In her 19th book—Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything (due out in April from Hachette/Twelve)—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 2001), uses her skills as a reporter and researcher to address the concerns of her younger self and investigate the whys of human existence. The origins of the project date back more than a decade, to spring 2001, when Ehrenreich was being treated for breast cancer and was assembling her papers to donate to the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Among them was a journal on metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific subjects that she began in 1956, when she was 14, and finished in 1966. In it, she wrote about her quest to understand “the situation,” which she described as “ecstatic springtimes and bitter winters, swirlings and shrinkings, yearning and terror. All followed by death.”
I spoke with Ehrenreich in Seattle in January during the ABA Winter Institute, where she was a featured author. Unlike most of her previous books, she says, Living with a Wild God “doesn’t come with something you must do something about—it’s more an invitation.” In part, that’s because her goal is to open up a discussion on mystical experiences; the topic isn’t often written about, and when such experiences are discussed, they’re fictionalized (she points to VALIS by Philip K. Dick as an example). “Why don’t we talk about these things? Why is there absolute silence about these things?” Ehrenreich asks. “We don’t have the words. So let’s work on that. I’m throwing it out to others, opening it up. We may not ever comprehend certain things. But I’m damn well going to try.”
In her journal, Ehrenreich writes about her own series of “disassociations,” or glimpses into another world or dimension, that culminated in what she thought of then as a “mental breakdown,” after two sleepless nights in Lone Pine, Calif.—the second in the front seat of a car on her way home from a skiing trip. The image she uses in Living with a Wild God to describe this “breakdown” is that of “the burning bush”: “There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere.” Ehrenreich didn’t give much weight to the implications of this experience until she reread the journal as an adult. “I couldn’t think about it when I was so busy being an absolute atheist,” she says. “I still publicly call myself an atheist, which I am. I’m quite anti-monotheist. But I accept that there are some other things going on here.”
If Ehrenreich’s attempt to shed light on her experience makes Living with a Wild God her most personal book to date, she is emphatic that this is not her autobiography—though, in a letter to advance readers, Twelve publisher Deb Futter calls it “brave, frank, exquisitely written, and as honest as a memoir should be.” Ehrenreich adds, “If I were doing a real memoir, there’d be other stuff. But this was meant to just follow one kind of theme. A few years ago I wrote a proposal for a history of religion. And my agent [Kristine Dahl] said, ‘Couldn’t you turn this into something more personal?’ ”
“There was a personal bit to it,” continues Ehrenreich. “So I faced a very challenging intellectual problem: that is, to work the things I had wanted to say—and I didn’t even know what they all were going to be—into a personal narrative. The only reason it could be a personal narrative is that I had kept a journal when I was a teenager. So I had that kind of scaffolding to go by.” As for the subtitle, it came from Ehrenreich’s U.K. editor, Sara Holloway, at Granta Books, which is bringing out the title in May. “It could just as easily have been, Spirituality for Nerds,” jokes Ehrenreich.
The book also addresses scientific topics. Ehrenreich studied chemistry as an undergraduate at Reed College in Oregon and received her doctorate in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University in New York. But, she says of the book, “I kept it really simple. There are no equations. [Science is] just so much part of my life—or, at least, it’s this other part of my life that’s not about politics and policy. How could [the book] be personal if I didn’t talk about chemistry, physics, and biology? It’s the area where I had all my formal education.” .
For Ehrenreich, the most exciting aspect of writing the book was reviewing her lab research for her senior thesis on “semiconductor effects on the corrosion of silicon.” She says that at the time, she couldn’t make sense of the results. “The results were inexplicable. I always thought that someday I would look into that. But basically I was ashamed of it. The results were anomalous. But then, later, I found out that what I observed is a recognized, and now quite well-studied, phenomenon. Even the math to understand it was not available when I was in college. The math changed. The physics changed. I was working before the paradigm change.”
Ehrenreich also writes in the book about family—especially her parents. Her “possibly genius” father was a copper miner from Butte, Mont. (where Ehrenreich was born), who escaped the mines to attend graduate school in metallurgy and went on to hold a series of white-collar jobs. Her mother, who may have committed suicide, is an equally strong presence. Ehrenreich says that when she was growing up, her mother was often angry. Both parents were alcoholics and took their children on weekend drives to bars. “I very much did not want this to be a narrative of abuse and recovery,” she notes. “The way they treated us kids was not unusual in the 1940s and ’50s.” She adds that in those days, children were given an unusual amount of responsibility: “You know, I would be left to babysit my little brother when I was six. And then I went to babysit for other people when I was nine. It’s unthinkable now—also the amount of hitting and slapping that went on.”
Ehrenreich hasn’t entirely set aside her policy concerns to focus on herself and her family. “I’ve always liked having different channels going,” she says. “I have a project [the Economic Hardship Reporting Project], where I try to raise money for starving journalists—of whom there is no shortage—to write about subjects having to do with poverty and hardship. I’ve got a journalist who’s been reduced at various times to selling plasma, who is writing about the plasma industry. It’s awful. They set up these collection places in the poorest neighborhoods, and they encourage people to donate at least twice a week.”
Ehrenreich doesn’t have a plan for what’s next. But for now, she notes, “I don’t know how to say this without sounding totally whacked: if there are [other] beings, we ought to know about it. We really can’t go on like this forever.”