I knew, roughly speaking, what was in the journal, and that it records what led up to an event so strange, so cataclysmic that I never in all the intervening years wrote or spoke about it. I did make an attempt once or twice with someone I was especially close to, only to have them change the subject or look away uneasily. What had happened did not occupy any category that intersected with my central adult concerns, such as making a living and taking care of my family while at the same time doing what little I could to try to reduce the amount of cruelty in the world. Besides, despite what I like to think of as continual improvements in my ability to express myself, when it came to this one topic, there were no words.
It hadn't been until I reached my forties that I discovered that what happened to me, or something very similar, has also happened to many other people, and that some of them had even found ways of talking about it, although usually in a vocabulary and framework foreign to me, if not actually repulsive. The conventional term is "mystical experience," meaning something that by its very nature lies beyond the reach of language, except for some vague verbal hand-wavings about "mystery" and "transcendence." As far as I was concerned—as a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training—this was the realm of gods and fairies and of no use to the great human project of trying to retain a foothold on the planet for future generations.
So what do you do with something like this—an experience so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people, that you can't even figure out how to talk about it? I was also, I have to admit, afraid of sounding crazy. Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation and you'll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction. Both involve encounters with beings whose existence is not universally acknowledged—extraterrestrial beings in the one case, spirits, deities, or some Universal Being in the other—and in the academic literature, both are subjected to the same sort of clinical condescension. For example, a recent anthology on "anomalous experiences" from the American Psychological Association includes very similar chapters on alien abductions and mystical experiences, each offering a highly clinical discussion of "prevalence," "predisposing factors," "biological markers," and so forth, as well as a variety of possible psychiatric explanations. You might as well admit to seeing ghosts or hearing disembodied voices.
It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of "second sight," the spectacular breakdown in my late teens. If I did not want to get dragged back down by any of the stickier parts of this, I would have to become almost a new person—neither my young self nor my older self, but a sternly objective reporter seeking truth from both. And I did not want to get dragged back down.
For all these reasons, it took several years after I salvaged the journal in 2001 before I realized this was something I could no longer dodge. I would get started—reading the journal and making notes to myself on the context of the entries and the events that had been omitted from them—only to turn aside for some far more urgent matter in the real world of living, suffering other people, compared to which this project seemed inexcusably self-involved. In 2005 I forced myself to transcribe the entire thing, typing about an hour a day for a couple of weeks, and that was when I came across this, written in July 1958:
I write this from a sense of duty, a feeling of obligation to my future self, whom I implore to read with compassion. What will I be, the person who, months [or, as it turned out, decades] later reads this? Myself, the same as ever? What have you learned since you wrote this?
There was no escaping it: That long-ago girl had chosen me—the grown-up and now aging person I have become—to carry on her work.
From Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Copyright 2014 by Barbara Ehrenreich, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group.