Barbara Ehrenreich never meant to write a memoir.
“It seems very self-involved,” she says by phone from her home in Arlington, Va. “I have anxiety about it.” That anxiety is heightened at the moment because her new book, “Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything” (Twelve: 240 pp., $26), is as personal a piece of writing as she has ever done, built around a journal from her teenage years that traces both a spiritual quest and a youthful mystical experience, each having to do with “an impression of intention” — the sense that there is some underlying shape or meaning to the universe.
"[W]hat do you do with something like this — an experience so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people,” Ehrenreich asks in the foreword to the book, “that you can’t even figure out how to talk about it?” Such a conundrum drives “Living With a Wild God,” which is part personal history and part spiritual inquiry.
That’s a surprising turn for Ehrenreich, who for more than 40 years has been one of our most accomplished and outspoken advocacy journalists and activists. She is perhaps best known for the 2001 bestseller “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” which traces her journey through the world of low-income workers, but she has written about everything from gender politics to healthcare to the mechanics of joy, and contributed to publications including Mother Jones, the Nation and the Los Angeles Times. Her 1989 book “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
And yet, she says simply of the revelation or epiphany she underwent as a high school student, “I couldn’t put it out of my life.” In the book, she explains in more detail: "[T]he world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”
If such an account seems more than a little amorphous — how can it not? — that’s one of the difficulties Ehrenreich faced in “Living With a Wild God.” “How do you write about something you can’t communicate?” she asks, voice rising as if to echo the impossibility of the task. “I felt both uplifted and shattered. A few months later, I concluded it had been a bout of mental illness. It was the only rational explanation. But I kept asking questions in the journal: ‘How do I get back to that level of awareness?’ Reality seemed so mundane and deadly afterward.”
Part of the disconnect, Ehrenreich suggests, involved her atheism, which remains a proud piece of her heritage. “I was born to atheism,” she writes, “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. This is what defined my people: We did not believe, and what this meant, when I started on my path of metaphysical questioning, was that there were no ready answers at hand.”
Such a distinction is important, for “Living With a Wild God” is not a book of faith. Educated as a scientist, trained as a reporter, Ehrenreich does not believe in what she cannot see. As such, she turns to philosophy, chemistry and physics; she traces the influence of her home life, which was dysfunctional (both parents were alcoholics) but encouraged asking questions and thinking for oneself.
“In some ways,” she says, “the book is a critique of science, which offers very much a Cartesian view of a dead world.” At the same time, she adds, “I’m still an atheist because I can’t say that what I encountered had anything to do with a deity. This hung me up for a long time, the tendency to conflate the mystical with something good or holy. The attribution of moral qualities seems bizarre to me, since the only morality I know is human morality.”
At 72, Ehrenreich can look back with an equanimity she didn’t always possess. Certainly, that perspective is absent from the journal, which she kept from 14 to 24.
“I went through a phase,” she recalls, “of thinking I could annotate the journal and make a book out of that. But I wasn’t satisfied because there was too much that, at the time, I didn’t feel I could say.” Instead, she decided she had to go “all in, which involved a critical engagement with my younger self” — an engagement that cut both ways.
“What have you learned since you wrote this?” the 16-year-old Ehrenreich asks, as if addressing the woman she’d become. “Wow,” she says now, “that’s quite a challenge.”
At the book’s core is this sometimes contentious relationship between the younger and older Ehrenreich. “I felt a maternal impulse toward the girl who had written these pages,” she acknowledges, although “sometimes I grew impatient. Why was she skittering around so much?” The answer, of course, is that the experience was so overwhelming that even as an adult, the author shied away from it for many years.
Ultimately, Ehrenreich approached “Living With a Wild God” through a reporter’s filter, even though the subject was herself. “It pulled me out,” she explains, “by becoming something to report, something I had the responsibility to report — not my life but this particular strand of experience, to see if I could make it comprehensible.”
This, she insists, is what distinguishes the book from memoir, making her inquiry less about the personal than about the questions such a narrative provokes.
“How,” she asks, “do we reconcile the mystical experience with daily life? Let us be open to the anomalous experience. If you see something that looks like the Other, do not fall on your knees. Find out what it is and report back.”
Festival of Books
What: Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich
When: Noon April 13
More info: latimes.com/festivalofbooks