Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything

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In middle age, Ehrenreich came across the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence and set out to reconstruct that quest, which had taken her to the study of science and through a cataclysmic series of uncanny-or as she later learned to call them, "mystical"-experiences. A staunch atheist and rationalist, she is profoundly shaken by the implications of her life-long search.

Part memoir, part philosophical and spiritual inquiry, LIVING WITH A WILD GOD brings an ...

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Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything

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In middle age, Ehrenreich came across the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence and set out to reconstruct that quest, which had taken her to the study of science and through a cataclysmic series of uncanny-or as she later learned to call them, "mystical"-experiences. A staunch atheist and rationalist, she is profoundly shaken by the implications of her life-long search.

Part memoir, part philosophical and spiritual inquiry, LIVING WITH A WILD GOD brings an older woman's wry and erudite perspective to a young girl's uninhibited musings on the questions that, at one point or another, torment us all. Ehrenreich's most personal book ever will spark a lively and heated conversation about religion and spirituality, science and morality, and the "meaning of life."

Certain to be a classic, LIVING WITH A WILD GOD combines intellectual rigor with a frank account of the inexplicable, in Ehrenreich's singular voice, to produce a true literary achievement.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 01/20/2014
Based on a notebook she started when she was 14 after a series of puzzling “dissociative” episodes that verged on the mystical, Ehrenreich, best-known for her polemics on issues of social justice (Bright-Eyed; Bait and Switch), fashions an intensely engrossing study of her early quest for “cosmic knowledge.” As a child of an upwardly mobile scientist father who had started as a copper miner in Butte, Mont., and a resentful mother of thwarted ambitions, both of whom were fierce atheists sliding into alcoholism by the mid-1950s, Ehrenreich moved constantly, eventually landing briefly in Lowell, Mass., where her first mystical experience occurred, then to Los Angeles. Smart in math and science, non-believing and obedient to her father’s instruction to ask always why, Ehrenreich was resolved not to turn out like her mother, yet she could not quite be the scientist of her father’s dreams because she was a girl; the out-of-body incidences when “the trees step out of the forest” were more exhausting than frightening, but kept goading her to delve deeper into mortality and meaning as she gained maturity as a scientist and a creature of value separate from her parents. Using her journal extracts as a point of departure, Ehrenreich returns with vigor to her youthful quest, enlisting all of her subsequent scientific training to find an explanation for what had occurred to her as a girl, yet offering only a glimmer in her wise and tolerant later years of a possibility of a “living, breathing Other.” (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Ehrenreich has always been an intellectual and a journalistic badass... [She] ultimately arrives at a truce with the idea of God. You'll admire her journey."
Entertainment Weekly

"[Ehrenreich] resolutely avoids rhetoric in that 'blubbery vein'—which is why her book is such a rare feat...She struggles to make sense of the epiphany without recourse to the 'verbal hand-wavings about mystery and transcendence' that go with the territory... Ehrenreich has no interest in conversion...She wants, and inspires, open minds."—The Atlantic

"The factor that makes each of [Barbara's] books so completely unique in American intellectual life is her persistent sensitivity to matters of social class. She can always see through the smokescreen, the cloud of fibs we generate to make ourselves feel better about a world where the work of the many subsidizes the opulent lifestyles of the few. That, plus the fact that she writes damned well. Better than almost anyone out there, in fact."—Salon

"As personal a piece of writing as she has ever done... A surprising turn for Ehrenreich, who for more than 40 years has been one of our most accomplished and outspoken advocacy journalists and activists."—The Los Angeles Times

"Until reading LIVING WITH A WILD GOD I counted the Mary Karr memoir trilogy as my favorite from a contemporary literary figure. Now, Ehrenreich's memoir is tied for first place with Karr's books... Thank goodness [this book] exists. It is quite likely to rock the minds of readers who dare open to the first page."—Houston Chronicle

"A smart and enjoyable read... Ehrenreich maintains a grip on a sensible skepticism about religious matters - and a positive hostility toward the idea of unthinking faith - while avoiding the narrow-minded excesses that more zealous atheists sometimes fall victim to."—The Chicago Tribune

