Foxes, Snakes and Men: Woman in the Wild

01/15/2015 04:51 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

In the season we learned that Ray Rice had knocked his fiancée unconscious in an elevator -- turning a spotlight on rampant domestic abuse in the NFL -- the same fall that the number of women alleging to have been assaulted by Bill Cosby rose to 23 and student Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress everywhere to protest the lenient treatment of her rapist, I watched the movie Wild.

"The takeaway from this movie," I said to my husband as we exited the theater, "is that what women have to fear most is men."

Could I blame my bitterness on the recent smorgasbord of abuse stories in the news? I had enjoyed reading Wild, Cheryl Strayed's memoir about losing and then finding herself while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I admired Reese Witherspoon's intelligent, plucky portrayal of Cheryl in the film. But I left the movie with my stomach knotted -- a socially acceptable version of clenched fists.

The premise of the movie is a 1,100 mile solo journey that allows Cheryl to make sense of the terrible things she's been through, to rediscover her strength and self-reliance. No one would argue with the healing power and opportunity for growth that weeks or months alone in nature might offer: a sharpening of the senses; a heightened and humbling appreciation for the wild's majesty and unpredictability; learning to be with our fears in the dark, the heat or cold, or when hungry or thirsty; listening hard both to what's outside and inside of us. Parts of the wilderness have been set aside so we can embark on these solo explorations.

Well, not really "we." If my daughter, who's 26 and has lived for many months alone in West Africa and Malaysia, told me she was going to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone, I would tell her, "Over my dead body." That's exactly the condition under which 26-year-old Cheryl set out on the trek she chronicles in Wild. She didn't have a mother (or a father) to tell her they would die a thousand deaths -- one for every mile of the trail -- worrying about her.

It's not the "wild" in wilderness that would cause a parent's worry; I had no doubt that Cheryl was strong enough in body and spirit for the challenge she set for herself. I wasn't afraid when she encountered a rattlesnake or a fox, only a bit squeamish about the stagnant water she purified to drink and the toenails she lost because of her too-small boots. No bear threatened to maul her, she escaped major injury and life-threatening weather.

Although there's plenty of pain and danger in Cheryl's book, it's no thriller. It's a contemplative work that lets us inside her thoughts and aching body as she pushes on. She has told her story honestly and with little enough high-pitched drama that I wondered whether the film version could attract an American audience. Two other films featuring men who went alone into the wild end with one agonizingly surviving by sawing off his own arm, the other agonizingly dying from eating poison berries.

So how was Wild going to inspire audience palpitations and hyperventilation?

Enter: unknown male. Every time one crossed paths with Cheryl -- miles from anywhere -- I heard the woman next to me draw a sharp breath and found myself clutching my seats' armrests. There's the man she encounters with a truck and a gun who sends predatory signals. "No, no! Don't get into the truck, Cheryl!" I silently pleaded. I'd read the book and knew he wouldn't hurt her, but onscreen in living color, his character was so menacing I believed he might stray from true events. Later, two creepy men emerge from the trees sporting hunting gear and hunting leers -- men who are commonplace in, say, Wal-Mart, but would make any woman alone in the woods run. In the book, the men tell Cheryl, "You're way too pretty to be out here alone." They have issued their warning -- they could be the wrong kind of hunters, and in any case, she is prey. When it seems they've finally left Cheryl, one returns as she's changing her clothes, his face filled with monstrous intention. The woman next to me gasped. When the hunter's buddy finally calls him away, we're pretty sure Cheryl has narrowly escaped brutality worse than any she's yet experienced.

The dangerous men that supply the film's nail-biting tension don't first enter Cheryl's story on the Pacific Crest Trail. They appear when she's a little girl, in the guise of a father who beats up her mother. After her mother dies of cancer, the married Cheryl scares us by becoming, as film reviewers put it, a "serial cheater," having sex with men in bathrooms, in kitchens and hallways, her back grinding against corners and counters, "putting herself in harm's way" -- another way of saying she let men do things to her that were bad for her. We know their rationale: I don't hear you saying I'm hurting you so I will pump and bruise your flesh, I will shoot heroin into you because you must like that I'm hurting you, and so do I. These are just random men, not criminals. Just men, yet we cringe; we're terrified for Cheryl. She is wild.

A woman doesn't have to be "wild," doesn't have to walk alone for weeks in the forest or down a city street in the middle of the night to be at risk for harm from men. Women are "alone" when we are with a man in an abusive relationship. We are "alone" when we are at a fraternity party, in our car on a busy highway, in an elevator. When I was 26, the age Cheryl was when she took her hike, my graduate school classmate, Joan, disappeared from Logan Airport on her way back to school after Thanksgiving. Several days later, her purse was found in a ditch north of the airport. Nine years later, they found her bones in the woods. Joan was anything but wild; she was sophisticated and conservative, even a bit prim. She hadn't taken a risk; she'd taken a cab. A cab, it turned out, with a murderous driver.

Never taking risks doesn't guarantee a woman's safety. A woman is in harm's way by default.

"Put yourself in the way of beauty," Cheryl's mother told her. Most women I know do this as often as we can. But if we're alone, we make sure we never venture too far into the trees. I, for one, resent that the world of nature I can safely explore is smaller than a man's simply because a man on a trail might be more dangerous than a wild animal. The makers of the film Wild knew just how to capitalize on this sad but arousing truth; the gasps of the woman sitting next to me and my clenched stomach confirmed they had successfully struck at our deep, visceral fears.

Cheryl put herself in harm's way in order to put herself in beauty's way. I don't think I exaggerate when I say she's lucky to have lived to tell the story. Books and films about contemporary men exploring the wilderness chronicle personal stories of man versus nature. Cheryl, too, aimed to escape, to rediscover herself in the wild. But on the Pacific Crest Trail, it was not nature's challenges that most threatened her; it was something from which no amount of courage or resourcefulness could protect her: being a woman in a man's world.