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.
But as the metaphysical thriller this book so clearly wants to be, it’s rudderless. The trouble is that what Ehrenreich experienced isn’t so unusual. Literature is giddy with examples of the experience of the uncanny and the sublime, of our capacity for — if not outright susceptibility to — awe. And if it’s a prosaic explanation you want, science has no shortage. The hallucinations could have been brought on by low blood sugar or fatigue. They might have been dissociative episodes, and psychology could provide a number of reasons Ehrenreich might have been prone to dissociation in those particular years: She was miserably isolated, her parents were very much occupied with drinking themselves to death. And these are the only examples that Ehrenreich herself mentions. There’s a limp admission to that effect at the end of the book: “It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what happened to me when I was 17 represents a widespread, if not exactly respectable, category of human experience.”
But we’ve alighted on the real mystery of the book. It took Ehrenreich so long to learn that her visions were a part of human experience not because the visions were so foreign, but because human experience was altogether foreign to her, too.
Let us return to the voice of the journal, where she kept the madwoman immured those many years. At 14 she was as comically self-serious, intellectually intimidating and Nietzsche-mad as the young Sontag, possessed by a “hunger, seemingly issuing from a small shrewlike animal that had made its home inside my head and could never get enough books, ideas or information to feed on.” But this appetite was, above all, first an effort at self-preservation. Her parents were declining rapidly. On more than one occasion, they staggered home bleeding from drunken driving accidents. Ehrenreich was so frightened of her mother in particular that she preferred to wet the bed instead of walking past her to get to the bathroom.
There’s such misery, such sordor in these stories, but Ehrenreich permits no pity. “If you are thinking this is the usual story of dysfunction and abuse, then I’m doing a poor job of telling it,” she writes. It was because of her parents that, she says, she began to train her mind, first to see if she could predict their outbursts and then to rein in her terror. By the age of 8, she was forcing herself to think in complete sentences: “No giving way to inner screams or sobs — just keep stringing out words in grammatical order.” She learned to keep panic at bay, and people, too. She discovered early “the protective armor of solipsism,” and she found it hard to shake.
Her journal is full of admonishments to cultivate “emotional involvements,” but emotions, unfortunately, she writes, “were not my natural beat.” Love couldn’t cure her; she couldn’t see her boyfriend as a separate being with his own history, his own desires. And when she heard of her mother’s suicide attempt, she was unperturbed. “I didn’t give much thought at this point to other people’s emotional states, except as a subject for theoretical speculation,” she says. It was only with the birth of her own children that she “came to accept the idea of other minds as rich, complex and tangled with emotion as my own.” Only after she sloughs off the solipsism does life begin. “I fell in love with my comrades, my children, my species,” she writes. Her interests changed from chemistry and casual contempt to wages, war, suffering.
“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” These are the words of another young woman writing in her own journal some 10 years or so before Ehrenreich experienced those mysteries on the mountain. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal” couldn’t be more different from “Living With a Wild God” — O’Connor is on intimate, wheedling terms with God, begging him for favors (“Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel”), while Ehrenreich comes to a grudging acceptance of some inchoate Presence or Other. Still, they frequently come to the same conclusions — to work hard, see clearly, want purely. The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”