Kirkus Reviews
In 1959, the 16-year-old author had an ineffable vision, which she here contextualizes and attempts to understand. Ehrenreich (Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, 2009, etc.) returns with a personal chronicle, a coming-of-age story with an edge and a focus: Who am I? What does any of this mean? In 2005, a Florida hurricane destroyed most of the author's papers in her Florida Keys home, but one surviving document was her girlhood diary (kept somewhat regularly from 1956 to 1966). She transcribed that diary and alludes to and quotes from it throughout this account of a dawning consciousness. Ehrenreich came from a line of atheists—and remains one herself (at least in any conventional sense). Throughout, she dismisses monotheism and conventional religions, though, by the end, she's professing a sort of polytheism that acknowledges experiences that so far escape scientific detection and definition. She writes about her troubled family (her father died of Alzheimer's, her mother of an overdose), her childhood loneliness (the fate of many a bright youngster), her girlhood decision to pursue the why of life, and her journey from solipsism to social activism in the 1960s and beyond. She discusses only briefly her two broken marriages and children. Of most interest, of course, is that 1959 experience in Lone Pine, Calif., where, after spending the night in a car, she went for a walk at dawn and saw "the world [had] flamed into life." A talented student (co-valedictorian in high school), especially in the sciences, Ehrenreich studied chemistry and physics in college and graduate school, a career path she abandoned during the era of Vietnam and civil rights. But ever resting like a splinter in her mind: that Lone Pine experience. A powerful, honest account of a lifelong attempt to understand that will please neither theists nor atheists.
Library Journal
★ 04/15/2014
Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) offers a deeply personal look at her search for the truth about life and spirituality. Occasionally brutal in its introspective honesty, this book reveals the alcoholic dysfunction of her parents' relationship and how it affected her growth and beliefs. The author's family's staunch atheism often made Ehrenreich the outsider as a child, but also gave her the tools and freedom to question everything around her, including religion. She dabbled in multiple faiths before settling into atheism herself, but throughout her teen years, she had dissociative "mystical experiences" that she eventually self-diagnosed as a psychological disorder. It wasn't until midlife that she returned to her quest for meaning and attempted to describe her experiences as something more than lapses into mental illness. VERDICT Emotionally evocative, at times disturbing, Ehrenreich's work is engaging and invites—no, demands that its readers question the world around them and everything they believe about it. The author's rational approach to researching "religious experiences" similar to her own, her mission to find an answer to: "Why are we here?" is profoundly relatable to those who have asked similar questions, who have wondered at humanity's purpose, and who have probed at the presence of the Other. Part memoir, part mystical journey, this is essential for anyone with an interest in religious studies, contemporary history, or memoir and biography.—Crystal Goldman, San Jose State Univ. Lib., CA
The Barnes & Noble Review

As readers of her searing, sometimes sneering indictments of the underbelly of capitalism know, Barbara Ehrenreich is one tough cookie. In ferociously rousing books such as Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, and This Land Is Their Land, she reports on America's ongoing struggles over social injustice and inequality. By going undercover as a cleaning person, a server in a national chain restaurant, a Wal-Mart "associate," and a white-collar corporate job seeker, she joined the ranks of the financially beleaguered and vividly demonstrated just how hard it is to make ends meet on minimum wage — or to land and hold on to middle-class jobs. And these books preceded the global financial crisis of 2008.

Living with a Wild God is a different sort of project, though no less impassioned. As much an excavation and philosophical inquiry as a memoir, the book exhumes the author's adolescent diary to examine her enduring, often tortured search for "cosmic knowledge" and the answer to the question that first obsessed her at age fourteen: "What is the point of our brief existence?" It's a quest that, in fact, grips many of us in our moony, moody teens, when, newly awakened to the wonders of the universe and not yet weighed down by the burdens of earning a living and caring for young children or elderly parents, we have more time to ponder the great mysteries of the human condition. Ehrenreich tackles fundamental questions about science, religion, and "the meaning of it all" with the same tenacious intelligence and verve that she's brought to her work on class, gender, and human violence.

