The most harrowing chapter of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, isn’t the one that describes her mystical experience. It’s the final chapter, “The Nature of the Other,” where she finally draws her stark conclusions. Ehrenreich, a self-declared atheist, doesn’t believe in “God” as in the one true God of the Abrahamic religions, and in fact skewers belief, declaring it to be “intellectual surrender” and faith “a state of willed self-delusion.”
As a scientist, she defends what she knows; in the case of that tantalizing “Wild God,” she knows something is out there, some “Presence.” But there is little comfort in that Presence, in the “Other” of Ehrenreich’s brilliant and obsessive mind.
The story of the author’s mystical experience comes midway through this long, rambling and at times maddening book. At 17, she is away for a weekend with a boy who has rejected her at the start of a California ski trip, and she is miserable. They decide not to go back to LA after their trip, but to take a detour into Death Valley, spending the night in their van in an area called Lone Pine.
As a teenager, she tells us, Ehrenreich had experienced frequent episodes of what she called “dissociation.” At those times, she would lose her grip on reality, on the present moment, the present place; she would experience a “rent in the space/time fabric.” She describes herself as a solipsist, believing that her mind was the only one that existed, and feeling, regarding her “species […] not the slightest connection.”
These dissociative states could have been manifestations of psychiatric illness, even psychosis, a possibility Ehrenreich repeatedly allows. As to the roots of her emotional issues, she tells us that grew up in a family where love was not given freely or unconditionally, with a hypercritical, withholding, unpredictable, at times vicious mother—alcoholic and suicidal. She adored her hard-drinking scientist father, following in his footsteps to become a scientist herself. Desperate to escape, she intellectualized her alienation, running into the arms of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, Sartre and Camus, scientists and philosophers, seeking answers to the unanswerable—Why am I here? What does this all mean?—perhaps a way to avoid the most painful question: Why am I not loved?
Whether her journey was inspired by a touch of madness or a precocious mind or both, Ehrenreich found herself on that morning in Lone Pine “low on blood sugar but high on the stress hormones engendered by sleep deprivation,” which she presents as possible contributors to what came next. She began to walk toward town—conscious of how astonishing it is that we are able to walk through space, right into a three-dimensional world—when suddenly, the world did something utterly inexplicable: it set itself on fire.
“[T]he world flamed into life,” writes Ehrenreich. There was
just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it…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.
She doesn’t say that what happened to her, what she experienced, had any moral valence, was good in any way. When it was over, she believed that “I had served my purpose, which was to let this nameless force flow through me so that a circuit could be completed and the universe, for a moment anyway, made whole again.” In explaining why she never talked about the experience, she revealed the depth of its impact on her—the violence of it, and the beauty. “What would I have said?” she writes, “That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angels—lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?”
Naming the source of that experience of the world ablaze—a universal image in mystical accounts, she notes, like the burning bush—came much later, just a few years ago. She had moved to a cottage on the Florida Keys, where, enveloped and awed by nature, she began to feel that she was
being drawn into something….I came to think of it as the Presence, what scientists call an ‘emergent quality,’ something greater than the sum of all the parts—the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way—that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other.
But lest she err on the side of romanticizing that newly named Presence, in short order there came a cataclysmic hurricane that wiped out “most of the evidence of my existence, the paper trace anyway,” she writes. All that she had now was the journal from her teenage years, the record of that inexplicable encounter.
In the end, Ehrenreich paints a picture of an Other who exists on its own terms, is oblivious to our needs or happiness, may want at times to communicate with us, but is out to have its own a good time. “[T]here are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world,” she writes,
writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness. Sometimes, out of all this static and confusion, the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes.
To say that Ehrenreich’s Other is fickle is to put it mildly. “It can be as seductive as the scent of joewood flowers,” she writes, but then turn on you in a minute. It is neither “benevolent” nor “malevolent,” both descriptions she castigates as “flagrantly anthropocentric.”
“Why,” she asks, “‘should it be ‘for’ us or ‘against’ us any more than the God of monotheism should favor the antelope over the lion?” She sees evidence of the Presence’s diabolical side, noting that St. John of the Cross “likened the Other he encountered in his mystic transports, who was presumably the Christian deity, to a ‘savage beast.’” She even imagines an Other who feeds on us, who is at base a parasite—her greatest nightmare.
Ehrenreich notes that while “mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being.” The honest thing to do, she maintains, “would be to admit that ethical systems are a human invention, and the Other is something else entirely.”
This analysis goes to the heart of some of what’s wrong with the anthropocentrism of the Abrahamic religions, with our conception of a God whom we can only comprehend by gymnastic contortions of our minds. We worship a God who creates us as fallible creatures, animals really, with a ferocious will to live, then rages at the fact that we behave the way we do. A God who, in my Catholic tradition, wanted retribution for our sins and sent his son to suffer and die to give him that retribution. When that cherished son is brutally murdered, God the Father feels—what? Impressed? Mollified? Vindicated? It’s pretty chilling, when you think about it.
I was glad to get out of Barbara Ehrenreich’s mind. But I do agree with her that we need to stop automatically attributing mystical experiences to madness and get about the business of serious scientific study.
We might begin by encouraging the mainstream media that gushingly reported the Catholic Church’s recent canonization of two popes to do some serious reporting on the supposed “miracles” that were attributed to the two men in order for them to qualify for sainthood—miracles that were reported without resorting to quotation marks or suggestions of mental illness. Why is it that mystical experiences are taken for granted in some contexts (when talking about a powerful institution like the Catholic Church, for example) but otherwise so often ridiculed or dismissed out of hand?
I also found myself wishing that Ehrenreich’s “wild God” had made a more positive impression on her so that she might help the rest of us come to terms with the paradoxes of the divine. But that’s an unfair burden to put on any mystic—especially an avowed atheist.
For me, as for many of us, the search goes on.