Ehrenreich never meant to write a memoir.
seems very self-involved," she says by phone from
her home in Arlington, Va. "I have anxiety about
anxiety is heightened at the moment because her new
book, "Living With a Wild God: A Nonbelieverís
Search for the Truth About Everything" (Twelve,
$26), is as personal a piece of writing as she has ever
done, built around a journal from her teenage years that
traces both a spiritual quest and a youthful mystical
experience, each having to do with "an impression
of intention" ó the sense that there is some
underlying shape or meaning to the universe.
do you do with something like this ó an experience so
anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you
share with other people," Ehrenreich asks in the
foreword to the book, "that you canít even figure
out how to talk about it?" Such a conundrum drives
"Living With a Wild God," which is part
personal history and part spiritual inquiry.
a surprising turn for Ehrenreich, who for more than 40
years has been one of our most accomplished and
outspoken advocacy journalists and activists. She is
perhaps best known for the 2001 bestseller "Nickel
and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," which
traces her journey through the world of low-income
workers, but she has written about everything from
gender politics to health care to the mechanics of joy,
and contributed to publications including Mother Jones,
the Nation and the Los Angeles Times. Her 1989 book
"Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle
Class" was nominated for a National Book Critics
yet, she says simply of the revelation or epiphany she
underwent as a high school student, "I couldnít
put it out of my life." In the book, she explains
in more detail: "(T)he 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. This was not the passive beatific merger with
Ďthe All,í as promised by the Eastern mystics. 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."
such an account seems more than a little amorphous ó
how can it not? ó thatís one of the difficulties
Ehrenreich faced in "Living With a Wild God."
"How do you write about something you canít
communicate?" she asks, voice rising as if to echo
the impossibility of the task. "I felt both
uplifted and shattered. A few months later, I concluded
it had been a bout of mental illness. It was the only
rational explanation. But I kept asking questions in the
journal: ĎHow do I get back to that level of
awareness?í Reality seemed so mundane and deadly
of the disconnect, Ehrenreich suggests, involved her
atheism, which remains a proud piece of her heritage.
"I was born to atheism," she writes, "and
raised in it, by people who had derived their own
atheism from a proud tradition of working-class
rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested
in bosses or priests, gods or demons. This is what
defined my people: We did not believe, and what this
meant, when I started on my path of metaphysical
questioning, was that there were no ready answers at
a distinction is important, for "Living With a Wild
God" is not a book of faith. Educated as a
scientist, trained as a reporter, Ehrenreich does not
believe in what she cannot see. As such, she turns to
philosophy, chemistry and physics; she traces the
influence of her home life, which was dysfunctional
(both parents were alcoholics) but encouraged asking
questions and thinking for oneself.
some ways," she says, "the book is a critique
of science, which offers very much a Cartesian view of a
dead world." At the same time, she adds, "Iím
still an atheist because I canít say that what I
encountered had anything to do with a deity. This hung
me up for a long time, the tendency to conflate the
mystical with something good or holy. The attribution of
moral qualities seems bizarre to me, since the only
morality I know is human morality."
72, Ehrenreich can look back with an equanimity she didnít
always possess. Certainly, that perspective is absent
from the journal, which she kept from 14 to 24.
went through a phase," she recalls, "of
thinking I could annotate the journal and make a book
out of that. But I wasnít satisfied because there was
too much that, at the time, I didnít feel I could
say." Instead, she decided she had to go "all
in, which involved a critical engagement with my younger
self" ó an engagement that cut both ways.
have you learned since you wrote this?" the
16-year-old Ehrenreich asks, as if addressing the woman
sheíd become. "Wow," she says now,
"thatís quite a challenge."
the bookís core is this sometimes contentious
relationship between the younger and older Ehrenreich.
"I felt a maternal impulse toward the girl who had
written these pages," she acknowledges, although
"sometimes I grew impatient. Why was she skittering
around so much?" The answer, of course, is that the
experience was so overwhelming that even as an adult,
the author shied away from it for many years.
Ehrenreich approached "Living With a Wild God"
through a reporterís filter, even though the subject
was herself. "It pulled me out," she explains,
"by becoming something to report, something I had
the responsibility to report ó not my life but this
particular strand of experience, to see if I could make
she insists, is what distinguishes the book from memoir,
making her inquiry less about the personal than about
the questions such a narrative provokes.
she asks, "do we reconcile the mystical experience
with daily life? Let us be open to the anomalous
experience. If you see something that looks like the
Other, do not fall on your knees. Find out what it is
and report back."