Any Good Books
Living with a Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth about Everything
Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve, 2014)
When Barbara Ehrenreich was a girl, she was not religious. Her bent, both personally and by family tradition, was toward radical rationalism; this book, a not-quite-memoir, could have been titled "I Was a Teen-Age Solipsist." In Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich revisits her journals from that time, which she'd kept through four decades and a dozen or so moves, "because," she says, "if I have any core identity, any central theme that has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it lies with her."
As an adult, Ehrenreich is a writer and an activist, always on the side of the economically down-trodden, and this, she comes by honestly: her family emerged from Butte, Montana, a mining and smelting town in the middle of Big Sky country. Her father got out of the mines by pursuing the study of metallurgy, and then parleyed his good looks and ability to hold his liquor into a series of upwardly mobile management jobs. This entailed repeatedly uprooting his family, through Pittsburgh and various spots in New York and Massachusetts, before their arrival in Southern California.
The family's tradition of hard-headed atheism also sprang from Butte. "I was born to atheism 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." So when the fourteen-year-olds around her were going through religious training, Barbara was on her own with the Big Questions, like 'why are we here?' and 'why do we die?' She was also wrestling with a secret. Starting about a year before the journal begins, she had begun to have moments of direct experience, unmitigated by words or thoughts.
The nearest name for this seems to be 'dissociation'; Ehrenreich satisfied herself that it was neither a religious experience nor a sign of insanity. In what was probably a very good decision, she almost never discussed her episodes with others: the more accurate her description, the more it would have made her sound insane. The unpredictability of her episodes was worrisome, and made avoiding the psychedelic drugs of the day the obvious choice: "For some of us, at some times, participation on the dullest, lowest-common-denominator version of 'reality' is not compromise or a defeat; it is an accomplishment."
Having devoted her college years to the study of chemistry and physics, Ehrenreich went on to graduate school in New York. It was there, in 1965, that the larger world, at last, broke in on her ruminations. The war in Southeast Asia changed everything, as reports trickled back of atrocities in the jungle. "...now that I had begun to love the protective armor of solipsism, there was less to shield me from accounts of bayonets cutting through the bellies of pregnant Vietnamese women or napalm-dispensing helicopters swooping down over children. Once the imagination learns how to construct an image of another person's subjectivity–however sloppy and improvised that image may be–it's hard to get it to stop."
She never quite gets to the answers her teenage self was looking for; life got in the way. She got married and had children; she continued to find things out and write things down, producing nearly two dozen books to date. So the answer to sixteen-year-old Barbara's question to her future self, "What have you learned since you wrote this?" is missing some things that girl would have liked to know. Neuroscience would have been very interesting to her, and philosophy as well. What she did learn, though, about engagement with the world, matters a lot: we are members of a species, in a network of life. Other people are real, and their suffering matters.