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Living with a Wild God
A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything
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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.
In the spring of 2001, I was presented with the unnerving task of assembling my papers for storage in a university library. The timing of this forced review of my life, or at least its paper vestiges, could not have been more viciously appropriate, since I was in the midst of treatment for breast cancer and facing the possibility of a somewhat earlier death than seemed fair for anyone as fit and outdoorsy as myself. A librarian had come down from Cambridge to help, and we spread the stacks of papers out on the largest available surface—the pool table that had been left behind on the screened-in porch by a departed boyfriend. There were the drafts of unpublished manifestos, notebooks filled with jottings on human history and evolution, polemical exchanges on the relationship between feminism and other social movements, a few diplomas and awards for academic achievements, and a small trove of letters from long-gone lovers.
I felt very little curiosity about these items or even much sense of ownership. If you had asked me whether my life so far had any narrative arc or even consistent themes, I would have had to say no, not that I could make out. It seemed to me I had spent a lot of time careening from one thing to another—from science to journalism, for example, and from journalism to the manic scholarship on display in my more historical works, not to mention the different romantic relationships and the many oscillations between activism and quiet study. 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.
The impetus for packing off the papers was simply the climate in the lower Florida Keys, where I was living at the time, and which is, over the long run, fatally hostile to paper of any kind. When the library approached me I had been disappointed that they weren’t offering any money, because I hadn’t received a very munificent advance for my forthcoming book, Nickel and Dimed, and had in the course of the illness resorted to borrowing money from friends. But if a distinguished library wanted to provide an air-conditioned, dehumidified dwelling place for these fragments and notes, fine. I figured that maybe someday—if civilization, represented by universities and libraries, endured long enough—a future graduate student might find something of interest in the boxes we were rapidly filling, say for a dissertation on little-known aspects of the grassroots intellectual ferment within the feminist movement of the seventies.
There was only one thing I held back from the outgoing cardboard boxes—a thick reddish folder or envelope of the old-fashioned kind, tied by a string. It had survived for about forty-eight years through god knows how many moves from state to state and one apartment to another. In all that time I had never opened it and never mentioned or referred to it. But somehow I had always remembered to pack it in the bottom of a suitcase, no matter how chaotic the circumstances of the move. Future graduate students could snicker over my love affairs and political idealism if they were so minded, but they could not have this.
The folder contains a kind of journal, though it is really only an intermittent series of entries, each on a separate piece of paper, from the years 1956 to 1966, and mostly from the first three of those years, starting when I was fourteen. What impelled me to hold it back from the tomb that was about to swallow all the other paper remnants of my life was the prospect of mortality—though not my own mortality as a fifty-nine-year-old woman with a full, productive life behind her. In fact, if you’re not prepared to die when you’re almost sixty, then I would say you’ve been falling down on your philosophical responsibilities as a grown-up human being. As for the manner of my death, I would have preferred to start swimming out across the Gulf at dusk, which is shark feeding time, and was still hoping to squeeze that in, should the cancer take a turn for the worse.
No, what scared me on that clear, breezy spring day was the knowledge that the journal is not a self-explanatory, stand-alone document. It begins, promisingly enough, on a wry note:
Today, July fourth, 1956, is a national holiday. That means that people who would normally work elsewhere are now free to work at home. Independence Day is celebrated all over the nation by noisy declarations of disregard for all laws prohibiting firecrackers.
But too often it is tangled and evasive, especially on some of the most important things, which as a girl I had found too private and too searing to commit to paper. I knew the journal would require a major job of exegesis, a strenuous reconstruction of all that I once thought was better left unsaid. So the sad thing was that if I—the fifty-nine-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.
I knew, roughly speaking, what was in the journal, and that it records what led up to an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that I never in all the intervening years wrote or spoke about it. I did make an attempt once or twice with someone I was especially close to, only to have them change the subject or look away uneasily. What had happened did not occupy any category that intersected with my central adult concerns, such as making a living and taking care of my family while at the same time doing what little I could to try to reduce the amount of cruelty in the world. Besides, despite what I like to think of as continual improvements in my ability to express myself, when it came to this one topic, there were no words.
