Cover image for Living with a wild god : a nonbeliever's search for the truth about everything
Title:
Living with a wild god : a nonbeliever's search for the truth about everything
ISBN:
9781455585908
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2014.
Physical Description:
xvi, 334 pages (large print) ; 24 cm
Contents:
The situation -- Typing practice -- The trees step out of the forest -- A land without details -- All, all alone -- Encounter in Lone Pine -- Breakdown -- Anomalous oscillations -- Suicide and guilt -- Joining the species -- Return to the quest -- The nature of the other.
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Local Subject:
Summary:
In middle age, Ehrenreich came across the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence. She set out to reconstruct that quest, which had taken her to the study of science and through a cataclysmic series of mystical experiences. A staunch atheist and rationalist, she is profoundly shaken by the implications of her life-long search.
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Summary

Summary

From the New York Times bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed comes a brave, frank, and exquisitely written memoir that will change the way you see the world.

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find "the Truth" about the universe and everything else: What's really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a "mystical experience"-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.

In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, Ehrenreich reconstructs her childhood mission, bringing an older woman's wry and erudite perspective to a young girl's impassioned obsession with the questions that, at one point or another, torment us all. The result is both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping-a searing memoir and a profound reflection on science, religion, and the human condition. With her signature combination of intellectual rigor and uninhibited imagination, Ehrenreich offers a true literary achievement-a work that has the power not only to entertain but amaze.


Author Notes

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Blood Rites"; "The Worst Years of Our Lives"; "Fear of Falling", which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, & eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, The Nation, The New York Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.

(Publisher Fact Sheets) Political activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana on August 26, 1941. She studied physics at Reed College and graduated in 1963. She received a Ph.D. in Cell Biology from Rockefeller University in 1968. Rather than pursuing a career in science, however, she decided to focus on social change.

Ehrenreich has written columns and contributed articles to publications including Time Magazine, The Progressive, The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms, The New Republic, Harper's Magazine, and The Nation. She taught essay writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998 and 2000.

Ehrenreich has written many books, with 2001's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America and 2005's Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream both becoming New York Times bestsellers. Nickel and Dimed examines working-class poverty, while Bait and Switch discusses white-collar unemployment. Her next bestseller was in 2014 with Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything.

In 1998 Ehrenreich was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and she received the Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2004.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

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[ped] 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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

