TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Fans of Barbara Ehrenreich's writing will probably be surprised at the subject of her new memoir, the mystical visions she had as a teenager, starting when she was 13. Ehrenreich is known for her books and essays about politics, social welfare, class, women's health and other women's issues.
She's the author of the best-seller "Nickel and Dimed," about the difficulties faced by low-wage workers. To make her new book about mystical visions an even more unlikely subject, she describes herself as a rationalist, a scientist by training and an atheist who is the daughter of atheists. Her new book, "Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything," draws on her journals from 1956 to '66 and on the extensive reading she's done in the past decade about the history of religion.
She never discussed these mystical experiences before writing this book. Barbara Ehrenreich, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your parents were atheists. In fact there were several generations of your family that were atheists. Was it hard being the child of atheists when you were growing up?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I think in some ways it was very exhilarating because you could ask any question, and you weren't going to get some - you know, just be told, well, that's just a mystery, we'll never understand that, only God knows. But it was also not so great with other kids, because at this time in the '50s, people confused atheist with communist, and I think that was what was going on anyway. I didn't even know what the difference was. I just thought communist was an even worse word, a slur for atheist, and I would get some trouble from other kids in school for this.
GROSS: So let's talk about the kind of visions that you had. Your first unusual experience was at a horse show. Would you describe your memory of the experience?
EHRENREICH: Well, there I was at an event, a boring, very boring event with my family and something that my parents thought we could do on a Sunday afternoon together, and I was just, you know, staring at the woods. I didn't see anything very interesting about the horses. And then something happened. It's like a layer peeled off the world, the layer that contains all the meanings, the words, the language, the associations we have.
So yeah, I was looking at trees, but I no longer could say I knew exactly what a tree was with all the, you know, all the knowledge and experience that goes into our notion of a tree. I didn't find it scary.
GROSS: It sounds like it could've been very scary.
EHRENREICH: Well, I guess it is for some people because I have since, many years since, read about people who suffer from something called dissociation disorder and have this happen to them occasionally, and they seem to hate it. I just thought, well, this is pretty interesting.
GROSS: What was interesting about it?
EHRENREICH: Well, what if there is a world underneath what we perceive? I mean, we are usually in a world of shared, quote, reality. You and I agree on what we see if we're together. We have similar explanations for it and so on. To leave that behind and just see things without any of those human attributions, well, that's kind of very, very strange, but I wanted to know more.
GROSS: Didn't it make you feel like you had lost your power to comprehend your power to name and therefore understand?
EHRENREICH: It didn't occur to me like that, Terry, strangely. It didn't seem like a lack, although I came to understand. You know, I read a lot. I went in the public library and read (unintelligible) and it wasn't stuff about dissociation disorder, but I certainly did read about perception and all the work, the neuronal work that goes into perception.
You know, I'm looking at a desk right now. I have to process those messages that are going along the optic nerve. I've got to compare them to many other images in my brain of desks or surfaces until I find what I think it is. And so if you stop doing that, if you just stop that process for a while, that's a different world.
GROSS: Did you tell anyone?
EHRENREICH: No, no, I couldn't tell anybody. I mean I had enough sense to think that this would be seen as crazy.
GROSS: Like psychiatric crazy.
EHRENREICH: Yes, yes.
GROSS: And you were afraid of seeing doctors and maybe being institutionalized or just people thinking that you were crazy?
EHRENREICH: Well, that would be the worst case. Yeah, I just didn't want people to think I was crazy. So no, not a word.
GROSS: And when was the first time you spoke about it?
EHRENREICH: Well, just a few weeks ago, really. This is what is so strange about coming out with this book because the book contains things I never said to anyone, never talked to anyone about. And finally sort of coming out with these experiences is that I have been a journalist and a writer for most of my life now, adult life. And I think I have a responsibility to report things, even if they're anomalous, even if they don't fit whatever theory I had in my mind or most people have or anything.
So it's in that spirit that I take this risk.
