Barbara Ehrenreich and her younger sister are very close. But her sister really, really does not like the title of Ehrenreich’s new memoir, Living with a Wild God.
“She thinks I’m being too soft on theism in this book. She’s like, how can you write a book with God in the title! It was hardcore, the atheism we came from,” Ehrenreich says with a bemused laugh during a call to her home in Alexandria, Virginia, where she moved some years ago to be near her daughter and grandchildren.
Readers of Ehrenreich’s earlier books—Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch or Bright-Sided, for example—know her to be a smart, funny, opinionated progressive voice. Her fascinating new book—her most personally revealing work so far—almost inadvertently points to the sources of both her rigor and her passion.
Ehrenreich accepts a challenge from her younger self to explore the “uncanny” mystical experiences of her youth.
Ehrenreich, who has described herself as a fourth-generation atheist, was the child of parents raised in radicalized mining families of Butte, Montana. Her parents, we learn, eloped in their teens and eventually became successful and admired community members. “They were smart,” Ehrenreich says. “They were unusual in their upward mobility. They encouraged reading, inquiry, curiosity. But they had problems. My father had the drinking problem first. And my mother didn’t like me. This would make no sense in today’s child-raising discourse, because we now have these artisanal project children, where we constantly think about their feelings and challenges. My mother’s belief was do something useful or get out of the way. My parents imbued me with a firm, dogmatic atheism and rationalism.”
This is the crux of the story Ehrenreich explores in Living with a Wild God. Sometime around the age of 13, she began to have strange experiences of the ineffable. “In these episodes of disassociation as a teenager, I could not look at a chair and see a chair. I saw something else, unnamed, unaccounted for, something beyond language,” Ehrenreich says. At the same time, as a rationalist, she pondered the meaning of a life that ended in death in a cooly “solipsistic” manner.
For a decade or so, starting when she was 14, she kept an episodic—and remarkably articulate—journal of her thoughts and observations about this dilemma, which she called “The Situation.” Her seemingly mystical experiences culminated in a vividly described, ecstatic, hallucinatory morning in Lone Pine, California, after a ski trip with her brother and a friend.
For years, as she battled with her parents, went off to Reed College, earned a Ph.D. in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University, and then made a U-turn into social activism and a career as a writer, Ehrenreich explained these teenage episodes to herself as a kind of temporary insanity.
But about five years ago she decided to write “a massive, sweeping history of religion, the rise of monotheism, which I do not applaud.” Ultimately that big idea didn’t work, but Ehrenreich did have the journal of her younger self wrestling with big thoughts. And, it so happens, in that journal her younger self threw down a challenge in July 1958 to her future self, writing: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”
“I think there was a little bit of a secret polemic here,” Ehrenreich says of her interest in writing about the struggles of her younger self. “Which is that I think that there is a narrative trend, certainly in mainstream American fiction, of maturing, of growing beyond whatever you were in your youth and coming to a more reflective and socially responsible state. I find that kind of repellant. I have respect for the child and the teenage persons of myself. I undertook this with the feeling that I had to return to them, that I could learn from them, that their experiences were not something to be put away. Some of it is very embarrassing, which is to say I was pretty self-involved. But I see the logical rigor that got me there.”
In the intervening years, it turns out that Ehrenreich has learned quite a bit. Researching this book, which as it develops becomes a compelling mix of memoir and metaphysical rumination, she read widely in philosophy, science and the writing of mystics and others who seemed to have had experiences similar to hers. One of her most personally satisfying scientific discoveries was that the seemingly botched results of her experiments on silicon electrodes for her college senior thesis could now “be explained by a complete paradigm shift in science. There were just phenomena that could not have been imagined in 1963.” She writes that “the reductionist core of the old science has been breached. We have had to abandon the model of the universe in which tiny hard particles interact and collide to produce, through a series of ineluctable, irreversible steps, the macroscopic world as we know it.”
"I have respect for the child and the teenage persons of myself. I undertook this with the feeling that I had to return to them, that I could learn from them, that their experiences were not something to be put away."
These previously undiscovered phenomena and the conceptual shifts in science in recent decades lead Ehrenreich to an astonishing speculation in her final chapter. She wonders if hers and similar experiences could be an attempt at contact from another kind of being—not God; Ehrenreich remains an atheist—but something like what scientists call “an emergent quality, something greater than the sum of all its parts.”
Asked about this idea, Ehrenreich says, “We don’t have the data. Let me say that scientifically. We don’t know enough about the experiences other people have. I suspect many people have uncanny, unaccountable experiences that they attribute to something conventional—God or what they’ve been told God is. Or they put it aside completely. What I’m saying in this book is, let’s not bury this anymore. Something happens often enough to enough of us that we ought to know what it is. The urgency for me is sharpened by my critique of science and its unwillingness in so many ways to acknowledge that there are other conscious agencies or could be in the universe than just ourselves.”
And does Ehrenreich now believe that she’s risen to the challenge made by her earlier self? “I do feel I’ve done my best to discharge my responsibility to her.”