IN MAY OF 1959, Barbara Ehrenreich was taken into the mountains in Northern California by a boy looking for dynamite. They spent the night in the car, and in the morning, she wandered into town on foot. It happened then and there - an onrush of mystical visions - something she'd experienced before but never quite so brilliantly. "The world flamed into life," she writes in her new book, "Living With a Wild God." "Something poured into me and I poured out into it." When they choose to reveal themselves, the spirits have always shown a marked preference for young women - Joan of Arc, Teresa of √Āvila, Hildegard, Mirabai, Rabia al Basri. When they chose 17-year-old Barbara Ehrenreich, they could never have guessed at her violent dismay. For this scientist in the making, these mystical visions were an unbearable offense, an affront to her carefully ordered mind. She went up a mountain with a boy. He was looking for dynamite, but she got blasted apart. She never spoke or wrote about what she saw that day, save for entries in a journal she kept from 1956 to 1966. In 2001, preparing to send her papers to a university library, she found the journal again and took up the questions her younger self couldn't answer: What did she see on the mountain? Could there be a rational explanation? She brings her journalistic experience and instincts to the investigation, treating the journal like a primary source. "Living With a Wild God" makes for pleasantly prickly reading. Ehrenreich is intrigued by her questions, but also exasperated and more than a little embarrassed. After all, she's Barbara Ehrenreich, she'll have you know, an atheist and a journalist, the author of polemics against self-soothing delusions like positive thinking. She's our professional skeptic, our slayer of platitudes. Not the sort of woman who would embark on anything so self-indulgent as a memoir, let alone babble on about mystical experiences. "I had - and still have - no inclination to try to patch this all together into a single story. I will never write an autobiography, nor am I sure, after all these years, that there is even one coherent 'self' or 'voice' to serve as narrator," she writes in the foreword. And then, of course, she proceeds to do exactly that over the course of the next 200 pages. She strings together her visions on the mountain, the chaos of her childhood, her studies in science and her antiwar activism into a single story - a search for truth, she says - telling it in her "sternly objective reporter" voice, the voice she's cultivated, the voice we know. Born out of a fundamental quarrel with oneself - What did I see that day? What can I believe? - the book is lively with inconsistencies, pledges broken, courses changed. The tangle of contradictions give it a humming, querulous energy. And Ehrenreich becomes an unreliable narrator par excellence, capable of sounding as sepulchral and unhinged as Poe. She explains her decision to go to college in Oregon instead of California with the mournful "Outbreaks of sunshine were unnatural and disturbing." For all her gestures at journalistic objectivity and the lovely science writing (she can describe a chain of hydrogen bonds so beautifully it glitters like jewelry), the story creeps into the gothic as Ehrenreich struggles to conceal her visions from the world. "Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation and you'll likely get the same response you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction." She is her own madwoman in the attic. But as the metaphysical thriller this book so clearly wants to be, it's rudderless. The trouble is that what Ehrenreich experienced isn't so unusual. Literature is giddy with examples of the experience of the uncanny and the sublime, of our capacity for - if not outright susceptibility to - awe. And if it's a prosaic explanation you want, science has no shortage. The hallucinations could have been brought on by low blood sugar or fatigue. They might have been dissociative episodes, and psychology could provide a number of reasons Ehrenreich might have been prone to dissociation in those particular years: She was miserably isolated, her parents were very much occupied with drinking themselves to death. And these are the only examples that Ehrenreich herself mentions. There's a limp admission to that effect at the end of the book: "It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what happened to me when I was 17 represents a widespread, if not exactly respectable, category of human experience." But we've alighted on the real mystery of the book. It took Ehrenreich so long to learn that her visions were a part of human experience not because the visions were so foreign, but because human experience was altogether foreign to her, too. Let us return to the voice of the journal, where she kept the madwoman immured those many years. At 14 she was as comically self-serious, intellectually intimidating and Nietzsche-mad as the young Sontag, possessed by a "hunger, seemingly issuing from a small shrewlike animal that had made its home inside my head and could never get enough books, ideas or information to feed on." But this appetite was, above all, first an effort at self-preservation. Her parents were declining rapidly. On more than one occasion, they staggered home bleeding from drunken driving accidents. Ehrenreich was so frightened of her mother in particular that she preferred to wet the bed instead of walking past her to get to the bathroom. There's such misery, such sordor in these stories, but Ehrenreich permits no pity. "If you are thinking this is the usual story of dysfunction and abuse, then I'm doing a poor job of telling it," she writes. It was because of her parents that, she says, she began to train her mind, first to see if she could predict their outbursts and then to rein in her terror. By the age of 8, she was forcing herself to think in complete sentences: "No giving way to inner screams or sobs - just keep stringing out words in grammatical order." She learned to keep panic at bay, and people, too. She discovered early "the protective armor of solipsism," and she found it hard to shake. Her journal is full of admonishments to cultivate "emotional involvements," but emotions, unfortunately, she writes, "were not my natural beat." Love couldn't cure her; she couldn't see her boyfriend as a separate being with his own history, his own desires. And when she heard of her mother's suicide attempt, she was unperturbed. "I didn't give much thought at this point to other people's emotional states, except as a subject for theoretical speculation," she says. It was only with the birth of her own children that she "came to accept the idea of other minds as rich, complex and tangled with emotion as my own." Only after she sloughs off the solipsism does life begin. "I fell in love with my comrades, my children, my species," she writes. Her interests changed from chemistry and casual contempt to wages, war, suffering. "I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside." These are the words of another young woman writing in her own journal some 10 years or so before Ehrenreich experienced those mysteries on the mountain. Flannery O'Connor's "A Prayer Journal" couldn't be more different from "Living With a Wild God" - O'Connor is on intimate, wheedling terms with God, begging him for favors ("Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel"), while Ehrenreich comes to a grudging acceptance of some inchoate Presence or Other. Still, they frequently come to the same conclusions - to work hard, see clearly, want purely. 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." For this scientist in the making, mystical visions were an unbearable offense. PARUL SEHGAL is an editor at the Book Review.


