A Nonbeliever’s Mystical Experience

Unable to discuss a mystical experience that occurred during her youth, Barbara Ehrenreich begins to explore the event in "Living with a Wild God."


| July 2014



Mystical experiences

An account of a mystical experience will likely get the same response as confiding that you had been the victim of an alien abduction. Both involve encounters with beings whose existence is not universally acknowledged.

Photo by iStock/agsandrew

A brave, frank and exquisitely written memoir that will change the way you see the world. From bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich, Living With a Wild God (Twelve, 2014), reconstructs her childhood quest to find the ‘Truth’ about the universe and everything else. A young girl’s obsession with the questions that torment us all are analyzed with the wry perspective of an older woman to create a cosmically sweeping reflection on science, religion and the human condition. The following excerpt from the Foreword introduces Ehrenreich’s mystical experience.

In the spring of 2001, I was presented with the unnerving task of assembling my papers for storage in a university library. The timing of this forced review of my life, or at least its paper vestiges, could not have been more viciously appropriate, since I was in the midst of treatment for breast cancer and facing the possibility of a somewhat earlier death than seemed fair for anyone as fit and outdoorsy as myself. A librarian had come down from Cambridge to help, and we spread the stacks of papers out on the largest available surface—the pool table that had been left behind on the screened-in porch by a departed boyfriend. There were the drafts of unpublished manifestos, notebooks filled with jottings on human history and evolution, polemical exchanges on the relationship between feminism and other social movements, a few diplomas and awards for academic achievements, and a small trove of letters from long-gone lovers.

I felt very little curiosity about these items or even much sense of ownership. If you had asked me whether my life so far had any narrative arc or even consistent themes, I would have had to say no, not that I could make out. It seemed to me I had spent a lot of time careening from one thing to another—from science to journalism, for example, and from journalism to the manic scholarship on display in my more historical works, not to mention the different romantic relationships and the many oscillations between activism and quiet study. I had—and still have—no inclination to try to patch this all together into a single story. I will never write an autobiography, nor am I sure, after all these years, that there is even one coherent “self” or “voice” to serve as narrator.

The impetus for packing off the papers was simply the climate in the lower Florida Keys, where I was living at the time, and which is, over the long run, fatally hostile to paper of any kind. When the library approached me I had been disappointed that they weren’t offering any money, because I hadn’t received a very munificent advance for my forthcoming book, Nickel and Dimed, and had in the course of the illness resorted to borrowing money from friends. But if a distinguished library wanted to provide an air-conditioned, dehumidified dwelling place for these fragments and notes, fine. I figured that maybe someday—if civilization, represented by universities and libraries, endured long enough—a future graduate student might find something of interest in the boxes we were rapidly filling, say for a dissertation on little-known aspects of the grassroots intellectual ferment within the feminist movement of the seventies.

There was only one thing I held back from the outgoing cardboard boxes—a thick reddish folder or envelope of the old-fashioned kind, tied by a string. It had survived for about forty-eight years through god knows how many moves from state to state and one apartment to another. In all that time I had never opened it and never mentioned or referred to it. But somehow I had always remembered to pack it in the bottom of a suitcase, no matter how chaotic the circumstances of the move. Future graduate students could snicker over my love affairs and political idealism if they were so minded, but they could not have this.

The folder contains a kind of journal, though it is really only an intermittent series of entries, each on a separate piece of paper, from the years 1956 to 1966, and mostly from the first three of those years, starting when I was fourteen. What impelled me to hold it back from the tomb that was about to swallow all the other paper remnants of my life was the prospect of mortality—though not my own mortality as a fifty-nine-year-old woman with a full, productive life behind her. In fact, if you’re not prepared to die when you’re almost sixty, then I would say you’ve been falling down on your philosophical responsibilities as a grown-up human being. As for the manner of my death, I would have preferred to start swimming out across the Gulf at dusk, which is shark feeding time, and was still hoping to squeeze that in, should the cancer take a turn for the worse.