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
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.)
"[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 questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there's no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, 'be seeking us out.'"New York Times Book Review"
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."
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
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.