It hadn’t been until I reached my forties that I discovered that what happened to me, or something very similar, has also happened to many other people, and that some of them had even found ways of talking about it, although usually in a vocabulary and framework foreign to me, if not actually repulsive. The conventional term is “mystical experience,” meaning something that by its very nature lies beyond the reach of language, except for some vague verbal hand-wavings about “mystery” and “transcendence.” As far as I was concerned—as a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training—this was the realm of gods and fairies and of no use to the great human project of trying to retain a foothold on the planet for future generations.
So what do you do with something like this—an experience so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people, that you can’t even figure out how to talk about it? I was also, I have to admit, afraid of sounding crazy. Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation and you’ll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction. Both involve encounters with beings whose existence is not universally acknowledged—extraterrestrial beings in the one case, spirits, deities, or some Universal Being in the other—and in the academic literature, both are subjected to the same sort of clinical condescension. For example, a recent anthology on “anomalous experiences” from the American Psychological Association includes very similar chapters on alien abductions and mystical experiences, each offering a highly clinical discussion of “prevalence,” “predisposing factors,” “biological markers,” and so forth, as well as a variety of possible psychiatric explanations. You might as well admit to seeing ghosts or hearing disembodied voices.
It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens. If I did not want to get dragged back down by any of the stickier parts of this, I would have to become almost a new person—neither my young self nor my older self, but a sternly objective reporter seeking truth from both. And I did not want to get dragged back down.
For all these reasons, it took several years after I salvaged the journal in 2001 before I realized this was something I could no longer dodge. I would get started—reading the journal and making notes to myself on the context of the entries and the events that had been omitted from them—only to turn aside for some far more urgent matter in the real world of living, suffering other people, compared to which this project seemed inexcusably self-involved. In 2005 I forced myself to transcribe the entire thing, typing about an hour a day for a couple of weeks, and that was when I came across this, written in July 1958:
I write this from a sense of duty, a feeling of obligation to my future self, whom I implore to read with compassion. What will I be, the person who, months [or, as it turned out, decades] later reads this? Myself, the same as ever? What have you learned since you wrote this?
There was no escaping it: That long-ago girl had chosen me—the grown-up and now aging person I have become—to carry on her work.
Sometime in my thirteenth year, but a little before I actually achieved that age, things began to assemble themselves into what I called “the situation.” By this I did not mean anything peculiar to myself—from the conditions of my family to the historical moment—but things more generally shared by humankind: ecstatic springtimes and bitter winters, swirlings and shrinkings, yearning and terror. All followed by death.
At this point I set my goal for life, which was to find out why. What is the point of our brief existence? What are we doing here and to what end? I had no plan of attack because I had no notion of what form the answer might take or where it might be found. Would it be in a book or in a place? Coded or in plain sight? Would it take years of patient study to comprehend or would it come in a rush of revelation? And if it was easily available, say in a library book, why didn’t anyone ever mention it? Because one thing you learn early in this line of work is that you can’t go around telling people, “I’m on a mission to discover the purpose of life.” Not if you’re hoping to prolong the conversation.
I read everything I could lay my hands on, from popularized science to the Romantic poets, and just in case the answer lay all around me in some more hidden form, I looked for patterns everywhere—anagrams, number sequences, clusters, and coincidences. I still do these things and tend to think of them as a normal requirement of the waking state: counting whatever items present themselves, checking for prime numbers, monitoring for tiny trends in the number of birds or the passage of cars as seen from a hotel window, inventing elaborate backstories for everyone I encounter.
The one place I never thought to look for answers was religion. That approach had been foreclosed at some point in the late nineteenth century when, according to my father, his grandmother Mamie McLaughlin renounced the Catholic faith. When her father was dying she had sent for a priest, only to get word back many hours later that the priest would come for no less than twenty-five dollars. Perhaps the priest could be forgiven for dodging the long ride by horse or mule to whatever makeshift, mudbound mining camp she and her family lived in. But Mamie did not forgive him. When she herself lay dying in childbirth a few years later, the priest, who may have been in the neighborhood anyway this time, showed up unbidden and started administering the last rites. At which point, as my father told the story, she used her last ounce of strength to hurl the crucifix off her chest and across the room.
