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Veteran muckraker wrestles with God


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

Living With a Wild God, by Barbara EhrenreichBarry:

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 symptoms of mental illness', Ehrenreich wrestles her discontent and mistrust of self into submission by boldly declaring that it 'is not unscientific to search for what may not be there — from intelligent aliens to Higgs bosons ... It is something we may be innately compelled to do.'

While acknowledging universal moral truths ('Mercy is left entirely to us'), Ehrenreich says contending with God may in fact be obligatory; as 'ultimately we may have no choice in this matter ... it may be seeking us out'.



Known as one of the greatest minds writing in America today, Barbara Ehrenreich was a name that had somehow escaped me. And then came the day that her latest book landed in my letter box.

But, oh, what a discovery. The New Yorker calls the 71-year-old 'a veteran muckraker', a label the 'social critic, journalist, author, activist' probably wears happily enough. After all, Ehrenreich sees herself as 'a myth buster by trade', cemented by her best-known book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which the author went undercover à la George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London.

And that's just for starters. Ehrenreich also shows herself to be no slouch in the area of the confessional arts. This is her story (although it's less of a retelling and more of a revelation) and she unloads heart and soul. But it's Ehrenreich's mind that challenges and confounds in equal measure. Hers is an intellect that can't be contained or tamed.

That said, alongside this formidable intellect sits an uncomfortable memory. As Barry writes, when Ehrenreich was a young woman she came face to face 'with something vast, terrifying and unknowable'.

'In the next few minutes, on that empty street, I found whatever I had been looking for,' she writes. 'Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left ... But there is one image, handed down over the centuries, that seems to apply, and that is the image of fire, as in the 'burning bush' ... '

We mustn't take for granted the courage this took coming from such a committed atheist (and former dedicated solipsist). What's more, in leaving behind 'the jurisdiction of language', the author stumbles toward oblivion, having to clutch at clichés (how that must have hurt); laying herself bare to denigration and outright ridicule.

But what struck me most about these passages is how present the young Ehrenreich is here (the author does draw liberally from the tortured thoughts of her adolescent self via those recently chanced-upon diaries). It's probably also one of the few times that the author lets us see the chink in her veneer. This is revealing, yes, but it's also more than that. It's touching.

The questions are too big, Ehrenreich seems to say, to play games. 'What is the point of our brief existence?' she writes. 'What are we doing here and to what end?'

What can be more human than to be haunted by these questions? But it's in the 'straining to understand' that we come to realise that the line separating atheist and believer is far more blurred than it first appears.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Living With a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich



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Existing comments

What a lovely, well written article to read first thing in the morning! If Ehrenreich's book is even as half as good as what Barry and Jen intimate, I have much to look forward to. I've never read Ehrenreich's works as I've found her intimidating (having heard her on the radio) but this sounds too moving to pass by.

Donna McDonald | 06 June 2014  

I had never heard of Ehrenreich until I saw the book in Abbey's in Sydney. It is as good as they say. A real find.

Graham English | 06 June 2014  

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