‘Living with a Wild God’: a brave and unsettling memoir
Barbara Ehrenreich’s remarkable new memoir, “Living with a Wild God,” reveals the mystical encounters and sorrow-filled childhood of this hard-nosed investigative reporter.
Seattle Times book editor
The author of “Living with a Wild God” will discuss her book in conversation with KUOW’s Marcie Sillman at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 21, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Information: 206-652-4255.
“Living with a Wild God”
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve, 237 pp., $26
Raise your hand if you’ve had a mystical experience — an encounter with the spiritual, the ecstatic, the Other. What, no hands up? Not a surprise in our skeptical age, where to admit such a thing invites gentle ribbing, disbelief or even scorn. But almost half of all Americans have reported such an experience, Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her remarkable new memoir, “Living with a Wild God.”
She is one of them.
The descendant of Butte, Mont., miners, a social activist and a self-described “myth buster by trade,” Ehrenreich is an acclaimed author and activist. She has written legions of editorials, hard-nosed investigative articles and in-depth books, notably her story of going undercover to work at low-wage jobs and investigate welfare reform, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”
The daughter of two atheists, Ehrenreich might never have written this book at all had she not rediscovered in 2001 a journal she kept from 1956 to 1966, starting when she was 14. In the middle of treatment for breast cancer, she decided that if she survived, she would write about what happened to her during those years.
Her journal and her memories are unsettling, and not just because they deal with the inexplicable. If you believe in supporting children and buoying them up, her account of her upbringing will move you to sorrow.
Her hyper-intelligent and hypercritical father taught her that nothing she attempted was ever good enough. Her mother’s anger smothered any semblance of a normal home life: “My mother’s anger was the central force field in our home, its targets divided between my father, who got to leave every morning and often delayed his return until late at night, and me,” Ehrenreich writes. Perhaps the saddest sentence in this book is the question Ehrenreich puts to herself, years after her alcoholic mother committed suicide: “I’d still like to know what she had against me.”
The family moved constantly before finally settling in Los Angeles. Barbara had almost no friends. She withdrew, writing out her thoughts on single sheets of paper. She tried to make sense of the world by examining religion, philosophy and the nature of existence itself. Her journal entries are remarkable — her eloquence at a tender age is mind-boggling, and her cynicism and isolation are frightening.
Soon she found herself detaching from the loathsome everyday as a shimmering beyond began to peek through. Watching a tree in the sunlight, she recollected: “Something peeled off the visible world. ... when you take away all human attributions — the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action — ... when you take all this away, there is still something left.”
These moments culminated in a confrontation with the ineffable in the predawn of a California morning: “There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured into it.”
If this hyper-bright, lonely young teenager had seen a psychologist, the diagnosis might have been a mental disorder brought on by lack of love and affection. A doctor might have suggested epilepsy. A priest, a minister or a rabbi could have acquainted her with mysticism, but she didn’t know any. She told no one. She made her escape from her bleak home when she left for Reed College in Portland, and the visions (with a couple of notable exceptions) subsided.
The rest of the story chronicles Ehrenreich’s long detour through laboratory science (she has a Ph.D. in cellular immunology). She finally connected to humanity when she joined the anti-war movement. Marriage, children and a distinguished professional life followed, but the journal remained as mute testimony to her brush with the beyond.
In the last chapter, Ehrenreich tries to make sense of what happened to her, and what she thinks might be Out There, beyond the perceived and natural world. I won’t try to explain it; I’m not sure I can. It’s not exactly religion (certainly not the monotheistic version), and it’s not quite science. What I can say is this: Once again, Barbara Ehrenreich has written a brave book.