Guardian Review

From the vantage point of maturity, our teenage selves can look oddly distorted, like bodies in a fairground mirror. The grandiosity of their moods is in no way justified by their surroundings. They can feel like Napoleon in a suburban bedroom, like Che Guevara at the school disco. It's a cliche to appeal to adolescent hormones as an explanation. Part of it, however, must be a side effect of simply getting to know the world. A crazily unlikely world with giant question marks behind the familiar edifices of education, family and the daily news. A world you have been dropped into alive, for a short time, to make sense of as best you can. Enough to drive anyone briefly (or even permanently) crazy. In this light, it seems like a failing of adulthood that everything can come to appear normal. The churn of work, relationships, making enough money to survive; all of these distractions shed layers of dust over the wonder that teenagers, infuriating as they can be, exist a little closer to. Not that they're necessarily the right people to express that wonder, in words or art. Mournful teenage sketchbooks, poems or paintings are usually embarrassing artefacts, at least for the creator, later in life. The worst, of course, are diaries. If you're lucky, they can raise a laugh. But the portentousness can also be deeply embarrassing. Is it to Barbara Ehrenreich's credit she has exposed her own diaries, over a particularly important period of her personal development, to public scrutiny? Or does placing them in such an exalted context - as the backbone of a philosophical investigation with lofty ambitions - repeat the hubris of the teenager? Living With a Wild God is not a volume of diaries as such. In 2001, asked to collect her papers for a university archive, Ehrenreich found her journal from the years 1956 to 1966, starting when she was 14. It pivots around an incident she has been avoiding, in one way or another, since it happened. This is her attempt, finally, to interpret it. The fact that she is an "atheist by tradition" is key to the story. This was an unusual denomination in 1950s middle America, its origin a deathbed renunciation of Catholicism by Mamie McLaughlin, the paternal great-grandmother. Not that her parents were especially rational. Ehrenreich's father comes across as a domineering alcoholic (both parents enjoy drink-driving, regularly returning home battered and bruised from a prang). Her mother is just as disturbed. In one display of intellectualised jealousy, she tells her daughter that Freud said girls are sexually attracted to their fathers, which had to be why Barbara prefers him to her. Her parents' behaviour stunned her, I think, into a deep-seated detachment. She begins a "systematic observation" of them as an alternative to colluding in their emotional ups and downs. It is a protective mechanism, but it burrows into her being to such an extent that she starts to undergo episodes of total dissociation. She experiences these, however, not as mental disturbances, but philosophical ones. Each time they happened, she writes, "something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words". She is able, magically, to see objects and people as they really are, raw forms, bundles of matter - existing, just existing, under the sun. These moments are useful to her insofar as they help in her quest to understand "the situation" - her labels for the apparently pointless cycle of birth and death she notices going on around her. But her detachment often looks like contempt. She records a summer camp thus: "Ocean Park was no disappointment because I had already prepared for the worst . . . I am always much more pleased with my family after being away with mental degenerates for a while." Where it's not focused on human beings, her attention settles on objects, like a waste-paper bin in the corner of her classroom. The adult Ehrenreich asks: "What did it feel like . . . to be a receptacle for every bit of garbage that came your way? Did it choke on each piece of refuse that came flying into it or did it take an austere pride in its silent self-abnegation?" It is at this point you begin to wonder how much separates the author and her younger self, in tone and thought. Ehrenreich (below) has lived a rich and exciting life in the intervening years. As she puts it later in the book, she eventually "joined the species" as a political activist and journalist, enjoyed love and solidarity and engagement with the world. But there is a sturdy filament linking girl to woman. Ehrenreich says: "A lot happens in 50 years. You learn to spell better . . . your writing becomes less stilted, so there is no way, for example, that you would compose the sentence, 'I have lately been considering the utter futility of the lives of almost every living thing.' " And yet stilted, or perhaps desiccated, is how I would describe much of this book. On every page there are sentences like the one about the waste-paper basket, or this: "In the absence of Hegelian dialectics, which I had not yet encountered, I experimented briefly