In 2001, when she was putting her personal papers in order before donating them to a university library, the American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch) came across a journal she’d kept for a decade from 1956, when she was an unusually serious-minded 14-year-old on a mission to “discover the purpose of life”. Ehrenreich’s latest book, Living With a Wild God, is, in her own words, both a “reconstruction” of what the journal contains and an “exegesis” of it.
“Exegesis” is required because the centrepiece of the journal is the record of a “mystical experience” that she underwent in the spring of 1959—an experience of a kind that Ehrenreich, a self-described “rationalist, atheist [and] scientist by training,” was not obviously equipped to make sense of. She had driven into the mountains of Northern California with a school friend named Dick. After a night spent sleeping—or trying to sleep—in the car, Ehrenreich walked alone to the nearest town, a deserted, fly-blown place called Lone Pine. In the book, the adult Ehrenreich reconstructs what befell her 17-year-old self that day:
“At some point in my pre-dawn walk… the world flamed into life… Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.”
Ehrenreich discovered that the journal scants any attempt at explanation of what happened in Lone Pine. But over the five decades since it was if she’d been haunted by the sense that there was an episode in her life that needed to be accounted for. Living With a Wild God is that accounting. “It’s my scientific curiosity that prevails in the end,” Ehrenreich told me when I spoke to her on the phone recently.
BE: An experience like the one I describe in the book could be dismissed as anomalous. But I began to see that in science you don’t just forget about the piece of data that doesn’t fit into your theory or expectations.
JD: Lone Pine was not the first time you’d had an experience of what you later learned to call “dissociation”, when the world refuses to resolve itself into something that the usual repertoire of human concepts can get a grip upon. You write: “The one place I never thought to look for answers … was religion.” And that’s partly down to the influence of your parents isn’t it? How strenuous was their atheism?
Pretty strenuous! It had to be strenuous for them to survive. As far as knew, nobody was an atheist except for very few people. We were very out of step in Cold War America. I think it took some effort to maintain that stance. My father owned the complete works of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century atheist or agnostic. Every now and then, almost as a joke but not entirely, he would pull out of a volume on Sunday morning and read out loud to us.
You retrospectively apply the clinical category of “dissociation” to those early episodes. Would it have helped to have had that category or explanation available to you at the time?
I don’t think it would have explained anything—it’s just a word. But it would have been good to know that other people had these experiences, or something like them. That would’ve been good. I didn’t discover that for a long term.
There’s a danger sometimes in books like this of the older, writing self congratulating her younger self for her curiosity or insight. But that isn’t the case here. On the contrary, you’re often quite unforgiving of your younger self.
There were various narratives I didn’t want to fall into. The narrative I was more concerned with [avoiding] was, “I started broken and then put myself together.” A coming-of-age kind of thing, where you perhaps exaggerate the failings of the younger self in order to produce the satisfying narrative of maturity.
It’s interesting, given that, how the book ends. It ends, on my reading at least, in a kind of perplexity, an acknowledgment that there are things that elude our attempts to catch them in the net of our concepts or words.
Well, not exactly perplexity. What does develop is a willingness to say, “Yes, that could have been something—something other than myself.” And that’s not where I started. At the end, I speculate kind of wildly, with the help of a smattering of Christian mysticism and mid-20th century science fiction, on what such a being might be.
The last quarter of the book is about your youthful metaphysical speculations coming into contact with history and politics isn’t it? Had politics impinged on your consciousness earlier, that is before the convulsions of the mid-to-late Sixties in the US?
Not really. I criticise myself [in the book] for that. The Civil Rights movement was starting, all these amazing things were happening and I was just going along with my own concerns.
But it wasn’t just you. There was something generational about your apathy wasn’t there? What you’re describing in the book is the transition from the Eisenhower era to the beginning of the Sixties proper, which you locate, slightly later than Philip Larkin, around 1965.
Of course it was a generational thing. I’ve written about this in my book Fear of Falling.
You say it was the Vietnam War that changed everything for you. How?
There was this slight personal connection: a fellow graduate student and friend told me he was afraid of being drafted. I’d never looked at him before as anything other than the person who would very sweetly help me with equipment in the lab. The idea of him having another life on another continent and a completely undeserved death was an epiphany. And once you become properly aware of other people’s suffering, it can take over your life. You begin to see it everywhere. And it never leaves you. This was something I wrote about in Nickel and Dimed: whenever and wherever you’re consuming, there’s somebody’s pain involved.
There’s a danger, though, of dismissing metaphysical problems of the sort you were preoccupied with as an adolescent as not really real, or else as distractions from the political struggle. Do you think you ever succumbed to that kind of thinking?
Oh yes! There was a point when [I thought] these petit bourgeois preoccupations had to be put aside in favour of the grand, collective struggle of humankind. And that’s not resolved in my life today. Except insofar as I increasingly encounter people, like myself, who have a very strong sense of human solidarity and also are interested in metaphysical issues. Thanks to writing this book, I know some of them now!
What has the reception of the book been like in the US?
To my relief, no one has called me insane! I was so nervous about talking about any of this stuff. When I first went to my agent with the idea, I was totally tongue-tied. When I first told my son what I was working on—he’s a writer—we were in a Chinese restaurant in LA. I said, “I’ve got to tell you something.” He looked worried. I said, “It’s about something that happened to me when I was 17.” Then he looked truly alarmed! I went on: “I had a mystical experience.” He just sighed, and said, “Oh, really?”
Having written the book, does it feel as though something that had been left unresolved in your life has now been resolved?
I feel like I’ve checked off a very important task.