Living with a Wild God

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 PhD. 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.”