When they choose to reveal themselves, the spirits have always shown a marked preference for young women — Joan of Arc, Teresa of Ávila, 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.