GROSS: You were talking about this experience you had when you were 13, where you were at a horse show, a kind of boring one with your parents. You were looking into the woods, and suddenly everything kind of looked different, and you had no - all, like, the words and meanings and everything that we superimpose on things ceased to exist.
Now you say even though your parents were atheists, this unusual experience led you to a short-lived interest in religion, including Hinduism. So what did you pursue, and why did you pursue it?
EHRENREICH: Well, I was reading everything I could get my hands on in those days, and one of the things I got my hands on was a copy of the Upanishads, I hope I'm saying it right, which is a very abstract book. I knew nothing of the pantheon of Hindu deities, nothing. I knew nothing about Hindu rituals or pujas. I just had this book that talked very abstractly about the nature of reality, the underlying reality.
And I was very excited. Somebody else had thought some things somewhere that were not too different from what I was thinking. I eventually, you know, sort of lost interest. Well, obviously I was not going to, you know, become a Hindu, which I didn't know anything about, enough about to do. Also I understood that it involved not eating beef, which would severely restrict my diet in those days, and so that was another disincentive.
So I sort of for many reasons kind of went on reading philosophy, all sorts of fiction, science fiction.
GROSS: Another experience, another, like, inexplicable experience you had was in the Mojave Desert. You were in the desert with your brother and a friend. You say you were tired, your blood sugar was low, your stress hormones were high. What happened?
EHRENREICH: I got on a very poorly planned skiing trip with my little brother, who was 13, and a high school friend, and for some reason spent the night in the car in Lone Pine, California, a very little town at that time, and I got up that morning, went out of the car, the others were asleep, and started wandering around the streets of Lone Pine, and something happened.
It was - the only words I can put to it after all these years are that the world flamed into life. Everything was alive. It was like there was a feeling of an encounter with something living, not something God-like, not something loving, not something benevolent, but something beyond any of those kinds of categories, beyond any human categories.
And this lasted - I don't know how many minutes this lasted in its full intensity. We went on from Lone Pine - for inexplicable to me reasons we went into Death Valley and spent the afternoon wandering around in Death Valley, which was on the way to L.A. And the experience continued there in the desert, though not quite as intensely.
GROSS: Let me read something else that you write about in your book. You write that if you had described it, what would you have said, that I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angels, lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose and pretty much left for dead. I mean it sounds, you know, both beautiful and violent, like you were mauled. That's a very physical word to use.
EHRENREICH: Uh-huh. You know, if you read accounts of other people's mystical experiences, and I only did that in the last couple - decade or so, both religious people and nonbelievers, I find that that sense of a violent encounter is also there. Among one of the most religious would be St. Teresa of Avila, and she certainly describes a loving God, whom she very much adores. She was of course writing for her - the Inquisitors.
But she also describes it as a violent kind of encounter, and what she sometimes felt like, that she had been just ground down to her bones by what happened. Or to take a more secular example, Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, the American science fiction writer, had a mystical experience that he wrote quite a bit about, and he said it was less like feeling enlightened by the Buddha or something than it was a little bit like being mugged.
GROSS: So, you know, obviously there's many ways of interpreting this, but on the one extreme, a way of interpreting is you went temporarily mad, you had a psychiatric, an expression of a psychiatric disorder. On the other extreme, you could say you had a glimpse into a larger truth that few people are afforded, that you had this momentary vision of like a world beyond - and I don't mean like an afterlife but just like a world beyond what our senses were designed to perceive, and that for some reason you had that momentary glimpse, which could be life-transforming.
So where on that scale do you see yourself with that experience?
EHRENREICH: Well, my first...
GROSS: Give us a number. Is it a six, a seven?
EHRENREICH: No, it's a little more contradictory than that. In the months that followed that experience in Lone Pine, I went back and forth. I had seen something, I had seen something amazing, it was an encounter, to finally deciding, no, this was a psychiatric episode. I'm a rational person. I have no rational way, other rational way of explaining this. It has to do with some kind of biochemical imbalances, some kind of messed up neuronal circuitry, and I decided that that's how I was going to leave it.
