston said...

Hi Claire, I had a brief correspondence with Cheryl Strayed about this, and she agrees that she probably remembered this one wrong. (" the Lolita connection was brought to my attention by readers shortly after Wild was published and my guess is that I must have conflated the two stories in my mind when I remembered and wrote about my conversation with Spider years later.") But I agree that an error like this (and perhaps there were others) doesn't negate the general import of the book.

(BTW, in my course, we're doing a unit on poverty in the US, and to give some historical background on the waxing and waning of poverty as an issue, I touched down briefly in the Gilded Age. I wish I had known more about it so as give the students a better picture.)

Anonymous said...

When I first read Wild it did ring true to me, but then I realized some of her anecdotes were already familiar. I have section hiked most of the PCT, some parts numerous times, and stories get told among hikers. I had heard the duck taped shoes story and mistaken for a hobo story before, but not from Ms Strayed. After noting some geographical problems and inaccurate descriptions of certain places along the PCT my own conclusion is she didn't hike as much of the trail as she claims, or her memory is very foggy about certain things, which means she made up portions of her story to fill in her memory gaps. This doesn't mean the basics of the story are wrong, but it shouldn't be taken as absolute truth.

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that she had a journal throughout the entire trek.

Jay Livingston said...

Given the conditions, her journal was probably sketchy rather than comprehensive. Even ethnographers, who are trained to make extensive field notes, wind up remembering something they'd hadn't written down because at the time it didn't seem relevant; then in retrospect they realize that it was important. I'd guess that if in writing her memoir a decade later, she had limited herself to only those events that she had recorded at the time, Wild would have been a very short book.