How much of this story is true I don’t know, but the fact that he liked to tell it testifies to the strength of my father’s undying antagonism to religion. When he was a boy he had used some subterfuge to get a peek at the atheist texts kept out of public view in the Butte library, and when he grew up he bought himself a set of the complete works of Robert Ingersoll, the late-nineteenth-century American atheist lecturer, and sometimes bored us by reading aloud from these on Sunday mornings. What he could not have guessed and I only dimly understood at first was that his insistence on utter rationality could cut the other way and eventually lead to doubts about the entire system that my parents held up as “reality.”
So I did not come to atheism the hard way, by risking the blows of nuns and irate parents, and maybe I would have been more steadfast if I had. I was born to atheism and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons. This is what defined my people, my tribe: We did not believe, and what this meant, when I started on the path of metaphysical questioning, was that there were no ready answers at hand. My religious friends—and my friends were almost all Catholics or Protestants or occasionally something more exotic like Jewish or Greek Orthodox—were convinced that God had a “plan” for us, and since God was good, it was a good plan, which we were required to endorse even without having any idea what it was. Just sign the paperwork; in other words, don’t overintellectualize.
My parents never discouraged me from accompanying friends to religious services or events, and even once a sorry weekend of Baptist summer camp. I’d like to think they understood that any encounters with religion as actually practiced would only deepen my disbelief, but it may be that they just weren’t noticing. When I was very young, still in the single-digit ages, I went with my friend Gail to her summer Bible class, where the instructor wound up the lesson by asking everyone to raise their hands if they had “acknowledged Jesus Christ as [their] personal savior.” My hand stayed down, not because I was so honest but because I was afraid of follow-up questions about, for example, the details of my “acknowledgment” and to whom it had been addressed. What was she asking—that we not only accept the world as it is, but that we should be grateful for it? So the instructor kept me after class, although this was, for Christ’s sake, only Bible class—and filled me in on the torments sweet Jesus had in store for an unsaved child. I wasn’t frightened by her vision of hell, only anxious about how long she intended to hold me captive, because there was no way for a child to get past a looming grown-up and out the door.
It wasn’t easy being a child atheist during the great Cold War or, for that matter, probably any time in human history outside of a few short-lived communist states. At school, I tried to blend in by mouthing the Lord’s Prayer along with everyone else, which was mandatory in those days in the public schools, only sometimes permitting myself to slip into inaudible mocking gibberish. But I couldn’t hide my peculiarity on Wednesday afternoons, when all the other kids were bused off to “religious study” at various churches while I remained behind at my desk under the grudging supervision of a teacher who might otherwise have been free to leave. There were times when I was taunted after school for being a “communist,” which I understood only as a derogatory term for “atheist.” Once some boys picked up rocks and chased me home, but I outran them.
How would I have turned out if I had not been set apart by this irreconcilable difference, if when I first started asking why, I had been given that great non-answer, “God”? I like to think that I would not have been satisfied and would have persisted, taking my question why right up to him. But then again, maybe I would have ended up as some denatured version of myself, content with whatever anodyne explanation was being handed out.
Certainly there were things other than atheism that distinguished my family, like our leaps-and-bounds upward mobility from the tenements of uptown Butte, Montana, to, by the time I became a teenager, the leafy exurbs of New England. My parents had eloped at the ages of eighteen and nineteen, bringing me into existence a decorous ten months or so later. At the time of my birth, my father was a copper miner in Butte, his father was a switchman for the Union Pacific, and my mother was cleaning boardinghouses. Thanks to a series of scholarships, my father made an almost unprecedented climb out of the mines, sweeping us along with him to Pittsburgh for graduate school in metallurgy, then through a series of white-collar jobs that took us to New York, Massachusetts, and finally Southern California, where we ran up against the irrefutable barrier of the Pacific Ocean and stopped right there.
