Author Interviews
3:14 am
Sun September 8, 2013

The 'Wild' Story Of Cheryl Strayed And Her Long-Lost Half-Sister

Originally published on Sun September 8, 2013 1:40 pm

Back in 1995, Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the West Coast of the United States. After the three-month journey, she came out on the other side stronger in every way: better able to cope with her divorce, her past drug abuse and her mother's death.

Strayed described the life-changing trek in her 2012 bestselling memoir Wild, and received countless emails from readers describing how connected they felt to her story. But there was one message that stood out in particular:

"Back in late June or early July I was reading one such email ... and I was just about to move onto the next email when the woman who was emailing me said that we really were connected, that, in fact, we have the same father," Strayed tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

The woman turned out to be Strayed's half-sister, but the reader didn't know that when she checked Wild out at her local public library. "She was just interested in books on travel," Strayed explains. "She's not a hiker but ... that hiking boot on the cover caught her eye. And she was just halfway into chapter one when she said she sat bolt upright in bed and realized that we had the same father."


Interview Highlights

On whether the sisters had ever tried to find each other before

"I've looked for her a few times — just punching her name into the Internet. I knew her first name and I assumed her last name was that of my father's, and nothing ever came up. And I didn't know if we would ever find each other, honestly. She knew I existed. I don't even think that she knew my first name. She just knew that she had older siblings that my father had another family before she came along and she had no idea that I was a writer. She didn't know anything about me except when she read the description in my book of my early life, my mother and my father, she knew that father was hers, too. I don't name my father in the book but she recognized him."

On re-establishing connections to this part of her family, including her half-sister's mother

"It's been a really interesting reconnection all around. Neither one of us have a relationship with our biological father and we both had very similar experiences with him. But what's really cool is we can connect in other ways."

On whether they've met yet

"We are half-sisters and I do hope that someday we'll meet. ... We haven't spoken on the phone. I'm sort of phone shy. I've not suggested that. ... I prefer to write about my life, I guess than to talk about it."

On the big questions she's been asking herself

"It's been really pretty interesting to think about: What is family? And what is a connection? You know, obviously this isn't someone I grew up with. I'm meeting her as an adult. And like I said, our connection is through this man who neither one of us has a relationship with now. And so how are we sisters? And how do we proceed?"

On what tipped her half-sister off

"I haven't asked her what specifically was the thing that tipped her off. ... What I think is really interesting is frankly the things that she wrote to me about her experience with my father [that] I recognized. ... We so often think, OK if we don't name somebody they won't be recognizable in what you write, but actually I've had the opposite experience, not just with my father in the book, but other people. I think that one of the things the writer does obviously is really try to describe accurately not just the way somebody looks but the way they are, the way they seem to others around them. My impression is that that is what my sister felt when she first came to the descriptions about my father — about our father."

On the unexpected ways that life unfolds

"I think that the trick to writing a memoir and the trick to writing fiction is always to have this consciousness of what it really means to be human, and what the human experience is. And the human experience is full of serendipity and surprise and situations taking a turn that you didn't expect.

"As shocked as I was to be reading that email ... I also had this feeling that I knew that was coming. I knew that someday life would turn on itself and I would be standing there facing this woman who shares my father."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Eighteen years ago - back in 1995 - Cheryl Strayed took a journey that would change her life. She hiked 1,100 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail, along the West Coast of the United States. It took her a little over three months to finish this trip and when she came out on the other side, she was a stronger person in every way - better able to cope with her divorce, her past drug abuse, her mom's death. She wrote about it in her best-selling memoir, "Wild," which came out last year. Here's a clip from my conversation with Strayed back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHERYL STRAYED: I'd grown up in rural Northern Minnesota, and I knew that the wild places of the earth were going to offer me that nurturing quality that we seek when we go home.

MARTIN: Strayed knew the experience of writing "Wild" would be profound, but what she didn't know was that writing the book would trigger an utterly unexpected chain of events. Cheryl Strayed joins me now from Portland, Ore. Cheryl, thanks for being here. It's great to talk to you again.

STRAYED: It's wonderful to talk to you again, Rachel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I've kind of left our listeners hanging here a little bit. Can you fill in the blanks? What happened after you wrote this book?

STRAYED: Well, you know, I'd get all these emails from readers and usually, they start off saying, "I read your book, and we're so connected; I can't believe how much my life is like yours". And so back in late June or early July, I was reading one such email. You know, I was sort of just scanning it, and I was just about to move onto the next email when the woman who was emailing me said that we really were connected; that in fact, we have the same father. And she didn't know that, when she checked out "Wild" from her local public library. And she was just halfway into Chapter One when she said she sat bolt, upright in bed and realized that we had the same father.

MARTIN: Did you know you had a sister out there somewhere?

STRAYED: I did, and I've looked for her a few times - just punching in her name, in the Internet. I knew her first name, and I assumed her last name was my father's; and nothing ever came up. And I didn't know if we would ever find each other, honestly. She knew I existed. I don't even think that she knew my first name. She just knew that my father had another family before she came along. And she didn't know anything about me except when she read the description in my book of my early life - my mother and my father - she knew that that father was hers, too. I don't name my father in the book, but she recognized him.

MARTIN: Have you spoken? You've verified the story.

STRAYED: Yes, yes, yes. She said my father's name in the email, and her first name is the name that I'd heard of her. I've since then also corresponded with her mother, who was the woman my father married after my parents broke up. And so it's been a really interesting reconnection all around. Neither one of us have a relationship with our biological father. But what's really cool is, we can connect in other ways. We are half-sisters and I do hope that someday, we'll meet.

MARTIN: Have you spoken on the phone?

STRAYED: We haven't spoken on the phone. I'm sort of phone shy. I have not suggested that - you know, in this day and age. But it's been really interesting to think about what is family, you know, and what is a connection? Obviously, this is not somebody I grew up with. You know, I'm meeting her as an adult. And like I said, our connection is through this man who neither one of us has a relationship with now. And so how are we sisters, and how do we proceed, has been an interesting question for me.

MARTIN: Was there a particular scene? I mean, you said there were biographical things that tipped her off when she was reading your book. But was there a behavior that she read and she thought, this person sounds familiar to me?

STRAYED: That's a good question. I haven't asked her what, specifically, was the thing that tipped her off. I want to ask her that. I'll ask her that now. But you know, what I think is really interesting is, frankly, the things that she wrote to me about her experience with my father, I recognized. I've also had other people write to me who know my father; and some of the things they've described, I recognize that. And so we so often think, OK, if you don't name somebody, they won't be recognizable in what you write. But actually, I've had the opposite experience - not just with my father in the book, but other people. And so I think that one of the things the writer does, obviously, is really try to describe accurately not just the way somebody looks, but the way they seem to others, you know, around them. And my impression is that that is what my sister felt when she first came to the descriptions about my father - about our father.

MARTIN: What an experience for you. This was not your first book. You have been a writer for years. That this book would generate so much attention - and that it would end up connecting you to a part of your family - is a completely unexpected evolution, I imagine.

STRAYED: Yes, and to somebody I didn't know that I would ever meet. I do feel, always, a sense of life being a great unfolding in my own life, but in writing. And as shocked as I was to be reading that email saying, oh, we're so connected, and we have so much in common; and to have that culminate in that statement, my father is - and then she names our father; in some ways, I also had this feeling that I knew that was coming. I knew that someday life would turn on itself; and I would be standing there, facing this woman who shares my father.

MARTIN: Cheryl Strayed - she is the author of the best-selling memoir "Wild. She joined us from Portland, Ore. Cheryl, thank you so much for talking with us again.

STRAYED: Thank you. It's always a delight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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