Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickeled and Dimed, the single best study of capitalism, working poverty and minimum wage ever published in this country, and which should be required reading for everybody. She also wrote a book about “positive thinking” and just what it leads to (people who vote against their own interest and that of their descendants because it’s more comfortable to believe in a rosy fantasy like, “I’ll be the millionaire one day and I won’t want to pay taxes then.”) She has a powerful mind and a powerful voice and has been a leader of thought since the peace movement of the 1960s.
Living With a Wild God is a departure — it’s a memoir. Ehrenreich came of age in a tumultuous time that saw the Civil Rights movement, the peace movement, the rise of feminism, and radical changes in scientific thinking. Her title, though, hints at another theme. Raised an atheist, Ehrenreich chooses to devote most of this book to a review of a journal she kept for several years, starting when she was 14, in which she catalogues a number of events that can only be described as mystical experiences.
Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana and spent early childhood years there. Her parents were blue-collar atheists — her father worked in the mines. Atheism was more common among the working class than is usually acknowledged, Ehrenreich writes; people saw the hypocrisy of organized Christianity, and took its message as just another propaganda tool of the wealthy. Young Barbara grew up clearly understanding that there was no spiritual afterlife (dead was dead); no benevolent all-knowing consciousness looking after you. You looked after yourself, you looked after your family and that was it.
Her father, though, went back to school and made the leap from the mines to the laboratory, moving them onto the border, at least, of the middle class. This meant that the family moved, to Lowell, Massachusetts for a while and then to Los Angeles, California. Barbara, who had an analytical mind and a quick wit, was her father’s favorite, even though she knew, even then, that as a daughter rather than a son she was merely a substitute for what her father hoped for.
Ehrenreich did not talk about her experiences while they were happening. Part of these seems to be out of fear of ridicule or censure (all of her school friends were traditionally religious and even the slightest questioning seemed to set them off) but also because, simply, she did not have a vocabulary for what was happening. She literally had no words for the experiences.
The book’s subtitle is, “A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything,” which, Ehrenreich says, became her self-imposed “mission” during those adolescent years. Confronted by a sense of reality that transcended words, Ehrenreich searches for explanation in spiritual writings, science and physics. She contrasts her father’s ordered, mechanistic view of science, “dead particles” marching rigidly to rules, with the newly emerging quantum physics, something her father viewed with a scornfully curled lip. Young Barbara wonders at one point if she is mentally ill:
“All of my symptoms, I realized — dissociation and the occasional excursion into mystical grandiosity — could be subsumed under ‘schizophrenia.’
“And though I wasn’t sophisticated enough to see it at the time, so could just about everyone’s symptoms, since ‘schizophrenia’ pretty much boiled down to ‘abnormal patterns of thought.'”
Ehrenreich charts her personal evolution alongside the rise of quantum physics and a period of social and political upheaval. From her late sixties/early seventies, looking back at her teenage self, Ehrenreich brings six decades of thought to those early experiences. While she still considers herself an atheist, she concedes at the end of the book that she finds monotheism implausible, pointing out that the mystical experiences of such Christian saints as Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross do not conform to Christian beliefs, experiences of “light” and “heavenly fire” that are not pleasant or comforting in any way. If she’s anything, she says, she might be an animist.
She also dissects the 1950s and 1960s in a thoughtful way. To some extent, this was the weakest part of the book for me. Ehrenreich contends that her parents were not to blame for the upheaval and the repression in her childhood; the 1950s were. She’s got some good evidence when you look at the characterization of women during that decade. Still, Barbara’s parents have a lot to answer for, and it’s hard to believe that their alcoholism and her mother’s bitterness didn’t contribute to part of Ehrenreich’s need to be an outsider, an observer.
For the time period, for an interesting study of a mind, and for Ehrenreich’s clear, thoughful and dryly witty prose, this is worth the read. As a bonus, it has a fascinating cover.