In August, I read a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God. (Blog 8/11/14) The work centers around an experience in her early life which she describes as a shift in her level of consciousness. Having had a similar experience in my 40s, I decided to get my hands on the book as soon as possible. Once I did, I discovered that Ehrenreich and I shared other similar experiences.
Like me, the author did her undergraduate work at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. And like me, she began her studies as a philosophy major, though she later shifted to math and physics. In that arena, what we shared was an anathema for lab work. What’s more, in piecing the chronology of her remarks together, I suspect we may have attended the college as contemporaries, though I might have been a senior in her freshman year.
Given the similarities in our backgrounds, I was able to sink comfortably into the book’s early setting and wasn’t surprised that Ehrenreich is a writer who knows how to put a subject and verb together in a way that tells a good story. Not long into the memoir, her readers will be entertained with the workings of a young and precocious mind. Some, however, might find her inner life troubling for she does seem to push her thoughts to the edge of the known world. But hers is not a diseased mind. It is a curious one and, without drugs, she manages to open the door to an altered state.
Her “awakening,” forces her to think the world anew because the old one she can no longer fully trust. Her life, and it seems to me, her book begins to drift. On the surface, she leads an ordinary existence. She marries, has children and enjoys a successful career. Yet the memory of her earlier revelation continues to haunt her. What was it? What did it mean? Why her?
Surprisingly, the experience didn’t drive her toward religion. If Ehrenreich has any faith, it is in science. Reexamining her youthful encounter decades later, her approach is objective, almost clinical. What she is left with at the end is a kind of animism: that she glimpsed of the spirit behind all living things. As one who has had a similar experience, I understand her desire to make sense of the event, but in my view, the attempt is futile. The experience is not translatable into words.
Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God is not a beach read, but her style is accessible and the book should be intriguing to anyone who’s ever wondered why things go bump in the night.
(First published 11/14/2014)