Beginning to See the Light

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything BY Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything

There are two types of nonbelievers in the world: those who were raised without religion and stayed firmly in the realm of the godless, and those who were brought up with religion and rejected it. I fall into the latter camp, having converted to atheism with an enthusiasm to match the zeal of any evangelical Christian. I’ve always liked the way the journalist and essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, who was raised an atheist and educated as a scientist, talks about the values and morals she formed based on her knowledge of earthly things. So I was surprised to discover that her new memoir was about her attempts to understand the divine.

In some ways, Ehrenreich is the ideal guide for nonreligious people like me through the world of the spiritual (though she hates that word), or at least the inexplicable. But as I read the incredibly detailed accounts of her interior life, first as a precocious child and later as a postgraduate scientist, I found myself wishing she’d written either a traditional memoir or a more journalistic investigation of the mystical.

Ehrenreich’s preteen and teenage journals, quoted frequently in the book, offer a glimpse of a time in her life when she was preoccupied with trying to understand the inexplicable. Now, several decades later, she has reopened the investigation. As an incredibly smart child who was a voracious reader, Ehrenreich once asked herself whether other humans were “conscious” in the same way she was, and whether death could be real when she had no evidence for the continuation of the world without her in it. Presaging her journalism career, young Barbara frequently asked, Why? and What’s really going on here? She doubted even cold, hard math and science: “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question you’ll swallow any goddamn thing.”

This is not how most children think. At least, it is not how I remember thinking about the world, even as a rebellious kid who asked many unwelcome questions about the Catholic church in which I was raised. Ehrenreich refers to traditional religions as “prefab metaphysics requiring no intellectual effort on the part of the user.” And perhaps it is religion’s monopoly on the language of mysticism that, for most of her life, prevented her from fully embracing and exploring her relationship with the divine.

The crux of the book is a series of dissociative experiences Ehrenreich had as a teenager that she’s unable to explain. “Often I have sudden jolts when the realness of things is lost,” she wrote in her journal at the time. “Then things are as if I was just born and had never seen them before.” These are heralded as mystical events, but her recounting fails to inspire a level of awe or wonder that even approaches what she says she felt in the moment.

Reading about these incidents is like listening to a friend summarize, in great detail, a dream she’s just had. They come across as merely the personal, intellectual explorations of an incredibly intelligent, lonely young woman. I wished I could introduce the teenage Ehrenreich to a young Susan Sontag, whose teenage journals, compiled and published by her son in 2009, have much in common with the diary excerpts in Living with a Wild God. Ehrenreich admits that when it came to discussing her dissociative experiences, she was “afraid of sounding crazy. Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation and you’ll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction.” An admitted solipsist, she makes few attempts to share her stories with others.

She spends her college and postgraduate years studying chemistry and physics, reducing the world to explainable particles and matter. A conversation with a lab colleague, then on the cusp of being drafted and sent to Vietnam, reawakens her desire to ask bigger questions, and this time she comes to the opposite conclusion: seeing herself not as a solitary actor alone in her mystic disassociations and intellectual pursuits, but a vital part of the human species, able to influence the world around her. “How had I missed this in all my years of metaphysical questing?” She circulates an antiwar petition among her fellow scientists, which leads to protests and movement work, which eventually leads her to forgo chemistry for social justice–driven journalism.

This makes a certain amount of sense to me. I am most persuaded of the existence of the divine not when I sit alone pondering the big questions (not that, I confess, I spend much time doing that) but when I glimpse great sacrifice or love between human beings. But it is at precisely the point when Ehrenreich makes the intellectual connection that other people matter that she abandons her private spiritual quest. She acknowledges that “if I were writing an autobiography, this would be the place to start it, with the dense human interactions of adulthood.” Not only does she refrain from starting here; she fails to explore it all that much. After devoting full chapters to descriptions of her scientific undertakings as a graduate student, she writes about having children, which many nonreligious people describe as their closest brush with the divine infinite, in just a couple of sentences. “You may equivocate all you want about the autonomous consciousness of other humans, but when two of them arrive in your life out of nowhere . . . two total strangers, and take up residence in your arms—well, the metaphysical question is settled.” If such an experience really did settle this lifelong nagging question, shouldn’t we hear a bit more about it?

I know that there’s a trap here, in reviewing a memoir—I’m not just passing judgment on a writer’s work, but on the narrative she’s chosen to impose on her life. Which is why, as a lifelong fan of Ehrenreich’s writing on social justice, politics, and feminism, I’m embarrassed to admit how bored I was by this book. I’m tempted to say, “It’s your life story; tell it how you want.” But we’re the ones who have to read it. And even the true believers in her journalistic work are likely to be disappointed by the mildness of her search for God.

Ann Friedman is a columnist for New York magazine’s website.