AN INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA EHRENREICH ON THE MYSTERIES AND MEANING OF LIFE
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve, 256pp. $26.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God is a departure from her impassioned political bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch — it’s a personal story, although not a conventional memoir. Ehrenreich revisits and explores a period in her teens when she experienced a series of inexplicable “encounters” that shook her faith in the reality of the world. Culminating in a kind of epiphany in the California desert, these mystical experiences both disturbed and intrigued the young Ehrenreich, who was already questioning the purpose and meaning of life.
Raised as an atheist and trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich had no language or framework to understand these encounters, except as the frightening onset of mental illness. The book is the story of the adult writer’s attempt to describe and understand what happened to her — and what it might mean for the rest of us.
Biographile: At the beginning of the book you describe rediscovering your teenage journal and deciding to try to unpack this mysterious story. How did the writing process develop from there?
Barbara Ehrenreich: There was a certain point where I said, OK, I think I’m actually going to do this, and started writing the first chapter. After that, I had plenty of other things that I went on doing, but this was my project. It was spread over several years, but that’s just how long it took to do.
BIOG: So you had a fairly clear idea of what you wanted the story to be from the start?
BE: No! There were a lot of surprises. I knew I had things to figure out, and that I would be working very hard to describe what I always thought to be indescribable. I did research along the way and found out some amazing things. One that stands out in my mind was about this kid I had gone on the skiing trip with, that ended so spectacularly — or cataclysmically, in my case [with her vision in the desert.] To find out that he claims he was transporting nitroglycerin in the car on the way back… [Ehrenreich discovers this in a phone call during the writing of the book.]
BIOG: It’s a great moment: a clash between how you describe yourself as a teenager, as very solipsistic, and the realization, looking back, that in fact you were at the mercy of the world around you.
BE: And that there were some people a lot more solipsistic than I was!
BIOG: It’s rare to come across a memoir, perhaps especially by a woman writer, that is so much more focused on a philosophical coming of age than with emotional or sexual discovery. Was that a deliberate decision, to keep the focus on intellectual discovery?
BE: There are a couple of reasons for that focus. One is that’s what the journal is about: I didn’t think it worth my time to write down anything I considered trivial or frivolous, like high-school life, and I wasn’t that interested. I was a super-geek, although outwardly getting along fine in terms of going to school and doing what was expected of me. But once I started asking that question, What is going on here? — that’s what I was obsessed with, starting at age thirteen.
BIOG: We also tend to assume that teenagers are just hormonal creatures, so we don’t take their philosophical development very seriously.
BE: Or worse, we say, “Oh yes, you have those big questions when you’re an adolescent, but when you grow up they should go away. When you become a mature person, you should accept everything as it is and just get on with your life.” I didn’t do that. I think we should all take our younger selves a little more seriously.
BIOG: There’s clearly so much that you learned from going back to your journal.
BE: Yes, and with some impatience on my part. I was frustrated at how unrevealing my journal was for those things that I knew I was thinking or feeling. At other times, as an older person, I felt real respect for that younger person.
BIOG: It seems as though the central question of the book is one of communication: how we describe things that are indescribable. When you were writing the book, how did you find the words for these experiences?
BE: I thought of myself as not so much writing a memoir, but more of a metaphysical thriller. Here I have this question, this event, this mystery in my life, and it doesn’t go away. I have to return to it at a certain time in my older life.
BIOG: I’m curious about this as a literary problem — how have other writers tried to describe this? You mention fire as a metaphor that comes up a lot.
BE: When I was gearing up to work on the book, I read a lot of accounts of mystical experiences, and was amazed to discover how often they used the metaphor of flames or fire. Then I thought, hey, burning bush! This goes way back! And I can’t claim that my experience is anything parallel to those of other people who claim such experiences, but it seems to be. My guess is this is a pretty widespread phenomenon — we just don’t talk about it.
BIOG: And even though finding the language is difficult, there is some way of approximating in words what is going on.
BE: A lot of people solve that problem by saying it was God, or a god — something supernatural or some kind of being. I didn’t have that “out.” I didn’t have that imagery, didn’t have that kind of comparison to make. You really have to dig deep to reimagine things.