I was never going to tell anybody about this because I didn't want to, didn't know how to, and on top of that I was just going to go on with my life and try to forget about it. So that was my solution for many years.
GROSS: When was the last time you had an experience like the ones you described that you could interpret as mystical or as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder or somewhere between the two?
EHRENREICH: Well, I no longer interpret them as symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. That's what happened as I evolved from a, say, from my late teens into my 60s, is turning this over and over in my head, learning a whole lot of other things - for example, about the many, many people who have had what look like very similar experiences.
I decided I'm going to go with being sane, that I encountered something. It's something that a lot of people encounter, all sorts of people. And I want to understand better what that is, what happens to us when we have these experiences and what, if anything, we are running into.
GROSS: What are some of your theories?
EHRENREICH: Well, I give speculations at the end of the book. You know, it helped that in the intervening years here I spent a great deal of time learning about religion and learning, for example, about the varieties of religion that preceded, and many survived, well into the age of monotheism.
And, you know, there's almost no creature that hasn't been a deity for some sort of people somewhere on Earth at some time: animals, animals/human figures - these deities generally are not good. That idea of a good deity tends to go with monotheism, or at least Zoroastrianism.
So there was apparently a lot of experiencing the world as alive in a way that we do not see it now. If you think of animism, it's called a religion, I think that's actually an odd name for it, but it's considered the most, quote, primitive religion. But what it is is people seeing the world as a living presence, every part of it, and that rings true with my experience.
So I think I was ready after learning a whole lot to come back to this subject with a much more fertile imagination.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Ehrenreich, who among other things is the author of the bestselling book "Nickel and Dimed." Her new book is called "Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Ehrenreich, who's written many books, including "Nickel and Dimed," the bestseller about working people, and her new book is a memoir called "Living with a Wild God" that is about experiences she had when she was a teenager that were kind of like inexplicable visions, visions that she kind of kept secret her whole life, but now she's tried to puzzle through and write about and make public.
You write in your book that thanks to my years of research into history, pre-history and theology, I was intellectually prepared, maybe as recently as a decade ago, to acknowledge the possible existence of conscious beings - gods, spirits, extraterrestrials - that normally elude our sense. So are you still prepared to acknowledge the possible existence of extraterrestrials?
EHRENREICH: Oh sure. You're not? I mean that's very rational. We have a whole search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI, going on. That's not at all strange. You know, they're constantly looking for more Earth-like planets out there or moons of Jupiter that have enough water to support life and so on.
GROSS: But then you say, you know, do I believe there exists invisible beings? And you say, no, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender. What do you mean by that?
EHRENREICH: Why believe when you can know? I mean, I don't believe in extraterrestrials. I am really curious. I want to find out. I'll say I don't believe in evolution; I'm more or less convinced by the evidence. But I would like to just put the whole idea of faith and belief away. Let's try to find out things.
Look, let me just say this about religions. The religions that fascinate me and, you know, could possibly tempt me are not the ones that involve faith or belief. They're the ones that offer you the opportunity to know the spirit or deity. And these are religions - well, I think most readily of West African derived religions, which involve ecstatic rituals, where people actually apprehend the spirit or the god or whatever that they are invoking and that they are trying to contact. I have respect for that, but don't ask me to believe anything.
GROSS: And does that have to do with being a scientist too, you know, that - because I think of your work as a scientist working on the cellular level, that you are studying things that are invisible to the naked eye, that you need special powers of perception through, you know, microscopes to even perceive the existence of. And you're dealing with this kind of crazy math that I don't understand. I mean you have to be really specialized to understand that.
So I mean, you're dealing with things beyond our powers of perception, but at the same time you're dealing with it really empirically. You're not dealing with it through, like, belief or sensation.
