“Living With a Wild God” by Barbara Ehrenreich (Grand Central, $26)
Imagine visiting a carnival when a barker says there’s a dinosaur in the tent. You go inside to find — a chicken. And a paleontologist who explains that chickens are really incredibly dinosaurlike.
Would you think that was interesting? Or would you be angry that Foghorn Leghorn is no Tyrannosaurus rex?
This book promises a lot, for anybody who knows even a bit about the author. Her own publicity blurbs describe Barbara Ehrenreich as “outspoken atheist, activist and New York Times best-selling author.”
So when she titles her most recent work “Living With a Wild God,” that sure sounds like there’s a T-rex in that tent.
Spoiler alert: There’s not much to spoil.
This is mostly an odd sort of memoir, an annotated culling of a journal she kept in her teens and 20s. A lot of it is a window into a psychologically peculiar and profoundly unhappy childhood. Here’s a passage that sets up the emotional range of the book:
“Only one thing saved my father from dying as a slobbering drunk, and that was Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol being unavailable in the nursing home he finally expired at. As for my mother, she died too, before we could settle things between us, on her third suicide attempt. The earlier ones had led to successful stomach pumpings, but in the last one she managed to down enough pills before anyone noticed the cessation of vital signs.”
Not that young Barbara herself is revealed to have anything like warm fuzzies. Her journal, the inspiration for this book, is less a girl/woman’s diary than a young person’s attempt to do philosophy.
Her parents were, you see, confirmed atheists. So when she bumped up against the problem of the meaning of life — she calls it “The Situation” — teenage Barbara sets out to find the answers to life’s persistent questions.
There’s nothing silly about her struggles. But it’s like someone deciding to become a chess master without ever reading — or knowing about — the existing literature. A lot of dead ends have already been dealt with.
It’s possible, however, that a chess savant working on her own might come up with something utterly original. I kept waiting for that.
Here’s what we get: From her childhood, Ehrenreich experiences moments of what she calls dissociation where she has a sense of the interconnectedness of all things in the universe — including her. Human categories of meaning simply don’t apply. It’s the kind of experience described by religious seekers of many kinds, familiar enough these days to have neuroscientists scan the brains of people who get to that state.
Back in the 1950s, when young Barbara starts getting these fugues, she had no such context in which to place them. She was scared, not enlightened.
Spoiler alert, again. The most important moment in her life, from the perspective of this book, happened when she was 17 and on a trip with friends that took them to the tiny desert town of Lone Pine, Calif. She has an extended dissociation where “I found whatever I had been looking for since the articulation of my question, or perhaps, given my mental passivity at the moment, whatever had been looking for me. Here we leave the jurisdiction of language .”
Which is a problem for an author writing a book.
That’s about halfway through the memoir. Most of the rest is more conventional: Attends college. Finds love, marriage and motherhood. Enters into activism with the same naivete that marked her early attempts at philosophy.
All of it interesting to the extent that you are interested in her — and certainly, the author of works such as “Nickel and Dimed” has fans who will be. “Living With a Wild God” includes some rather splendid writing.