BIOG: You write a lot about mental illness in connection with this kind of mystical experience, and it seems we have similar narrative problems there. I wanted to ask about that in connection with your other writing, which has been so much more clearly politically motivated. Is that where this book has a political urgency, in the way we understand and treat mental illness?
BE: I would say so. I was terrified as a teenager of being seen as mentally ill, because when I went to the library and read everything I could about unusual psychological experiences, that’s all I could come up with: mental illness, probably schizophrenia, which seemed really scary. So I thought, you just don’t talk about these things, or you end up in a locked ward. It bothers me very much that the dissociation — which is the psychiatric term I used for my early perceptual anomalies, which started when I was thirteen — is considered an illness. There is the psychiatric assumption that there is one shared reality, and if you’re not down with that reality, you’re pathological. That’s horrible. That’s totalitarian, as far as I’m concerned.
I was so nervous when I first showed this book, or the proposal for the original chapters. I just thought, people are going to say you’re nuts. And you could make a case for that, that’s fine, but so far nobody has said that to me.
BIOG: And then the scientific side of your thinking comes out, in that that’s not enough of an explanation. Even if you were to say this was a symptom of some psychiatric anomaly, that’s not the answer, that’s just the first question.
BE: My scientific feeling is that when something bizarre and seemingly inexplicable happens, you don’t just bury it out of sight. You have to look at it with the full power of your own mind and rationality.
BIOG: That seems connected to your scientific training, at the beginning of the era of uncertainty, and your discovery of how much was unknowable in chemistry and physics.
BE: Yes, and this book turns out — somewhat surprisingly, to me — to be more a critique of science than it is of religion. It’s a critique of a kind of Newtonian or Cartesian science that separates the mind from the body completely, and then says we humans are these little conscious lights in a universe in which everything else is really dead and operating mechanistically. I’m taking that on!
BIOG: Whether the mystery is out there or whether it’s in us, it’s still such a mystery.
BE: Yes, but I don’t like to leave anything as a mystery. I was talking with my sister on the phone over the weekend, and she said, “Well, isn’t it enough, Barb, to just say it’s all a mystery — it’s so big and our little minds will never understand it?” I said no! I have to die trying!
BIOG: I’m curious how you hope this book connects with readers. It’s such a personal story, but then it gets as big as humanity in some ways.
BE: Well, it’s a little different from a lot of my previous books, when clearly at the end I want the reader to put the book down and march on City Hall. I felt in writing this that I was making a report: Here’s what happened. For many, many years I had no idea what to make of this. I’m sharing it now, because I think it’s a human responsibility to share even bizarre experiences and observations. I would really like to hear from more people who’ve had similar sorts of experiences. I would like people to feel, maybe there’s something going on here, and that this has something to do with their own lives too.
BIOG: It seems likely that you would have a lot of readers who have stories that are not explained by their particular religion, or they’re not satisfied with the explanation.
BE: Right. It took me an awfully long time to realize that this was a widespread phenomenon still. You can go back to Moses and the Burning Bush, or so many of the prophets in the Old Testament. I spent a lot of time reading — which was very strange reading for me — the Christian mystics. They always attribute what happens to them to God, but I can see parallels and similarities with what happened to me. So I think there’s something widespread but unacknowledged. We’re a society, a culture, that just does not speak of them, but I think even bizarre and mystical things can be in the purview of rational thought and science.
BIOG: So the idea that science and religion are in opposing camps, and to accept one you have to reject the other, is unnecessarily reductive.
BE: I do object to religions that require belief, because there’s so much that’s against scientific rationality. Not all religions require belief — a lot of Jewish people will say you don’t have to believe, you just have to follow the law. I have always been fascinated by the ecstatic religions of West African derivation, where there’s no idea of believing in the deities or spirits, you actually see them in an ecstatic trance. That’s impressive to me. But I don’t like the idea of belief because that’s like a surrender: “I can’t prove it, and you can’t see it, but there is something there.” Well, let’s find out!