EHRENREICH: Right, and I think a very instructive historical model or analogy would be the germ theory of disease. Well into the 19th century, most Western scientists and physicians thought disease was caused by miasmas, mists, kind of invisible, insubstantial things, like a fog. Then Pasteur and others proposed that an awful lot of diseases are caused by the kind of tiny creatures that the first microscopes had revealed, creatures.
They were originally called animalcules, little animals, these bacteria. And who knew? Who knew they were there and that they were having an effect on our lives? In fact it's their world. They greatly outnumber us. They're much better adapted. They'll be around when we're not.
GROSS: Barbara Ehrenreich will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "Living with a Wild God." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Barbara Ehrenreich. She's best known for her books and essays about politics, social justice and women's issues. She wrote the best-seller "Nickel and Dimed," about the problems faced by low-wage workers. Her new book is a surprising departure. It's a memoir about the mystical experiences she had as a teenager, starting when she was 13. It's an especially surprising subject for a self-described rationalist, scientist by training and atheist. The memoir is called "Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything."
Now, you know, it's so interesting that as a teenager you perceived yourself as solipsistic, as kind of not really having evidence that other people were like you, that other people shared the same kind of perceptions you had and that had the same kind of consciousness you had. Not just to say that you were different, but that maybe other people didn't exist in the same way, which is a very almost alienated way to live. But then in your 20s, you became a political activist and a feminist. And you were all about, you know, like organizing and writing about other people and taking up causes that affected other people. That's a huge switch, I think, in terms of how you perceive yourself in relationship to other people.
EHRENREICH: Sure was. And again, you know, I would have to say that it was kind of an epiphany which occurred at a specific time, specific moment. The war in Vietnam was heating up, I was a graduate student now and one of my fellow graduate students who worked in the same the lab, a very, you know, we're friends. I came into the lab one night and he was sort of slumped over the bench and said, I don't see the point anymore. I'll be drafted and I have to go to Vietnam. And at that point, students could be drafted. And it just hit me like that, that there was some human power - some, you know, socially originating power that could come this close to my life, to this person who was a friend and snatch him up and put him in the jungles of a country I could not have located on the map to fight a people I knew nothing about.
It just overwhelmed me. I guess I was seeing suddenly and looking through his eyes and then from there all the way to South East Asia. And I discovered, you know, I joined the species - just like that. And that sounds kind of funny since I was at this point already a biologist. But this is my species, this is my tribe, we're in this together.
GROSS: Well, this was the very early days of the antiwar movement in the '60s. There wasn't, I don't think yet, a big movement to join, at least not one that you were aware of. So what did you do early on to protest the war and the draft?
EHRENREICH: Well, I'd like to think we started the movement. But, of course, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people were starting it in their settings. But I just said to my friend Jack, I said, this is terrible. It's got to be a mistake. Let's write a letter to the president.
EHRENREICH: You know, I was so irrational and naive. We did and, of course, we got back the letter saying, thank you for your interest. So I said to Jack, well, we must now get more signatures on a letter. Obviously, that didn't - this doesn't work, so it built from there. We started getting more signatures. Pretty soon there was a committee formed. Not long after I was hustle - going with my friends door-to-door, knocking on doors to talk about the war. So it happened pretty fast.
GROSS: What was it like for you to have worked so hard to become a scientist, completed your doctorate, right?
GROSS: And then, as soon as it's done, you head in a completely different direction. Instead of science, you're pursuing political activism and then the women's movement as well. You're organizing, you're writing. Did you feel like he devoted all these years to science for nothing?
EHRENREICH: No, I didn't. I don't at all regret. Yes. I mean, I wish - there's some things I wish I had studied more seriously but I had to study entirely on my own, like history, sociology or anthropology. But science shapes the way I see the world at every moment. I see still, you know, my idea of a good time is settle back with a new issue of Scientific American. I want to appreciate science. I want to read about it. I don't do it, though. I was not good in the lab. I'm too messy. I'm too impatient. So it's ideal for me to be a science appreciator.
GROSS: How did feminism enter the picture for you?