Through all these moves—and there were enough so that I went to eleven different schools before entering college—Butte was our mythical touchstone and standard of authenticity. My parents had left when I was only two, but I treasured the summers when we got to return for a month or two, thanks to reductions in train ticket prices conferred by my paternal grandfather, the railroad switchman. I knew it was a hallowed place, and not only for the mountains. When anyone in the family did something heroic, criminal, or just plain self-destructive, my aunt Marcia would credit “the Butte in him [or her].” It wasn’t a place, this Butte that lived on inside all its children, it was a condition of permanent defiance. All the generations of class struggle—miners’ strikes, unexplained explosions, marches, and street brawls—boiled down to this, in my father and Marcia’s exegesis: We don’t take crap from anyone, never have and never will.
As a geographical place, Butte always takes a little explaining. Outsiders want to locate it in “Big Sky Country,” where of course it is, and imagine it populated with cowboys, so I have to start by telling them that Butte was a city, a dense cosmopolitan city that had at its peak drawn sixty thousand people, mostly from Europe, to man its copper mines: Italy, Ireland, Wales, Serbo-Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania. In the Butte cemetery where my son and I went to lay wildflowers on the grave of IWW organizer Frank Little last summer, we found tombstones from the last century in Arabic, Cyrillic, and Chinese. There were Jews, too, probably from Russia—at least enough to form a minyan for the first synagogue ever built in Montana.
Butte people—“Butteans,” you could call them, though I never heard anyone do so—did everything they could to distance themselves from the mythical cowboy-land of Montana, to the point of calling their city “Butte, USA.” They even liked to extract it from the larger nation, quoting with pride the County Cork woman who saw her sons off from famine-ridden Ireland with the instruction, “Don’t stop in America. Go straight on to Butte.” Physically, Butte remains an anomaly: a cluster of multistory brick buildings, mostly empty now, and long-dead mining rigs jutting out from a mountainside like a quartz crystal sprouting out of a sheer rock face.
But today, in the shell that remains of postindustrial uptown Butte, there is no escaping the Big Sky anymore, no air pollution, for example, to shelter you from the all-encircling violence of the light. The other day I heard a Hidatsa man in Havre, Montana, struggling to answer an NPR interviewer who wanted to know what that “Big Sky” is like, and finally coming up with something about how it has “no edges,” meaning, as I heard him, that it is everywhere and could swallow you up. You could be standing firmly on the ground, trusting in gravity to keep you earthbound, and then—poof—some part of you gets sucked up into the sky, leaving just a crisp of a person behind. This is what I always imagined must have happened to a cousin of my mother’s, who lived on a farm in eastern Montana and out of the blue shot himself dead with a rifle when he was only nineteen. It was the blue, I guess, that got to him.
Copper had drawn people to Butte—the mine owners looking to get richer and the miners hoping to feed their children while their wives took in laundry. But when I went there on an achingly bright day last summer I formed a different impression—that Butte is where men went to escape from the sky. First they dug mines that ran a mile deep into the earth, which was about as far from the sky as you could get, and you had to be so desperate to get there that you’d risk being crushed in a collapsing tunnel or atomized in an explosion. Then they built the smelters to blur the sky with toxic smoke so that no miner emerging from the end of a shift would be exposed to the naked firmament, even for the short time it took him to get into the reassuring darkness of the bars, where you could count on the cigarette smoke to soften any stray intrusions of natural light. These are the lengths men will go to avoid being eaten alive by the emptiness, or at least that’s how I began to see it as a child.
But I didn’t know any history then and “class” was not available to me anyway as a category of analysis. No, the categories that shaped my childhood were much more primal than class or anything else, like gender, the sociologists have to offer. My childhood world was defined by desire and oppression, yearning and resistance, the push out and the shove back. You peek out and get poked in the eye; you reach out with your hand and it gets slapped down. So you try new angles for peeking and reaching, only to find new barriers thrown up in your way. You press against the wall, you jump to look over the top, you try crawling under until your knees are scraped and bloody.
