When Wild entered theaters last month, one of many cinematic entries vying for the attention of moviegoers during the crowded holiday season, it launched both Cheryl Strayed the author and Cheryl Strayed the character into the national spotlight. Most people are familiar with her memoir of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail—they’ve seen the book cover featuring a lone hiking boot or remember when Oprah picked it for her book club. For those who didn’t read the book, the Reese Witherspoon-starring movie invites people into Cheryl’s story and introduces them to another important entrant in the canon of strong and damaged female heroines.
I once spent an afternoon in Cheryl Strayed’s home. The now world-famous author was not there; she was gone on vacation with her family, taking some much-needed time off after Wild became a bestseller. I was there one cold January day interviewing another writer who was housesitting for Cheryl. As I drank coffee from one of Cheryl’s mugs and peeked around the house on my way to use the bathroom, I felt immediately the importance of that small moment. This day was somewhere after the success of Wild and before she had been revealed to be the Rumpus’s beloved advice columnist Sugar and published the subsequent book Dear Sugar. This was before I heard her talk at Portland State University, where I was attending graduate school and where she reigned over the night as Portland’s newest literary star. Once I heard that her beloved memoir would become a movie, I knew this would provide her with a platform that would allow her story to reach a bigger audience, which meant that theaters usually dominated by superheroes would also feature a small story about one broken woman’s long journey towards redemption.
I’ve yet to read the book, so the movie version of Wild was my first real look at Cheryl’s story, beyond what I’ve heard or read about it throughout the years since it was published. The movie follows Cheryl (Witherspoon) as she hikes 1,100 miles from the desert of California to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, close to the Washington border. The hike is her attempt at therapy—a spiritual journey to work through the pain of losing her mother at a young age and to find a fresh start after adultery, divorce, and heroin addiction ravaged her life. From the first few shots of the movie, flashing images of Cheryl using drugs and having sex in hotel rooms, it becomes clear that the story isn’t afraid to delve into the messiness of Cheryl’s life. As Cheryl faces the physical challenges of long-distance hiking, she faces the emotional challenges of being alone with her thoughts and her memories. She comes face to face with what it meant to her to lose her mother and sorts through the complicated and imperfect ways she grieved that loss.
It’s strange to talk about Cheryl the character. Dissecting a real person’s journey as you would a fictional person’s feels impersonal and mechanical. But the reality is, Cheryl the writer presents her readers with Cheryl the character: the lost, rundown, and seemingly hopeless woman who sets out on a hike to become the woman her mother raised her to be. That character is manifested beautifully in Witherspoon’s raw performance. From the start of her career, Witherspoon hasn’t shied away from difficult roles that require a stripped down and gritty performance. As Cheryl, Witherspoon shows up ready to go bare, from the no makeup, sweaty look she wears for nearly the whole movie to the nude scenes that are interspersed throughout showing the anonymous sex Cheryl had both after and during her first marriage.
There are countless stories about the flawed hero and his journey. Wild’s director Jean-Marc Vallée gave us one such story with last year’s Matthew McConaughey vehicle Dallas Buyer’s Club. There are less major movies (and books) that feature the lone woman, the flawed heroine and her journey. Wild is an important addition to this small but growing genre because it not only gives us a woman stepping out of the love interest/girlfriend/sex kitten roles that limit females in so many movies, it also allows her to be as broken and human as the male anti-heroes who have long dominated our multiplexes.
We need more writers like Cheryl Strayed, women who are willing to lay themselves bare on the page. Her book was an act of self-healing, but it is also an important reminder to younger writers—and women—that sharing our stories, even the tragic, embarrassing, or messy stories, takes a lot of bravery. She admitted to herself and to all the people who read her book and the many more who will now see the movie that she isn’t perfect. We should applaud that willingness to show vulnerability. Cheryl Strayed not only gives us a remarkable story and a memorable heroine, she reminds us that a story is a journey of its own, one where writers must face their fears and readers may be exposed to their own. Thankfully there are writers like her who act as strong and inspirational guides.