The book's title is unfortunate. It not only lacks the snap of her best, including Nickel and Dimed, but its "wild god" is liable to put off both atheists and believers. Like Rebecca Goldstein's ironic Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, it requires explanation, even beyond its lengthy subtitle, "A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything." The wild god, Ehrenreich tells us off the bat, is certainly not the patriarchal being of the major Western religions but rather a nod to the existence of some sort of mystical, perhaps even animistic, but as yet unknown Other that she's been pursuing — and has felt pursued by ? since her teens.

Although not an autobiography per se, Living with a Wild God offers a sharp answer to the questions, "Who is Barbara Ehrenreich and how did she become an adamant populist social critic?" She was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941, to a blue collar family with a history of alcoholism. Her brilliant, tall, "Hollywood-handsome" but often inebriated father managed the "almost unprecedented climb" from copper miner to white-collar management after winning scholarships to study metallurgy. Heaving his family into the middle class meant frequent relocations, from Montana to Massachusetts to Southern California. Ehrenreich's mother was a frustrated homemaker whose "anger was the central force field in our home." She took out much of her disappointment on her oldest daughter, who escaped into books, nature, science, and the "metaphysical tangles" she explored in her journal.

Ehrenreich says she was "born to atheism" and "a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms." She adds, "This is what defined my people, my tribe: We did not believe, and what this meant, when I started on the path of metaphysical questioning, was that there were no ready answers at hand."

Encouraged by her father, Ehrenreich studied science, including chemistry, physics, and biochemistry, before earning a Ph.D. in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University in 1968. In describing her various channels of scientific inquiry, she writes fascinatingly of encountering baffling "anomalous oscillations" in her lab work for her undergraduate thesis at Reed College; she much later realized that she had unwittingly stumbled on a phenomenon that was eventually explained by chaos theory.

Problems arose for Ehrenreich when, devout rationalist and empiricist that she was, she came up against "dissociations" from the explicable world, "perceptual breakdowns" or "uncanny 'jolts' or sudden fissures in reality," a sort of "overflow" or "ecstasy" in which "the world flamed into life" and "the heavens had opened and poured into me, and I into them, but there was no way to describe it, even to myself." These "eerie lapses into a kind of 'second sight'" threw her enough to make her doubt her sanity. She asked her mother, "Could something be true but not explainable?" "Of course not," her mother snapped unhelpfully.

These "eerie lapses" are also at the heart of Ehrenreich's book, but mystically resistant diehard rationalists — including myself — are apt to find them less compelling than she does. Ehrenreich notes that religion might have helped, for "This was the function of religion, in fact ? to serve as a safe storage space for the unaccountable and uncanny." It is also a function of existentialism, which one might be surprised to find Ehrenreich doesn't consider more seriously. Instead ? to the benefit of her sanity and her society — she eventually chooses "to lose the protective armor of solipsism" and engage with her species, pulled into political activism, first by her opposition to the Vietnam War and then by her heightened sensitivity to injustice.

After decades working as "a sentry patrolling the perimeters of the human community," midlife bouts with deep depression and breast cancer led Ehrenreich to renew her adolescent exploration of deeper meaning, including "other locations for consciousness." As for embarking on this book, how could she resist the challenge posed to her in 1958 by her seventeen-year-old self, which she came across when transcribing her old journal: "What have you learned since you wrote this?"

Living with a Wild God — whether in spite of or because of the unresolved questions at its center — is stuffed with rich material for discussion, about everything from the interface of science and religion to the relationship between our younger and older selves. Ehrenreich occasionally expresses impatience with her adolescent self, and I should warn that less metaphysically inclined readers may lose patience with her book. But for those interested in the big questions, this intellectual and spiritual autobiography reveals a life lived at a steeper pitch than most. Ehrenreich sums up with typical clarity: "Do I believe that there exist invisible beings capable of making mental contact with us to produce what humans call mystical experiences? No, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; 'faith' a state of willed self-delusion.... But experience — empirical experience — requires me to keep an open mind."

Two relevant quotes to throw into the conversation: From Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And from Tennyson's "Locksley Hall": "Comfort? Comfort scorn'd of devils! This is truth the poet sings."

