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Barbara Ehrenreich


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Barbara Ehrenreich, two of whose previous books I have already reviewed here, has many talents. She trained as a scientist and obtained a Ph.D in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. But she then changed course and has been active in numerous other areas, especially feminism and left-wing politics. Throughout her career she has been a freelance writer, producing a wide variety of books and journalism, for which she has won many awards.

The present book is quite different from anything she has written previously. It is based on a journal which she started at the age of fourteen in 1956 and continued intermittently until 1966. The main reason for returning to it now is that it included the account of an ecstatic or mystical experience that happened to her when she was seventeen. As a rationalist and atheist she had not been able to come to terms with this and kept it to herself for many years, but now she feels it is time to try to understand it.

Ehrenreich was brought up as an atheist in a somewhat dysfunctional family; her father drank heavily and her mother made several suicide attempts, one of which was ultimately successful. Ehrenreich herself had psychological problems which she recorded in her journal, where the entries mainly took the form of surprisingly sophisticated philosophical discussions with herself about the meaning of life. She adopted a solipsistic position which discounted the independent existence of other people, and she began to experience curious episodes of what she considered—based on reading psychiatric descriptions—to be depersonalisation or derealisation states.

The ecstatic experience occurred when Ehrenreich was on a skiing weekend with her younger brother and Dick, a morose school friend. The trip had been unsatisfactory in various ways from the start and after skiing the three young people had to spend the night in their car because they had run out of money. This also meant that they had had very little to eat.

In the early morning Ehrenreich got out of the car, leaving the others asleep, and walked into the town.

At some point in my predawn walk … the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the blaze and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.
In her final chapter Ehrenreich reflects on this experience and finds that it challenges her atheism, although in a strange way. She thinks she was contacted by someone or something which she calls the "Other". She doesn't know what it was—certainly not "God". She wants to avoid religious language completely in describing her experience—she doesn't even know if the Other is benevolent, malevolent, or neutral. Rather than looking for answers in the literature of mysticism, she thinks, perhaps she should turn to science fiction.
Science fiction, like religious mythology, can only be a stimulant to the imagination, but it is worth considering the suggestion it offers, which is the possibility of a being (or beings) that in some sense "feeds" off of human consciousness, a being no more visible to us than microbes were to Aristotle, a being that roams the universe seeking minds open enough for it to enter or otherwise contact.
Ehrenreich insists that she does not believe this hypothesis—belief is the wrong term—but she thinks we ought to admit it as a possibility. Well, perhaps we should, but I think that if we apply Ockham's razor we can find a simpler alternative. Ehrenreich has read widely in her quest to understand experiences of this kind, including the writing of the Christian mystics and William James's Varieties of Religions Experience, but she doesn't mention the book which, to my mind, does more to explain these experiences in a non-religious context than anything else I've read: Marghanita Laski's Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences.

Laski, though an atheist, attached great importance and value to such experiences, but she did not believe that they were due to any kind of contact with another being or external reality. She thought they were linked to the creative process, and occurred during the resolution of an inner conflict. This would certainly fit in with Ehrenreich's intellectual and emotional search for metaphysical insight in the preceding years.

The title of the book is, I think, not very appropriate. It implies that Ehrenreich has in some sense "found God". This isn't what she says. At most in her closing pages she seems to approach a kind of nature mysticism or even pantheism, but that is something else. Is the title perhaps a concession to American hostility to atheism?


%T Living with a Wild God
%A Barbara Ehrenreich
%I Granta Publications
%C London
%D 2014
%G ISBN 978-1-84708-739-3
%P xiv+237pp
%K biography
%O paperback

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