Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book about God arrives in devilish packaging. First the title, Living With a Wild God, intimating secular Cheryl Strayed-style reckless abandon tamed by spiritual fervor. Then the cover art: a blaze of neon yellow spikes on a black background, a lifetime of darkness illuminated by a sudden, blinding flash. One might imagine being in the presence of a certain kind of aspirational bestseller, one like Proof of Heaven, about a cocky neurosurgeon (read: slave to rationality) who wakes up from a coma certain that heaven and God exist. Only this about-face would be even more sensational. Could Barbara Ehrenreich, fourth-generation atheist, proud socialist, and mocker of brightness and smiles, have found religion?
Dream on, Billy Graham. Even in America you can’t go from hating pink ribbons to loving Jesus in the span of five years. Yes, this book recounts a spiritual journey with all the touchstones of the saints—a shattering mystical moment in the desert, a dark night of the soul, a painful personal reckoning. Yes, it’s disorienting to read Ehrenreich write phrases such as “savaged by a flock of invisible angels.” But her testimony unfolds in jagged order and lands in an unresolved place. By the end, when she still insists, “I believe nothing,” you might feel cheated of the cheesier but more emotionally satisfying version of events.
Ehrenreich’s journey begins with a secret. For 48 years she has been holding on to a thick reddish folder, tied by string, full of musings by her teenage self. She hasn’t given the contents much thought, but she is dimly aware that they contain a description of several incidents in her young life—one, in particular “so strange, so cataclysmic” that she never spoke or wrote about it at all. The big one took place when she was asleep in a car with her brother and a friend in the cinematically named desert town of Lone Pine. In the wee hours, she wandered out onto the empty street alone, and—well, as Ehrenreich writes, “Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words like ‘ineffable’ and ‘transcendent’ ”:
The 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. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.
Ehrenreich tried to bring it up with intimates a couple of times, once blurting out, “I saw God,” but that felt untrue and caused people to get awkward and change the subject. She was afraid people would think she was schizophrenic or otherwise crazy, and ultimately her rational self decided these experiences had nothing to do with adult life; they belonged instead to the make-believe “realm of gods and fairies.” Until at 59, her children grown, the last of her male companions dismissed, and fresh from a deep depression, Ehrenreich decided to transcribe the whole journal, and came upon this insistent question posed by her 13-year-old self to her future, aging one: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”