EHRENREICH: Well, it, that too was rather sudden. I was pregnant for the first time. The treatment I got, the prenatal care at a clinic, you know, for sort of poor people's clinic because I was just, we didn't make much money. I was just out of graduate school. And the treatment was beyond sexist. I didn't know that word, OK? Had no idea of that word. I just - I can remember having a pelvic examination with the head of the department toward the end of my pregnancy. And I said to the doctor, is the cervix effaced yet - effacing or whatever. And he said, he didn't speak to me. He looked at the nurse and he said, how a nice girl like this learned to use words like, learned to talk like that? And I just, you know, you SOB, you know, I have a Ph.D. in biology and you can't treat me like. Well, I didn't say that, of course, I was very humble. But that was one of the major clicks in my coming to awareness as a feminist.
GROSS: Well, you also write that the first time you were going to be married, you broke off the marriage, you know, before the actual wedding because you started to be concerned that you'd just turn into this kind of like domestic person who you didn't want to be. That's not the life that you wanted.
EHRENREICH: Yeah. There were a lot of reasons for breaking off that, that marriage. I was only 19. I was very much in love originally with this guy and then became less so. And as I faced the idea of actually, you know, living with somebody and no doubt being expected to be the one to do the dishes and cooking, uh-uh, not for me.
GROSS: You write that, you know, when you became a mother and you held a baby in your arms that the metaphysical question was settled. So getting back to the visions that you had when you were young, the questions that you asked about, like, what is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of this brief existence? How is all of that affected by becoming a mother?
EHRENREICH: Oh, no. All those things were not answered by becoming a mother at all. But what was settled was that I was not the only conscious human, OK? That was certainly clear. I had a little consciousness coming to life right in my arms. And no, it doesn't end the chain of questioning. I have to tell you that two, three years ago, when my granddaughter was 5 - only 5, she suddenly turned to me in her car seat and said, grandma, why are we alive? And I just said. ah, the quest goes on.
GROSS: What did you say to her?
EHRENREICH: You know, I started in on it, but her attention wandered pretty soon.
GROSS: It was a lucky break, no?
EHRENREICH: No, I said it in a way partly we're here to answer that question, you know, that's one of our jobs. But as I said, she was on to other things. But, no, the question goes on from person to person, generation to generation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Ehrenreich and her new memoir is called "Living with a Wild God." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Ehrenreich. She's written extensively about political and social issues and social justice from like, issues pertaining to working people to women's issues. She wrote the best-seller "Nickel and Dimed." Her new book takes a completely different turn. It's called "Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything." And it's focused around a few mystical experiences she had when she was a teenager and the decision in the past 10 years to try to investigate what did that really mean, and to read like religious history and philosophy, to try to put those experiences into some kind of context to help her understand it.
So I want to get back to your book and to its title. Your new book is titled "Living with a Wild God." What does that mean?
EHRENREICH: I thought it sounded good.
EHRENREICH: It was a chapter title and my editor said, oh no, that's good for the whole book. Gets me into a little trouble with people who think ah, she's backsliding; she's not an atheist anymore. I use the word God rather freely and metaphorically here with an emphasis on the wild. That there may be beings that we cannot normally see or measure with our instruments in any way that are nonetheless there but they're not benevolent. They're not watching over us. They're not concerned about how our diet is going or our career is going or anything like that, you know. They are utterly strange.
GROSS: And are they on the other hand not intentionally out to hurt us and undermine us?
EHRENREICH: I don't think so. I don't think we're the center of the universe.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So is that like the closest you've come to reaching a conclusion so far?
EHRENREICH: To say that there are, I would say based on my experience that there may well be other conscious beings or agents - let's put it that way - in the universe than ourselves and that they, we may occasionally contact them. I am ending though, with a call to try to figure this out more. Just because we don't know for sure that something is there is not a reason to search for it. Look how long the search went on for the Higgs boson. There was no guarantee that it would be found. And I think we have a phenomenon, a strange phenomenon. People have these unaccountable mystic experiences. Generally, they say nothing. Or they label it as God and get on with their lives. I'm saying, hey, no, let's find out what's going on here.
