Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything
by Barbara Ehrenreich
published by Hachette Book Group, 2014
Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.
Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:
It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.
Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”
Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.
Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:
Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.
This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.
Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:
So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.
For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”
After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”
And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?
Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.
The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.