For much of her life Barbara Ehrenreich, who as an essayist, activist, and author of more than 20 books, including “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” has rarely shied away from hard truths, has refused to discuss or even think about certain episodes of her adolescence.
Ehrenreich’s new memoir, “Living With A Wild God,” begins with a desire to keep the unspoken so: Sending her papers to be archived, Ehrenreich withholds the teenage diary that recorded her attempts to understand a series of inexplicable events — what she comes to call “mystical experiences” — that arrived at that time.
Set aside for decades in favor of more concrete pursuits like social engagement, science, marriage, and motherhood, the diary’s passionate search for understanding reads to Ehrenreich as a challenge from her younger self: “What have you learned since you wrote this?” She sees no choice but to return to “the quest.”
When she was 14 Ehrenreich began to experience episodes of what she calls “dissociation,” a kind of altered mental state in which, as she puts it, “[s]omething peeled off the visible world.” This ability, which Ehrenreich retains, though it largely faded in adulthood, forced her “to look beneath the surface and ask the old question, which is, in the simplest terms, What is actually going on here?” The culminating experience occurred on a morning in May 1959:
“[T]he 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.’’
Taken seriously, the examination of questions and experiences such as these is the work of a lifetime. Yet for someone who had experienced such moments of insight or awareness, Ehrenreich writes, there is often no other option then to follow them wherever they lead. “[U]ltimately we may have no choice in this matter,” she reflects. “[I]t may be seeking us out.”
What “it” might be is at the heart of the book. Ehrenreich, raised in staunch atheism and trained in science — she has degrees in physics and cellular immunology — refuses to socket her experience into any pre-existing spiritual system (read: religion), considering these little more than storage bins for unanswerable questions.
Nor, as certain mystics do, is she willing to celebrate the mysterious. Instead, she uses her reason as a chisel, turning to a wide range of sources from Philip K. Dick, to chaos theory, to William James in search of logical explanation.
Wrestling with her experience in the book, which juxtaposes a chronological narrative of the youthful “quest” with an older Ehrenreich’s analysis of it, the writer attempts to maintain the stance of “sternly objective reporter.”
And yet stern objectivity can’t help but falter: “[O]ne reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it,” Ehrenreich explains.
The result is that while most of “Wild God” reads like a fairly standard memoir of an inquisitive girl’s turbulent coming-of-age, there are, every few pages, points at which Ehrenreich runs up against the ineffability of what she had seen, and once again has to confront her inability to explain.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that the poet “is not only the man who is made to solve the riddle of the universe, but he is also the man who feels where it is not solved.”
Just as Coleridge pointed out the error in assigning a separate purpose to poetry and metaphysics, so “Wild God” seems to provide the possibility for an organic union of scientific rationalism and the spiritual quest.
In applying the tools of science and reason to her search for ultimate meaning, Ehrenrich is refusing to accept both the limits of scientific determinism and the existence of a separate set of realities in which science is of no use. There may not, she suggests, be two kinds of thinking — there is only this feeling of where the universe isn’t solved and this gesture toward solution.
Those who insist on a clean separation of science and the transcendent will likely be unsatisfied by this, but Ehrenreich’s work here bespeaks a courage and intellectual rigor that’s of a piece with the work she’s done before. This attempt to coax answers from the inexplicable is, in her telling, precisely the purpose of the mind.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at jghendrix@ gmail.com.