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Veteran muckraker wrestles with God

  • 06 June 2014

Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Hachette, April 2014. Website


Post-colonial Australians have historically been sceptical about 'Godbotherers'; the book we're discussing walks the knife edge of faith and doubt. Depending on when you asked her, militant atheist, scientist, author and investigative writer Barbara Ehrenreich would either dismiss any notion of a god, or admit the questions and experiences she's harboured since her teen years.

In Living With a Wild God, Ehrenreich notes many reasons for her exploration of an 'ancient, childish quest ... the huge weight of my unfinished project'. There's her own possible expiry date (the author's a breast cancer survivor), alongside depression and 'emotional luggage accumulated over the journey' such as familial alcoholism.

There's also long-delayed reactions to her mother's coldness and self-abnegation; her father's anti-Semitism and destructive tendencies ... Personally, I think it is her laudable intellectual honesty that drives this sometimes humorous, often moving memoir. Ehrenreich herself (tongue doubtless wedged firmly in cheek) credits the book to despair ebbing from 'a couple of disasters [and] an act of God' (Hurricane Wilma) that swept away 'most of the evidence of my existence — the paper traces anyway' but left her girlhood diary intact in storage.

The book rises or falls on the readers' grasp of Ehrenreich's God encounters in earlier years, chiefly on a strange skiing trip (influenced to whatever extent also by an episode of being unknowingly drugged by an acquaintance).

I warmed to the teen angster as revealed, just as I do the mature reflecter; her flirtations with Hinduism, her varied religious experiences beautifully and clinically recaptured, her defiant intellectualism and defensive ripostes (her dismissal of human beings as 'hive animals' must have provided comfort to her as an alienated young intellectual).

Feisty young Barb's search for meaning can't and won't be dismissed as the combination of teen sorrow, loneliness and acne — she will not dismiss her 'adolescent's weepy confessions'.

How does a budding young scientist deal with the fallout of 'seeing God'?

The author has the guts to acknowledge that perception of life is an uncertain permutation; and 'the problem might be me'. She posits the 'buried possibility that there exist other beings, agents, forces other than those that are visible and agreed upon' while making classic mystical observations ('sometimes, out of all this static and confusion, the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes').

Ultimately, while noting science can and does 'dismiss anomalous 'mystical' experiences as