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455501762
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 146,425
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Customer Reviews

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( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 20, 2014

    A Personal Autobiography

    This is an autobiography centered around events of the author's childhood. These mystical events are never described, so the suspense of the story is unresolved. The author proclaims herself an atheist and seems to remain so, even after confronting her mystical experiences much later in life. Her memory seems unable to go beyond or deeper than her diary entries and that is unfortunate. The reader is left asking "What happened that ws so powerful, yet not memorable enough to recall." This is not quite as meaty a read as the author's previous works.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2014

    Do not recommend for anyone....

    We chose this book for book club, I got halfway through and can't go any further. I felt like I was reading the ramblings of a self absorbed woman stuck in her past. Would not recommend to anyone, the book club is currently finding a replacement.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2014

    Highly personal

    She's a progressive activist, an engaging and successful political writer--I like her books--and a lifelong atheist. When she was a teenager she kept a journal. She had a mystical experience. It continues to baffle her. So far, so good. But 256 pages?

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2014

    Very disappointing.  If you're curious, just get it from the lib

    Very disappointing.  If you're curious, just get it from the library.  This book presents a very unflattering look of\at the author's personality: pompous, very impressed with her intelligence.  I bought this because I was a huge fan of Nickel and Dimed, and because I was intrigued by this mystical experience that she was supposed to tell us about.  The big build up led to very little in the way of  describing what she experienced, and considering that this was the crux of the story, it was completely disappointing.  The book seemed to be an exercise in her telling us how smart she is, which I'm sure is true, but what this has to do with her belief or nonbelief system and the title of the book is undeveloped and unclear to say the least.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 1, 2014

    Smart? Yeah, And In Your Face...

    At age 13, or thereabouts, precocious Barbara Ehrenreich embarked on exploring the vexing philosophical conundrum: "What is the point of our brief existence? What are we doing here and to what end?" The result, after years of early field work and mature reflection, is "Living with a Wild God."

    Why the title? "The one place I never thought to look for answers was religion," Ehrenreich recalls. "That approach had been foreclosed at some point in the late nineteenth century when, according to my father, his grandmother Mamie McLaughlin renounced the Catholic faith."

    At home "We did not believe, and what this meant, when I started on the path of metaphysical questioning, was that there were no ready answers at hand," Ehrenreich recalls. Visions of hell didn't discomfit her, "but it wasn't easy being a child atheist...At school, I tried to blend in by mouthing the 'Lord's Prayer' along with everyone else..." But on Wednesday there was nothing to hide. Then the other kids were bussed off to religious training classes at various churches while the young outsider remained at her desk. And that wasn't the worst. There were times she was "taunted after school for being a 'communist'...once some boys picked up rocks and chased me home, but I outran them."

    These are the more charming parts of "Living with a Wild God." Elsewhere, she'll probably be in many a reader's face with her insistence on super intelligence (although, true, she's Ph.D smart)and dark judgmental observations. In short, too often not a very attractive person.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 26, 2014

    Not what I thought

    I am a woman of almost the same age as the author, and as a "seeker" of truth and what's really going on, the title of this book was a total misnomer. In my mind, she has no God as I understand God. At times, it was so wordy, that I had to reread the sentence or paragraph several times and still couldn't relate to the meaning. I found some of her references interesting, but not as a believer in God and creation.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2014

    A flash of light, warmth, transcendence, pleasure, light, vision

    A flash of light, warmth, transcendence, pleasure, light, vision, boyfriend, sensation, adolescence, new emotions. That is what Ehrenreich experienced. What does this mean? In 250+ pages, Ehrenreich tries to tell us. She says this was a mystical experience. My women's reading club came to a different conclusion. Barbara Ehrenreich was having her first orgasm, or maybe her first multiple orgasm. Maybe the title of this book should be Wild God: My First Orgasm.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2014

    A thought provoking quest

    She does an excellent job of walking through her journey on the answer to it all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2014

    A scary peek inside a girls head.

    Based on its title and description this is not a book I would normally choose to read. I read this book because it was chosen by a member of my book club. The first 1/3 of the book the author seemed intent on throwing a lot of words at me that I had to look up. In spite of the author being a pedant (look it up) I found myself becoming invested in the protagonist which compelled me to finish. The last 2/3 of the book was quite enjoyable. All in all it was OK.

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    Posted December 23, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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