Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything
Most of us would never want to have the experience of poring through our old letters, notebooks and journals --- especially if we were well into middle age taking a look at adolescent writings about high-minded philosophical ideas, like the nature of the universe and who’s in charge. Barbara Ehrenreich is one brave older woman who, after reading through her adolescent texts, found that she had what she refers to as a “mystical experience,” one that challenges everything she was brought up to consider as truth in a house full of atheists.
LIVING WITH A WILD GOD gives us a very personal look into the dark and stormy adolescence of the award-winning writer and sociologist. The juxtaposition of a young girl’s obsessive wonderings with a grown woman’s knowledge and experience makes this not just a “memoir” worth reading, but also a shared look into what we are all made of at our core. Questions abound, but so do ideas that are deeply mined and compelling to even the most conservative religious readers.
"LIVING WITH A WILD GOD is a genuinely thrilling reading experience. I loved it and think, as Ehrenreich does, that you can use her thoughts during this spiritually charged season to get in touch with your own brand of religion and life force."
Ehrenreich, best known for NICKEL AND DIMED and BAIT AND SWITCH, tomes in which she documented real-life terrors, takes on her own demons with words so vibrant that I thought this book was shaking in my hands. It is very rare, in this world of oversharing, that someone has something truly meaningful to say about herself that really could be worth sharing with others. She writes, as a teen in the midst of a chemistry class, “I am a supersaturated solution. I’m a filter paper who’s had too much.” Even studying science brought her back to more poetic and philosophical angles on life, as the book is rife with examples of her young self saying very smart and well-versed things about painful universal truths. It is this brave, honest quality that makes the book shine amidst the memoir fever this country is gripped by, where every Tom, Dick and Henrietta unveils every last moment of bacchanalia, dread, disgust, murderous intent and whatever else to any reader with an extra 25 bucks and a discount card. But if you take this book home and put it on a shelf with some less intense memoirs, those other memoirs might just jump ship.
Ehrenreich is a very intense person, and that intensity emanates from the very pages of the book itself. The chapter on her fantasy that she was the only person alive on earth and the way she formulated a future for herself from that dream is both hilarious and awe-inspiring in its honesty and in the full valuation of her belief in her mental images coming to invade on her real life.
Being a lapsed Catholic, I am fascinated by extrasensory experiences, out-of-this-world experiences that are caused by spiritual upheavals or beings that I can feel or hear but not see or touch. Ehrenreich’s experiences with atheism seemed to have caused a similar effect in her young life. The description (which I will not ruin for you here) of visions she had after bad sleep but that she relates to Native American vision quests makes us feel that this is not just a young girl’s raging hormones providing the fantastical extras in her life, but a profound discovery of something inside her that is going to guide her to her true soul. I feel like a silly teen writing that down, but I can assure you that you will feel the same as you read her entries.
Perhaps the most fun part of the book for me (and, again, I assume for you; we are all dyed-in-the-wool obsessive readers, aren’t we?) is the constant mention and discussion of great works of spiritual significance in Western and Eastern literature. Huxley’s THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION, Nietzsche’s THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA, Longfellow’s poems, Camus’s THE STRANGER --- this is a memoir not only of a young woman searching for spiritual reward, but also of a young woman who enters her soul through her brain, through the literature that she escapes into and searches fervently for answers only she could eventually find for herself. It is an exciting way to show that the literary gene offers its takers some deliciously fun and interesting paths towards enlightenment and further stresses the beauty and directive of the written word. Words give thoughts their shapes; they are very important, and Ehrenreich is as in love with them when she is using them to communicate her own ideas as she is when she consumes and divulges the importance of someone else’s ideals.
LIVING WITH A WILD GOD is a genuinely thrilling reading experience. I loved it and think, as Ehrenreich does, that you can use her thoughts during this spiritually charged season to get in touch with your own brand of religion and life force. May that force, whatever form it takes, always be with you. Thanks to Ehrenreich, maybe we all can find a little more of that force to help us communicate our innermost travels, too!
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on April 10, 2014