Putting the fear of God in an atheist – Living With a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth About Everything
Review: Barbara Ehrenreich writes of her life-long quest to find the truth about the universe, life and everything else
Barbara Ehrenreich. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Living With a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth about Everything
In the spring of 2001 the writer Barbara Ehrenreich was invited to donate her papers to a university. While assembling the usual collection of unpublished manuscripts and notebooks, she came across a folder that, for 48 years, had survived her multiple moves. In all that time she had never reopened it, never mentioned or referred to it – yet always remembered to pack it at the bottom of her suitcase, no matter how chaotic the move. It was a journal that she kept from 1956 to 1966, starting when she was 14 years old.
The journal was mostly devoted to the adolescent Ehrenreich’s strenuous attempts to search for “the truth about everything”, to resolve what she called The Situation: What are we all doing here? What is the point of our brief human existence, by a life invariably followed by death? But the journal also recorded “an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that I never in all the intervening years wrote or spoke about it.” The event in question was a type of mystical experience, which to Ehrenreich – a scientist, rationalist and proclaimed atheist – was utterly anomalous.
She knew that this “tangled and evasive journal . . . would require a major job of exegesis, a strenuous reconstruction of all that I once thought was better left unsaid”. She also feared that such an anomalous experience would lend itself rather too readily to psychiatric explanation and risked dragging her back to her tense and sometimes hazardous childhood and unhappy, isolated adolescence.
But, for Ehrenreich, then 59 and being treated for cancer, “There was no escaping it. That long-ago girl had chosen me – the grown-up and now aging person I had become – to carry on her work . . . The sad thing was that if I – the 59-year-old Barbara – died, she died too: the girl who had written these things so long ago. That’s who, or what, I was determined to save, because if I have any core identity, any central theme that has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it lies with her.”
Complex, intriguing womanIn fact it took her several years more to summon the resolve to finally start transcribing the journal. Despite her stout declaration at the beginning of the book that she would never write an autobiography, this book is, in effect, an autobiography, or at least the beginning of one. It provides not just a vivid subjective account of an intense spiritual experience but an insight into this complex and intriguing woman and writer.
An arresting account of adolescence – or the heightened and isolated version that Ehrenreich experienced – it is full of adolescent intellectualised musings and lengthy self-analysis, illuminated by her intelligence and fluency.
Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, to a militantly atheist working-class mining family; her greatgrandmother Mamie McLaughlin hurled a crucifix off her chest as she lay dying in childbirth. Her family lived, she writes, in a “condition of permanent defiance”.
Her parents’ marriage was chronically tense and unhappy. Both were heavy drinkers. She was closer to her fiercely intellectual father – variously described as a “genius” and “Hollywood handsome” – than to her angry, disappointed, scolding and often cruel mother. “I’d still like to know what she had against me,” Ehrenreich writes. She coped with her turbulent home life by withdrawing psychologically and socially, retreating to a kind of extreme intellectual solipsism.
TranscendentThe mystical event that is the focus of the book is not described until page 114 – too long, perhaps, for readers whose main interest may be in hearing about Ehrenreich’s experience of a Wild God. The event occurred when she was 17, at the end of an ill-judged ski trip to northern California with her brother and a friend, Dick, whom she did not know well.
The trip was an impecunious and disorganised affair. They were so broke that they ate little and slept in the car on the way there and back, and stayed, in some discomfort, with an uncle who lived near the resort. To add to the general stress, Dick became unaccountably surly as soon as they left Los Angeles, where she then lived, and stayed withdrawn throughout the trip. The upshot was a tense, sleepless and exhausting few days.
On the journey back home, unable to sleep in the car, she walked at first light into the nearby town of Lone Pine. There, on an empty street, she had her encounter with the “ineffable”, the “transcendent”.
“The world flamed into life. How else to describe it? 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 . . . It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things all at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”
Stunned, she returned home, never to speak of it again. She suffered what she calls an emotional meltdown. She did not know what to do, having no religious beliefs within which to house this experience. She worried she was crazy. She berates her adolescent self for not trying to understand, within an intellectual and scientific framework, what happened.
High on stress hormonesEhrenreich, of course, now makes good in providing that framework. She scrupulously notes , for example, that on the day of the event she was “in the kind of condition that the Plains Indians sought in their vision quests – low on blood sugar but high on the stress hormones engendered by sleep deprivation”.
The final chapter is a competent and interesting review of the historical, scientific and religious explanations of mystical experiences, along with her usual intelligent and acerbic commentary.
Yet, for all her forensic accounting for the “event”, there remains a lingering sense of unfinished business, a sense that Ehrenreich is holding herself back, avoiding any real embrace or emotional connection with her experience, of letting it speak for itself.
It is interesting that she chose to write about it in such an autobiographical way. It is all the better for that, because although her account of childhood and family relationships does not “explain” in any reductionist way the mystical experience she had, it throws light on the way she reacted to it and, in particular, why she silenced herself about it for so long.
One obvious reason for that baffled silence is her family’s – and her own – insistent commitment to rationality and atheism, a commitment that was as much emotional as intellectual; not just a badge of identity but a way of dealing with fear and the unknown.
“I got the idea from my father . . . What do you do when confronted with the inexplicable and alarming situation?” Thinking is what you do.
But, she notes drily of her adolescent self, her adeptness at thinking often got in the way of knowing. “A tentative explanation, theory, or formulation would pop up in my mind only to be attacked by what amounted to a kind of logical immune system, bent on eliminating all that was weak or defective.”
She has not altogether abandoned that habit. She quotes her mother’s harsh stricture: “If you can’t say what you know in words, you don’t really know anything.” But, of course, you can know in a way that is not totally dependant on words, or know with no words at all. Only in the final sentence is she open to the idea that, rather than us trying to intellectually capture the transcendent – what she calls the “Other” – “It may be seeking us out.”