GROSS: Now that you've gone public about the experiences you had when you were a teenager that you describe as mystical experiences, what reactions have you gotten from friends, family, I don't know if it's too soon to have gotten reactions from book critics or not, readers?
EHRENREICH: Well, phew, I was nervous. I was nervous and fortunately, they liked it, my children. They're the biggest critics and judges I have. Now I'm getting responses from people and I'm talking about serious people, serious rational actually nonbelievers, people I know through my work, as well as total strangers who pop up and say, that is so much like my experience.
GROSS: So it was years ago, I think maybe in 2001, that you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
GROSS: And you've written a lot about that experience. And you've written very critically about some of the ways that breast cancer is handled, not so much medically but the kind of culture of...
EHRENREICH: Pink ribbons.
GROSS: Yeah, of pink ribbons. What bothers you about that?
EHRENREICH: Oh, Terry, it's so undignified. It's so insulting. You know, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was a woman of, you know, I was what? How old was I - 58? I was a grown-up. I did not, you know, I did not want to be patronized, patted on the head. I remember when I went in for the decisive mammogram, sitting around and waiting and reading an ad in the local newspaper, in the back of it, a classified ad for a pink breast cancer teddy bear. And I just about flipped out. You know, I am prepared to die. I think I'm quite, you know, calm about that but I am not dying with a pink teddy bear tucked under my arm.
GROSS: You also - when you started writing about this in 2001 you really hated the expression: I am a cancer survivor. I am a breast cancer survivor. What didn't you like about it then? And do you still feel as strongly about it now?
EHRENREICH: Oh, I do feel very strongly. I would never call myself a cancer survivor because I think it devalues those who do not survive. There's this whole mythology that people bravely battle their cancer and then they become survivors. Well, the ones who don't survive may be just as brave, you know, just as courageous, wonderful people. And I don't feel that I have any, you know, leg up on them.
GROSS: So, I mean, I'm wondering now if your understanding of mortality and the knowledge that, you know, eventually you're going to die is any different as a result of the kind of mystical experiences you had as a teenager and your recent in-depth analysis of those experiences. And in analyzing those experiences you've done so much reading about the history of religion. In fact, this new memoir was originally supposed to be a book about the history of religion. So has all of this affected how you see death?
EHRENREICH: Oh, yes. My death is incidental and I worry very much about my loved ones and, you know, would like to make it as easy as possible for them. Or wish I could will away whatever, you know, the sadness they will feel when I die. But for me, nothing. The world goes on. When once you see that the - once you have the sense of a living presence of a world that lives, your own personal death doesn't really mean much.
GROSS: What about suffering? Are you worried about suffering?
EHRENREICH: Can I go straight to the palliative care?
EHRENREICH: No. I mean, most of the suffering I see comes from people's lives being hideously prolonged with chemotherapy and radiation and horrible treatments. I say now just bring on the drugs, whatever.
GROSS: Well, Barbara Ehrenreich, good luck with the book, and with people's reactions to it.
EHRENREICH: It's a challenge.
GROSS: Yeah, I'm sure it is, because your other books have been about, like, righteous causes. You know? Like getting a good day's pay for your work, equality for women, a feminist's understanding of women's health, and now you're writing about, you know, the unknowable.
EHRENREICH: Not unknowable. I refuse to leave it as unknowable. I've got to know. Yeah. It's a huge switch. I think all my other books kind of ended with one form or another telling people to march on city hall or march on Washington.
EHRENREICH: And not this. This is more like reporting. I had to tell you this.
GROSS: And there's no place to march.
EHRENREICH: And there's no place to march.
GROSS: Barbara Ehrenreich, thank you so much.
EHRENREICH: Oh, you're welcome. It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Barbara Ehrenreich's new memoir is called "Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer's Search for the Truth about Everything." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.