This is an interesting book by acclaimed non-fiction writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who I know best as the author of the insightful Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This new book is something of a memoir, but it’s more reminiscent to me of David Carr’s Night of the Gun than of most memoirs (though the subject matter is very different). That is to say that instead of telling and reflecting on the story of her life as most writers do in a memoir, Ehrenreich (who seems, throughout, very uncomfortable with the idea of telling any part of her own life story) is examining her own past with the same journalistic eye she has turned on the lives of others, not so much remembering and recreating her past as putting it under the microscope.
And “under the microscope” is an apt place for her past to be, since one recurring theme in the story is young Barbara’s development into the scientist her father wanted her to be. The father-issues, and family issues in general, which are as dysfunctional as anything Jeannette Walls or similar memoirists have to offer, are sidelined here. The focus is not on how Ehrenreich’s admittedly screwed-up family made her the person she became (though inevitably, that’s part of the discussion), but on the search for truth in which she was engaged from a young age.
This “truth” took two forms: the hard scientific truth of the observable world, which Ehrenreich, raised an atheist, early embraced as her lens for understanding the world. But breaking through that worldview were a series of odd experiences she had a hard time understanding or labelling, beginning in her early teens — moments when the observable world of the senses seemed to slip away and she was left observing reality on a different level. She clearly finds it hard, even now, to describe those experiences in language that communicates well to the reader, though she does note that they were probably similar to incidents of “dissociation” as described by some people in the mental health community. Ehrenreich did not experience these as episodes of illness and did not seek help for them, but she did seek to understand them — a quest that she laid aside for many years in adulthood and then returned to in later life as she re-read her old journals and shaped her questions into this book.
The brief dissociative episodes climaxed in her late teens with a single episode that, for a person from a different background, might easily have been described as a vision, or at least a spiritual experience. It changed Ehrenreich and changed how she saw the world, yet she had no language, no framework within which to share or understand this experience. At this point in the story she acknowledges that many people have these kinds of experiences — people from a variety of backgrounds — and that one of the uses of religion is to give people a “container” within which to hold them. So an evangelical Christian might say that the Holy Spirit overcame them; a devout Catholic might come away from such a moment convinced she had been visited by the Virgin Mary; a Hindu or Buddhist might speak of achieving a moment of perfect enlightenment. But what does a smart, convinced and rather troubled young atheist do with such an experience?
Ehrenreich’s answer seemed to be, for a long time, nothing. Put it on the back shelf and get on with life. The intense and overwhelming experience was not repeated, and only much later in life, when going through her own journals, does she return to those early experiences that might be termed “spiritual” and try to puzzle out what they meant.
Believers who note the title and expect this to be a story of an atheist’s “finding God” will be disappointed. The key word in the title is not “God” but “wild.” This is, perhaps, the story of an atheist shifting her perception of reality a little to include the one belief that unites all religions: that there is something else “out there.” Something that can’t be measured using the scientific instruments and knowledge we currently have; something that we are connected to on a deeper level. But she is adamant that she cannot believe this “Other” to be in any way analogous to the God of Christianity or any other mainstream religion. If anything, what she’s reaching for in her conclusion seems to be a kind of paganism, an acknowledgement that animists are not entirely wrong when they imbue the sky and mountains and rivers with “spirit.” There is, in Ehrenreich’s view, something out there, if not someone personified as a god or goddess. Something that is deeply connected to the natural world but not observable by us in the way the natural world is observable — something that occasionally, for some people, breaks through our everyday perceptions, that some will choose to label as God or a god or the gods.
If this review sounds a little vague it’s because the book is too, sometimes, and it may frustrate those who are looking for a more traditional narrative such as you would generally find in a memoir. It’s also, as I said, frustrating for anyone who might have hoped Ehrenreich’s quest would lead her towards traditional religion. But I, reading it from the perspective of a believer listening to a nonbeliever’s narrative, found it fascinating to hear a spiritual experience described from the perspective of a person who didn’t view the world through a spiritual or religious lens. Ehrenreich’s narrative confirms my belief that this sense of “something else out there” underlies all religion — and of course, in my view, points to the reality that there really is something out there.