Nobody ever writes memoirs about the upside of having crappy parents. One of the subtexts of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, though, is that if her folks hadn’t been so out of it — her father’s alcoholism spreading to her mother like a virus — they would have noticed that their daughter was consumed by metaphysical thoughts and hallucinogenic visions. It’s a good thing they were oblivious. If they’d been aware, Mom and Dad might have understood that Barbara had begun a lifelong spiritual quest — but it being the ’50s, they’d probably just have gotten her shock treatment.
Ehrenreich has always been an intellectual and a journalistic badass. Her working-class family passed on to her a deep distrust of authority and conventional wisdom. Feminist? Socialist? Yes and yes. Atheist? Yes — but with an asterisk. Living With a Wild God, a provocative if taxing book, is all about the asterisk.
She came from a family of nonbelievers — on her deathbed, her great-grandmother had just enough strength to ”throw off the cross that had been placed on her chest.” When she was 13, Ehrenreich tried to prove to herself that there was someone or something Up There or Out There. She kept a journal, an intensely cerebral document for a teenager, as well as a lonely-sounding one, because as a girl, she even came to doubt her own existence: ”If I was confused last time I wrote something I am lost now.”
It’s impossible not to feel for young Barbara, especially when she’s blindsided by those hallucinations. But the story is hard to relate to, and the prose tough to penetrate. Ehrenreich ultimately arrives at a truce with the idea of God. You’ll admire her journey, but you may find it difficult to follow her to the end. B+
”I did not come to atheism the hard way, by risking the blows of nuns and irate parents, and maybe I would have been more steadfast if I had.”