Beyond Words with Barbara Ehrenreich
The best-selling author writes about the mystical experiences she experienced as a teen and her quest for the meaning of life.
Photo Credit: Peter Abzug
Barbara Ehrenreich is disciplined in the art of hunker down, study, and observe, from immersing herself in the sciences to taking on a more public role in investigative journalism. She is best known for her breakout book, Nickel and Dimed, yet she has written a dozen other books that toggle between three of her loves: history, science, and human society. In her newest book, Living with a Wild God, she revisits her teenage years to try to make sense of the dissociative states and mystical experiences that started a lifelong search for “the Truth.”
What compelled you to write about the inner life of your younger self?
I was confronted with a journal I had kept as an adolescent. It was a fragmented, disjointed journal. I knew what it told about, what it evaded. I guess that in some part of my mind I always felt that I had to go back to it.
You were not a typical teenager.
I had decided when I was quite young, 12 or 13, that I had to find out what was going on in the universe. Why are we here? What’s happening? For a lot of kids, the answer they would get would be, Well, there’s God. My parents were atheists, so that wasn’t imposed on me. So here I am left with the biggest philosophical question a human can ask. My decision was that I was going to try and think it through. That was my mission.
For the first time, you are writing about mystical experiences you had as a young adult—including dissociative episodes where your perception of the world was significantly altered. At the time you wondered if you were having a nervous breakdown. Why now?
There are experiences that lie beyond words. Usually we lump them in the category of “spiritual.” I don’t know quite what that means. I knew there were not words for what happened. That was a big part of my decision to never say anything. Writing this book, I had to confront it. As a writer, I’ve got to see what I can do with language, how close I can get. It’s not easy. Maybe I failed. There are experiences beyond language, and maybe language isn’t the best tool.
But it’s my tool.
You were raised as an atheist. Why do you think atheists have such a strong sense of morality?
My sense of it has always been that we cannot expect God to take care of suffering in the world. You cannot pass it off. There is a great old saying, from I can’t remember where, that says, “If you need help, go to an atheist.” An atheist isn’t going to pass the buck to God.
I do have a sort of a religion. I have an in-built commandment that I must give to beggars on the street. And when they say “God bless you,” I want to say, “But no, it was me, not God.” But of course I don’t say that.
What is a “wild God”?
I don’t know that I can be too much more precise about it. All of those years I had a second question . . . and that was: What happened to me when I was 17? What was that? And because I was a rationalist, and because I had a science mind, I thought it was a mental breakdown. An episode. It must be schizophrenia.
But what was creeping back into my mind and was almost inadmissible until the last two decades is “No, it wasn’t a breakdown.” There was something. That was something other than myself. And this was a point of contact with it.
My sense was that it was not good or evil. But something so radically different than myself. Yes, there was something. There is something. We are not alone in this universe. I’m not giving a number or a gender. I don’t know.
Did you have a sense of connection or oneness?
I flirted with or indulged that idea when I was younger and got involved with Hindu philosophy: the idea of the universal “all.” If we could just dissolve the barrier between ourselves and it. But this is something different. I have sensed the living presence. It’s not the “all,” not “everything.” It’s another active, conscious agent in the universe.
What was it like to look back on your life and write about it?
The process was agony, interspersed with moments of joy. Anything I put my heart into, there are many times when I think it’s crap. And maybe the next day I rip everything up. And then maybe I’ll have an insight. It’s a bipolar occupation.
This book in particular was very difficult. If I didn’t have the journal as scaffolding, I couldn’t have done it. To put things together in a narrative was a major challenge.
How does a daughter of atheists write a book with God in the title?
Oh god. Excuse the expression. My sister is kind of mad at me. “Why would you write a book that has God in the title?” she asked. “Have you gone all soft and mushy?”