Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich insists that Living with a Wild God is not an autobiography, and that she will never write an autobiography.

OK, but this strikes me as being a lot closer to an autobiography than she might want to admit. Maybe it’s better described as an account of her intellectual and philosophical development than a pure autobiography, but understanding that development requires knowing about her life in general as context, which means there’s plenty of autobiographical stuff in this book.

Living with a Wild God has an interesting set-up. Ehrenreich is revisiting her teenage years, which is facilitated by the fact that she did a lot of writing at that age, including a detailed journal. Indeed, in that journal she’d even mentioned that she hoped her older self would try to better understand her.

So that’s what she sets out to do here, to connect with that younger self, to improve her understanding of her present self by better understanding where she came from. She especially wants to think through some—for want of a better word—mystical experiences she had back then, to determine how best to interpret them.

I’m not fully in agreement with the conclusions she ultimately reaches, but I did appreciate the style of this book and found it enjoyable to tag along with her on this exploratory journey into herself. I mostly like her writing in general, but I’m not a huge fan of her blog and short essay type writings as those come across too often as angry little pundit soundbites (and if anything she seems to have gotten more curmudgeonly in that sense as she has aged). At her best, though, she is insightful and right-headed on the issues, can be quite clever in how she phrases her points, and manifests a solid sense of humor. For the most part I’d put Living with a Wild God in that category of Ehrenreich “at her best,” other than that it doesn’t have as many sharp moments of humor as does some of her work.

Actually, based on the excerpts shared here, her younger self strikes me as having been a really good writer already. Looking back on that writing now, she’s mostly self-deprecating about the adolescent sensibility and such, but it seems quite good to me.

She describes having toyed with solipsism for years. I think of solipsism as one of those theoretical positions in philosophy that no real person actually believes, but she says that for years she felt it was a realistic possibility that she was the only truly sentient being. Whether as a cause or an effect of this she rarely connected with other people, having little social life to speak of. She had a long running fantasy of what it would be like to be the last person on Earth, thinking through where she would live, what she would have to do to survive, etc.

Her parents were an odd case. There was certainly a lot of intensity in that household, both good and bad. In many ways Ehrenreich followed the path set by her parents, and in many ways she rebelled against them or used them as a negative example of what to avoid. Not that that’s anything unusual; I’m sure the same could be said of me or most people, that we are reflections of the primary adult influences we had as children in some ways and that if anything we go out of our way to be as unlike those people as we can in other ways.

They were a working class family, or at least started out as one, her father being a miner. But in time her father made the rare switch from manual laborer to better-compensated white collar work, and so for most of Ehrenreich’s childhood they were more middle class.

They weren’t the sort, though, who wanted to social climb and hide from their past. They retained a kind of loyalty to the working class. Her father saw himself more as a member of the proletariat working bourgeois jobs than a member of the bourgeoisie. Certainly this is reflected in Ehrenreich’s left wing politics.

Both parents, her father especially, were highly intelligent. But they were also limited in how far they could advance in life based on such “merit.” One such limiting factor was class. Her father did manage to rise above being a miner, but with his abilities had he been born into a different class he likely could have done much more with his life.

Her mother was held back not only by class, but by the blatant sexism of their era. Ehrenreich’s feminism was clearly greatly informed by all the years observing her mother’s dissatisfaction and at times bitterness about being a housewife. She could be a miserable person to be around, sometimes being verbally cruel toward Ehrenreich and even slapping her around.

Actually both parents had mean streaks, and both parents abused alcohol.

Both parents were also rationalist, scientific, and atheist, which very much shaped Ehrenreich.

On the other hand, one thing this book reveals is that while Ehrenreich for the most part embraced the rationalism and secular humanism she grew up with, it also seems to have left her with some curiosity about “the other side,” a sneaking suspicion that maybe she has been missing out on something.

When I read her account of the first of her mystical experiences, I immediately thought of the type of neurological explanation that one might find in an Oliver Sacks book. It sounded like her brain was temporarily interpreting and categorizing sense-data improperly.

A few pages later she herself suggests just this kind of explanation, but she is unwilling to simply stop there and say that until there’s new evidence indicating otherwise, that that’s the most plausible explanation for what she experienced. This in spite of the fact that when she tells of her most sustained, extreme mystical experience (which she says was sort of like the whole world being on fire, but so different from anything she had ever experienced or imagined that neither that nor anything else really conveys it), she admits it occurred when she was under social stress, hungry, and sleep-deprived.

Why this reluctance? I don’t see that she ever provides a good reason; I get the impression it’s more a matter of her wanting these experiences to have some deeper meaning. She seems to think that scientific explanations render things uninteresting.

Well, one, that doesn’t make scientific explanations inaccurate. And, two, why can’t dreams and drug hallucinations and the like be fascinating in terms of brain activity and qualia without having to be some portal into a different, spiritual, reality?

She doesn’t go so far as to say that reflecting on these mystical experiences has caused her to believe in God, at least in the sense of the conventional Judeo-Christian deity, but she does conclude that mystical experiences such as hers show that there may well be something alive that’s intentionally interacting with us through such experiences for some unfathomable purpose.

I find this all vaguely disappointing from her. I don’t think that’s due to my having some basic hostility to religious beliefs, or my feeling some discontent that she has proven disloyal to the atheist “team.” If anything I find that I’m now probably more comfortable with religious folks than at any time in my life, even insofar as I disagree with them.

I just don’t think she has made much of a case. If one were to say, “Yeah, but that’s because you didn’t have the experiences she did,” I don’t go along with that, because experiences don’t come infallibly pre-interpreted for us. We have to ascertain the most plausible interpretation ourselves. Maybe to her it didn’t “feel like” these experiences had mundane explanations, but so what? Hallucinations and delusions and such are supposed to feel like genuine experiences.

She doesn’t insist her positing of some vaguely god-like being or beings is correct, only that it’s a realistic possibility and something we should be open-minded about. She says we should research it rather than dismiss it.

OK, but how? What is science not doing that she would like it to do? She mentions creating a database of mystical experiences, but that’s about it. (By the way, that database thing is kind of like Ken Wilber’s approach, at least as I remember it from the one Wilber book I’ve read. I wonder if she’s familiar with his work, and if so if she sees him as a kindred spirit when it comes to mysticism.)

I’m not thrilled with where the journey ends up, but I did enjoy and appreciate the journey itself. Ehrenreich is a thoughtful and interesting person, and I liked getting to know her better in Living with a Wild God.

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