with a kind of indeterminacy." The contempt is there too: "I have known people who are duller than trees, as well as individual trees that surpass most people in complexity and character." Ehrenreich may have experienced a great warming up in her real life: evidently this did not filter down to her style. The great, defining moment of this book is tiptoed around for more than 100 pages, but revealed in just two paragraphs. Returning from a stressful trip to a remote ski resort, sleep deprived and hungry, the teenage Ehrenreich undergoes an overwhelming sensory experience, a kind of natural trip, a "furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once". She makes the reasonable point that words cannot do justice to what she went through and she uses very few. But it's a writer's job to find a way of translating experiences that are hard to express. Ehrenreich's unwillingness to do so means it's difficult to share in, and therefore begin to interpret, an event that is the book's raison d'etre. I suspect the episode has been so difficult for her to come to terms with because of that inherited atheism. This could be why a brief loss of self, experienced by an exhausted teenager on an empty street before dawn, has acquired the trappings of something far grander. It's the vibrating secret a super-logical woman has had to carry with her her whole life. The book closes with a discussion of who or what she encountered that day. The nature of the other - living being, emergent property of complex systems, parasitic meme? - is tied up in a few pages. The effect is odd, like reading someone else's summary of a metaphysics lecture. It's as though the obviously very clever Ehrenreich's ability to talk about these subjects has been stunted by years of running in the other direction. I did not enjoy not enjoying this book. I was expecting something vivid, terrifying, curious. But despite the conceit of revisiting a distant self, I was left with the impression that there is a part of Ehrenreich that seems stuck in the mode she adopted as a teenager. She retains that useful ability to see the sheer strangeness of the world, but it is deployed in a way others will struggle to identify with. Her vistas are cold, dry, lunar: landscapes that lack much evidence of human, let alone divine, intervention. To order Living with a Wild God for pounds 12.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk. - David Shariatmadari It is at this point you begin to wonder how much separates the author and her younger self, in tone and thought. [Barbara Ehrenreich] (below) has lived a rich and exciting life in the intervening years. As she puts it later in the book, she eventually "joined the species" as a political activist and journalist, enjoyed love and solidarity and engagement with the world. But there is a sturdy filament linking girl to woman. Ehrenreich says: "A lot happens in 50 years. You learn to spell better . . . your writing becomes less stilted, so there is no way, for example, that you would compose the sentence, 'I have lately been considering the utter futility of the lives of almost every living thing.' " And yet stilted, or perhaps desiccated, is how I would describe much of this book. On every page there are sentences like the one about the waste-paper basket, or this: "In the absence of Hegelian dialectics, which I had not yet encountered, I experimented briefly with a kind of indeterminacy." The contempt is there too: "I have known people who are duller than trees, as well as individual trees that surpass most people in complexity and character." Ehrenreich may have experienced a great warming up in her real life: evidently this did not filter down to her style. The great, defining moment of this book is tiptoed around for more than 100 pages, but revealed in just two paragraphs. Returning from a stressful trip to a remote ski resort, sleep deprived and hungry, the teenage Ehrenreich undergoes an overwhelming sensory experience, a kind of natural trip, a "furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once". She makes the reasonable point that words cannot do justice to what she went through and she uses very few. But it's a writer's job to find a way of translating experiences that are hard to express. Ehrenreich's unwillingness to do so means it's difficult to share in, and therefore begin to interpret, an event that is the book's raison d'etre. - David Shariatmadari.


Kirkus Review

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 atheistsand 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.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Forewordp. ix
Chapter 1 The Situationp. 1
Chapter 2 Typing Practicep. 28
Chapter 3 The Trees Step Out of the Forestp. 63
Chapter 4 A Land without Detailsp. 88
Chapter 5 All, All Alonep. 120
Chapter 6 Encounter in Lone Pinep. 145
Chapter 7 Breakdownp. 171
Chapter 8 Anomalous Oscillationsp. 197
Chapter 9 Suicide and Guiltp. 231
Chapter 10 Joining the Speciesp. 253
Chapter 11 Return to the Questp. 278
Chapter 12 The Nature of the Otherp. 302
Acknowledgmentsp. 333