If there was a recognizable demographic category in my childhood it was age. I entered the world as a child, of course, and I entered a world engaged in a war against children. We were the intruders; we could do nothing right; we were subject to constant rebuke. At home we were expected to work off our uselessness through chores—I was assigned, for example, to washing the dinner dishes at age six, when I had to stand on a chair to reach the sink, and when my brother was old enough, he dried. But we never did that task or any other well enough; dishes had to be rewashed, pots were not allowed to soak until the crust came off by itself. School was another site of correction. The penmanship was not neat enough, or I had neglected to carry a number while adding. Miss Sabatini, my third-grade teacher in Queens, made us sit with our hands crossed on our desks and our feet flat on the floor, all the time insisting that we “must learn self-control.” Although clearly if we had any real measure of control over ourselves and our lives we would be out in the playground, running and screaming.
In this war against children we all enter on the losing side and carry our wounds along to the next generation. My mother had been abandoned as a small child to her maternal grandparents, ostensibly because her parents couldn’t afford her, which may have been true at the time, because her father was drinking so heavily, in the normal way of miners, that her mother had had to humiliate herself by going to the shift boss at the mine and asking him for help, requesting that he give her the paychecks directly. But my mother’s parents did manage to raise their two younger children on their own, no problem, while my mother, the unwanted one, suffocated in the Victorian prison of her grandmother’s house in Nelson, British Columbia, which was devoted to the display of precious teacups and silver spoons commemorating important events in Canadian history. Maybe, in defense of my maternal grandparents, the reason they didn’t take my mother back even when they had the means to do so was that she was supposed to function as a replacement child for the daughter (who would have grown up to be my mother’s aunt) my great-grandparents had lost at any early age to some routine early-twentieth-century infectious disease. My mother’s job was to drive the sadness out of that house in Nelson, but I suspect the sadness won.
According to my mother, there had been a similar deficit in my father’s past. He worshipped his mother, whom I remember as an obese, perpetually sedentary woman with stringy hair pulled back in a bun. But his mother had eyes—and what eyes, so fascinatingly deep-set and blue!—only for her eldest son, Gordon, who was by reputation in Butte not only a drunkard, brawler, and fornicator, but a murderer too. (He was not the only man on my paternal side who was said to have killed another man. Murder was apparently not such a serious crime in Butte.) Uncle Gordon, a railroad worker like his father, was crushed under his own train at the age of thirty, either pushed or falling-down drunk. But nothing my father achieved—his degrees and eventually, by working-class Butte standards, his wealth—ever threatened Gordon’s primacy in his mother’s heart.
The loathsomeness and dependency of children seemed to drag down the entire adult female sex; at least that was the impression I formed from the vantage point of my own family, My mother’s anger was the central force field in our home, its targets divided between my father, who got to leave every morning and often delayed his return till late at night, and me. She cleaned and scrubbed and seethed and cursed, to what I saw early on was an unusual degree, since my playmates judged her to be “mean.” When in an outbreak of defiance I passed this information on to her, along with a personal declaration of hatred, she washed my mouth out with soap.
Home, in those earliest years, was a standoff between my mother’s dreams of middle-class orderliness and the routine chaos of life. When we lived in Pittsburgh I shared a tiny bedroom with my little brother where I once woke up to find him painting the wall with shit mined from his diaper. One bedroom—there must have been three total—was occupied by a married couple we took in as boarders, whose nightly fights—or, as my mother suggested by saying, “Some people enjoy that kind of thing,” sadomasochistic rituals—shook the house. When I was about twelve, at least old enough to have sprouted the first appalling pubic hairs, I slept on a fold-out coach in the “den” in our house in Waltham, Massachusetts. To get to the bathroom I had to pass through the living room, where at night my mother would be alone, ironing and working herself into rage at my father’s perpetual absence. Once, I was too terrified to get up and walk by her for a second time and resorted to wetting the bed. When I gave up on sleep and confessed, she slapped me hard before allowing me to change the sheet.
- On Sale
- Jan 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages