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‘I become unstoppable, obsessed with a subject and that’s what I do,’ Barbara Ehrenreich. (Stephen Voss)
‘I become unstoppable, obsessed with a subject and that’s what I do,’ Barbara Ehrenreich. (Stephen Voss)

What happens when an atheist sees God? Add to ...

American writer Barbara Ehrenreich got a PhD in cell biology before she became an anti-war activist and journalist. Her 14 books include Nickle and Dimed, about working in low-paying jobs, and Bright Sided, warning against the promotion of positive thinking.

Her latest is a memoir, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. In it, she returns to a diary she wrote as an isolated, intellectual teenager and finally struggles to understand a cataclysmic event that she had never spoken about to anyone.

She was already experiencing “disassociative episodes” in which the names and meanings of things suddenly melted away, when on this occasion during a ski trip in 1959, she saw the world and herself on fire, with flame erupting out of every material thing.

In her book, the researcher and scientist homes in on the biggest question of all: What’s really going on here?

The word God with a capital G appears in your title, but you come from a long line of proud atheists. Would you still, at this point in your life, use the word atheist to describe yourself?

Oh yes. I have taken some heat for that title. I always thought of God a little metaphorically, as in “Oh my God.” No, no backsliding here.

Still, in the final pages of the book, you raise the notion of an Other, a presence, or perhaps plural others. You would not elevate that to God?

No, when we say God, we mean a powerful being; we are usually monotheistic about it, a single being who is usually seen as good and caring, and this has nothing to do with that.

When looking at your proto-mystical experience, how much weight would you give to the circumstances that you describe: you hadn’t eaten much, you hadn’t slept properly, you were badly sunburned?

Yeah. That’s all there. That is what the Plains Indians did when they went on vision quests. That had something to do with it. I can think of very materialist explanations for just about everything. But also I am left with the raw experience: This is it, this is what happened. It was stupendous beyond anything else that ever happened to me, with the possible exception of having babies. I can’t fold it into a materialist explanation and be satisfied, because what happened is so real to me.

And you remember it clearly?

All my life. The struggle was to be able to put it into words. I had been recalling it over many decades. I put it aside but it didn’t go away: late-night musings.

When I read about that young woman who wrote the diary, I felt pained by her circumstances. You describe her as a solipsist, someone who only believes in the existence of her own consciousness, but I would also describe her as emotionally abused by her alcoholic parents, and in great need of affection and counsel. You are sometimes quite sharp about her adolescent indulgences. I wondered if you felt sorrow or pity looking back?

In all the time that has lapsed since I was 17, I became a mother, and a grandmother now. I will admit that there is part of me that does sometimes see her [my younger self] in a maternal way and says, “Oh my god, why wasn’t anyone noticing what was going on with her?” I want to avoid the notion of abuse, because that opens up the possibility of an abuse narrative, the unhappy childhood and all that, and that becomes normal or something.

My mother was harsher than most other mothers, but remember children were not the same thing in the 1940s and 50s. You were supposed to take care of yourself, stay out of trouble, stay out of the way. Nobody saw a child as some kind of artisanal project. It just horrifies me now we have gone so far in the other direction. Let them find out a few things for themselves. Not that I am not a very involved and caring grandma.

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