Interview with Barbara EhrenreichApril, 2014
When Barbara Ehrenreich was 14, she started a notebook to keep track of what she called "The Situation." Roughly, this referred to anything shared by humankind: "ecstatic springtimes and bitter winters, swirlings and shrinkings, yearning and terror. All followed by death." She wondered: What was the point of our brief existence? Why are we here? Ehrenreich also chronicled the perplexing dissociative—and possibly mystical—episodes she experienced in her teens. Eventually she set her journal aside, not knowing what to make of the events that caused her to question her sanity and her rigid atheistic upbringing.
Fast-forward to middle age. Ehrenreich is now a bestselling author known for books concerned with social justice (most famously Nickel and Dimed) and cultural temperature-taking (Bright-Sided). While planning a new nonfiction work about the history of religion, she found and reread her girlhood notebook, a discovery that took her project in a different direction. The result is a personal narrative, Living with a Wild God, which, she insists, is not a true memoir. The self-described rationalist and atheist half-jokingly calls the book "a metaphysical thriller. How much it thrills, I don't know, but there is one overriding mystery." The pleasure of the book is watching Ehrenreich wrestle and dance around that mystery—for every moment she gets close to defining it as a religious experience, she dives into the rational, applying imagination and rigor to both modes. She spoke with Goodreads interviewer Margaret Wappler about reconstructing "what I once thought was better left unsaid."
Goodreads: You were raised as a hard-core atheist. When did you first start to question that as being the only way to make sense of the world?
Barbara Ehrenreich: The questions arose before I had any strange experiences. Clearly the rationalistic framework that I grew up with, and that I continue to adhere to, didn't offer a clue as to why anything was happening to me. The big thing that really blew me out of the water was what I would now describe as a mystical experience when I was 17. This experience is what some people would call experiencing a deity. I didn't see it that way—instead I was embarrassed and ashamed and put it aside for years.
GR: Without giving away too much, you're talking about what happened in the desert when you were on a road trip. What embarrassed you about it?
BE: When this experience happened to me, I didn't understand that anything like this had ever happened to anyone else. I thought it was a sign of insanity. I didn't dare tell anyone. In my later years I began to come back to it a lot in my mind. I became determined that I was going to understand this in some way that was rational. I was not going to say, "Oh, this is spiritual, therefore I can't understand." I don't like the word spiritual; it creeps me out. I don't like leaving something as a mystery. I'm not accepting that there are just some things we'll never know.
GR: That's interesting what you say about the word "spiritual." Many people nowadays are more comfortable saying they're "spiritual" rather than "religious."
BE: Yes, that's true. I don't know what people mean when they say "spiritual." Are they referring to experiences that don't translate into words? If so, why don't they just say that? I don't like the idea that there is a mysterious realm that only some of us have access to. I remember being on a radio show in the Bay Area, and the interviewer put some crystals out on the table between us, "to get the right spiritual vibe." I thought, "Oh, no." [laughs]
GR: So you kept a notebook as a teenager to track certain dissociative or mystic episodes you had as a kid—was it hard to figure out how to use that notebook in the text of Living with a Wild God?
BE: I ended up treating it like a primary source. The funny thing about that journal is that it doesn't touch much on real life. The journal is evasive in many ways. There's some occasional reference to moving because we were always moving, but there's very little of the texture of daily life. I thought of it as the place where I'm going to put down my thinking on the path to truth. I didn't write about those episodes until I was deep into them, because I didn't know how it related to the quest. What did those moments have to do with finding the truth? It's ridiculous to think about it now, but I was a kid and I just dismissed them as a kind of perceptual alteration that must've arisen from sleep deprivation. I finally came around to acknowledging it.
GR: What was the biggest challenge for this book? What issues or ideas did you grapple with most?
BE: There was the writerly problem of working certain kinds of philosophical or metaphysical ideas into a narrative. The hardest thing was to decide to say, Yes, I think this was an encounter. It was not just in my mind; there was something else. Even at the end of the book, I was fighting that. In fact, up to the very end of the book. I kept thinking, You can't say that, that's crazy. But the deal with this book is that I tell the truth and that there's some crazy involved in that. [laughs] So far, no one's coming at me with butterfly nets.
GR: Goodreads member Mgraham5898 asked, "Has recent brain research stating that humans are 'wired to believe in God' impacted your current views on religion or spirituality?"
BE: I don't know that there is any neuroscience research showing that people are wired to believe in God. Not at all. If you consider the kind of deities that humans have worshipped or been involved with over the last few thousands of years, only very recently do we have the monotheistic, presumably male god that we have in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Look at the Hindu pantheon. It's not the same thing. I'm pretty skeptical about a lot of neuroscience research that simply says what areas of the brain are metabolizing more. I don't think that tells us a great deal. It does seem that we have a huge capacity for awe, ecstasy, and self-love, but I don't think that's anything to do with a deity or belief.
GR: Does this book have any connection to your book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America? Particularly in how religion can be yet another structure that enforces the tyranny of positive thinking?
BE: I do think there's a connection there. When I was writing Bright-Sided and talking a bit about religion, especially strands like evangelical Christianity, I was thinking that the ultimate in positive thinking is believing that there is a benevolent, all-powerful god. If only! Then we could say every disgusting and cruel thing that happens is really part of some beautiful plan.
GR: There's also the idea that if you just pray and worship and do all the right things, you'll go to heaven. Or even in this life that you'll be taken care of.
