Barbara Ehrenreich is an unambiguously serious writer. She reliably produces powerfully convincing books and essays about politics, history and social justice, moving people to outrage and action without ever obfuscating her subjects in a cloud of her own emotions.
In Ehrenreich’s own words: “As a journalist, I search for the truth. But as a moral person, I am also obliged to do something about it.” She traffics in facts and brooks no nonsense, and therefore one has not previously found her books shelved cozily near to those with “spiritual themes”.
But Ehrenreich is a seeker, and clearly powerless to resist a full dive into a subject that captures her, so she now gives us “Living With a Wild God”: a reluctantly begun but vigorously rendered book she describes as a “philosophical memoir” and/or “metaphysical thriller”.
Ehrenreich’s best-known work to date has been “Nickled and Dimed”, in which she described her year spent “undercover” subsisting on the minimum wage in America. Ehrenreich – an accomplished writer of social justice journalism with a Ph.D. in cell biology – chose to work as waitress, hotel maid, etc., as a way of revealing the challenges and costs of this work to those who do it by necessity.
Over 20 books into her career, Ehrenreich is a builder of strong cases who does not mince words, and she’s reliably not only unsentimental, but often ANTI-sentimental (even when chronicling her own cancer). So, one does not expect her to indulge in much belly-button gazing: she’s an activist, and there’s work to be done.
“Living With a Wild God” does not introduce us to Ehrenreich’s belly-button, but it does take us deep into her history, her mind, and her experience of her own spirit, soul, essence … or whatever one calls it. What DO we call it? What is “it” anyway? What are we? What is “The Other,” and where do we stand in relation to it? Ehrenreich’s journalistic attentions have turned to the Mount Everest of “truths”: an oldie, a biggie and likely too challenging for any lesser explorer to surmount.
“Living With a Wild God” begins with Ehrenreich discovering an old journal while gathering her “papers” for donation to a university. The journal reconnects her with her childhood self, and reminds her that she was already taking on the big questions as a small girl. She encounters these questions at various points over the course of her life, bringing her eventually to the answers she sees now, from her vantage point on the brink of old age.
Ehrenreich lays out her autobiographical details as plain matters of fact, but there’s no avoiding their emotional impact: she clearly did not have a pleasant childhood, and lived largely in alienated isolation, accompanied by an alcoholic father and an intense, troubled mother whose life eventually ended in suicide. Ehrenreich by her own generally reliable description was a ferociously intelligent, curious, emotionally endangered child, whose temperament and circumstances positioned her to seek “more,” and ultimately find it.
Ehrenreich – through her present-day words, and quotes from her adolescent writings – describes her young self as having been on a “quest” that climaxed in the central drama of her spiritual life, at age 17. Throughout her atheist childhood she experienced occasional “dissociative” episodes that she was capable of describing in detail yet less capable of contextualizing for herself. The ultimate “episode” came when the teenage Ehrenreich found herself on a strange and vaguely dangerous errand in the cinematically named town of “Lone Pine.” She describes the transformative experience she had there, but cautions:
“Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words like ‘ineffable’ and ‘transcendent.’ For most of the intervening years my thought has been: If there are no words for it, then don’t say anything about it. Otherwise you risk slopping into ‘spirituality,’ which is, in addition to being a crime against reason, of no more interest to other people than your dreams.”
Yet she continues, to tell us:
“I could not contain it, this onrush ….Everywhere, ‘inside’ and out, the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the heartbreak of loss, and can resemble an outbreak of violence.”
The rest of the book is spent describing how she spent her life incorporating this experience, and others lesser but like it, into her consciousness, with varying degrees of comfort.
And so, in this fashion, “Living With a Wild God” is Anne-Lamott-like. It is Elizabeth-Gibert-esque. She has, to some degree “slopped into spirituality” and is discussing it.
Is it of interest to others? Ultimately yes, because of who she is. It’s remarkably brave for a public atheist and intellectual who does not for one moment dare to think that her personal “journey” is worth our attention on its face to write a book of this kind, and by its end she has declared her call-to-arms and revealed her motivations.
Ehrenreich is a populist, and not prone to stroking her own exceptionalism, so she presumes that if these ineffable communions with an entity beyond herself – these moments of clear mysticism – have happened to her, while still leaving her “godless” by the definitions of Western monotheism, then of course they must be happening to others. So how do we incorporate them into our social lives? What do we – the activist asks – “do about it”?
The last chapter of “Living With a Wild God” is still autobiographical, but has drifted back more into Ehrenreich’s usual wheelhouse. Because of who she is, she has researched. She has gotten her historical and journalistic hands dirty; she brings us hard social evidence within which she hopes we can structure our softer, most personal truths.
By Ehrenreich’s apparent design, it would be enormously challenging for any reader to avoid taking this book personally. Mysticism is, by definition, personal. It involves intimate experience of the divine, which is what Ehrenreich believes that she experienced, and what was so incompatible with her adolescent intellectual conviction that there WAS nothing “divine” in our world.
As a girl she was certain that “I would get to the answers by thinking. Not by dreaming or imagining and of course not by praying or pleading to imaginary others.” And she was confident that this method would eventually yield satisfactory answers even to questions like how we “can live happily ever after, knowing or thinking that our existence as humans is so brief and futile”.
She knows that people who commune with the cosmic consciousness are generally either canonized or institutionalized: in any case they are pulled out from the great plebian stream and treated as unusual, or crazy, or dangerous. But Ehrenreich is one of our most reliably reasonable public intellectuals, and represents the exact forces that oppose “crazy.” In Ehrenreich’s world, the scientific method is the best driver of social peace and justice.
So it is a testament to her confidence that she risks a trip into the “crazy” to urge us to report back from the front about our personal mystical communions.
Ehrenreich is ultimately still an “atheist” in that she is as staunchly opposed as ever to organized religion, and the oppression it can enable. But her atheism has evolved to a place that necessarily encompasses transcendence, ecstasy, and perhaps even “enlightenment”.
Because this book is somewhat confessional, I assume some others are likely to share the experience I had while reading it: a hair-raising sense of being recognized, of having a truth you suspected to be individual revealed as shared. When Ehrenreich described her perspective shifts and the psychological and physical effects they produced, my heart quickened and I bounced a little in my seat from a feeling of “yes, yes! That is exactly what it’s like and how it feels.”
In her last chapter she offers other descriptions of the ineffable – from history, religion, and literature – that she weaves together as a foundation on which she herself now clearly rests. A scholar to the end, and an activist of course, she has done the work to make “Living With a Wild God” a book that can educate, inspire, and comfort those like her. Because Ehrenreich has earned our trust, we can believe her each time she assures us that we are not alone.
Emily Simon is a freelance writer living in California.
Living With a Wild God
By Barbara Ehrenreich
256 pages, $26