BE: That's connected, too. I find that so full of contradictions that I don't know where to start. If God is so perfect and wonderful, why does he or she demand to be worshipped? I find that extraordinarily conceited, not to mention insecure, on the part of the deity.
GR: Another Bright-Sided question for you from Goodreads member Kim Bosch: "In the book you write about how there is an immense pressure placed on us to be constantly happy or searching for happiness. I am curious if you feel there is an imbalance of pressure placed on women more than men? Or is it a different version of 'happiness' that is applied to the genders?"
BE: I think that it is very important for women to smile. Women over a certain age are almost always smiling, especially white women. It's like this insecure, "pardon me for still existing on this planet" kind of expression. There's a pressure on women to be more positive and smiling and appearing to be nurturing with other people. I don't think men have the pressure to smile as much or to always show pleasure. Certainly in a business world, men are under pressure to be positive, wildly enthusiastic, and passionate about what they do.
GR: Goodreads member Ciarran asks, "In the April 7, 2008, edition of The Nation magazine, you and several other progressives wrote an open letter supporting Barack Obama in his campaign for president. I was wondering if you regret supporting him or has he met your expectations?"
BE: I have to say that like most of the people who supported him in '08 and '12, we're very disappointed. On the other hand, there are things that I would applaud. Finally he's taking the issue of raising the minimum wage a little more seriously. And I've seen people in my family really benefit from Obamacare, so I can't be churlish about that. He's also fighting to have overtime defined in some way, like who's eligible for it and when it should apply, and these are all very important causes.
GR: What specifically is disappointing to you about his presidency?
BE: It would be a very long list. The war in Afghanistan has dribbled on, he hasn't challenged Wall Street, and we don't have any better method of regulating market madness. I don't even know where to begin.
GR: Goodreads member John Maas writes, "In your book Nickel and Dimed, you wrote of the struggle of barely getting by in America. Do you think the latest rustlings about raising the minimum wage will do anything more than palliate the problem when in fact income inequality is structurally integrated in our current system?"
BE: It's not going to solve the problem in income inequality. It will make things a tiny bit better for a lot of people, and that's good. But raising the minimum to $10 is still nowhere near enough to live on in most places; it's laughable in most cities now. In cities like Los Angeles you need to make $25 an hour to live in any degree of safety, not to mention if you have a child. It's just not doable.
GR: Goodreads member Kkraemer writes, "[Since Nickel and Dimed was published,] there have been so many changes: increasing globalization, technology, etc., and an even wider split between those who 'thrive' and the many who toil without reward. If you were writing that book now, in 2014, what changes can you imagine there would be?"
BE: When I talk about Nickel and Dimed today to college kids who are assigned to read it, I say remember this was written about ten years ago and what you're reading about may sound awful, but those were the good old days. Employers have gotten harsher; they try to squeeze more and more out of employees.
GR: To go back to Living with a Wild God for a moment, the book ends with "The Nature of the Other." What are some of the ideas speculated on in this chapter?
BE: There is not a lot of respectable speculation about conscious others in monotheistic religions. It's more like "Shut up, and we'll tell you what God is." One of the only streams of speculation about other types of deities is in science fiction, the idea of ETs for instance, but more than that, of deity-like beings. I was very influenced by Arthur C. Clarke's book, Childhood's End. It concerns another kind of being that interacts with humans, the Overlords. He would not call it God, and it's not necessarily nice. There are parallels here to accounts from Christian mystics. They generally called what they had encountered a deity, but when you read closely, it's not the Christian monotheistic deity. The most popular Christian mystic is Meister Eckhart, and he would say, If you're expecting a good, cozy, comfortable God in your vision, then forget it.
GR: At one point you say "animism" has entered into the scientific worldview. Can you say more about that?
BE: This might get me in trouble, but from the viewpoint of Newtonian, Cartesian science, the world is dead. Things move because other things pushed them. We want to see it as a bunch of molecules doing what they have to do according to laws of chemistry, but there are cracks in that. If you take the nature of animals, in the late 1970s and '80s, you couldn't say that animals had feelings or consciousness. Now we have discoveries that animals have culture and make art; they have feelings. I would like to see science collectively issue an apology about animals now. Of course now there's even a debate about plants, that plants might have consciousness, too. There are studies that seem to show that they have a kind of memory; Michael Pollan wrote about it in The New Yorker. Some people responded with outrage, but look what we thought 30 years ago about animals. The world is more alive than we're willing to rationally admit.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
BE: I don't write every day because I don't always have something to say. I don't sit down and fill out the pages. Most of the work is research and thinking. And then after that, maybe I have something to say. Sometimes writing is pure hell. I'll write something and look at it in a few hours and say, "This is crap. What will I do with my life? I'll never write again." It's a bipolar business, and you bounce back. You become gripped with some new insight that shows the way.
GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?
BE: That is impossible to answer! There are so many books right now [in my office] that they are lined up from floor to ceiling.
GR: What are you reading now?
BE: I've been reading The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor. It's extremely dense and fascinating. It's leading into another project that is germinating right now. I'm always reading a novel; right now it's The Flamethrowers. As far as nonfiction, I love reading about adventures. I love anything set in the cold and ice. I just read Into the Silence by Wade Davis. It's about the first British expedition to get up to the top of Mount Everest. These men who did it were World War I veterans very used to the idea of dying at any moment. It totally enthralled me. I don't want to go into that weather myself, I don't want to do any of it at all, but I love reading about it.
Interview by Margaret Wappler for Goodreads. Margaret has written about arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Fader, NYLON, and other publications. Her fiction was recently anthologized in Joyland Retro, and she has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.
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