Living with a Wild God: A Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich on writing, social activism, and the possible existence of a mystical Other
In the late 1990s, Barbara Ehrenreich had a lunch conversation with former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham and suggested that the magazine send a reporter to investigate the effects of welfare reform on the working poor. Lapham replied, “You!” and Ehrenreich, who had been a journalist for decades but never before gone “undercover,” subsequently spent three months working variously as a housekeeper, a waitress, a nursing-home aide, and a Walmart cashier. She chronicled the experience in her January 1999 article “Nickel-and-Dimed” and a bestselling 2001 book. In her latest book, Living with a Wild God (out in April and excerpted in the March issue of Harper’s), she describes her adolescent experiences of mysticism, which culminated at age seventeen while she was camping in Lone Pine, California. After a night spent sleeping in a car, she went for a morning walk in the woods and felt the presence of another being — she later said she “saw God” — then spent the next several decades ignoring the experience and hoping it wouldn’t recur.
I’ve long felt an affinity for Ehrenreich, owing not only to her superb writing but also to certain similarities I thought we shared. We were both born to working-class parents in western “B” towns — me in Boise, Idaho; her in Butte, Montana, where her father worked as a copper miner before rising to management and moving the family to New England. We also both earned science degrees from Reed College in Portland, Oregon — she graduated in 1963 with a degree in physics, then completed a Ph.D. in cellular immunology at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, before becoming a social activist and eventually a writer. We chatted recently via telephone about writing, social activism, and the possible existence of a mystical Other.
It’s somewhat surprising that you’ve come to believe you had a mystical experience, given that you’re a former scientist and a lifelong atheist. Weren’t you repelled by the idea of an “Other”? Is that why you didn’t address these episodes for so long?
Well, at the time I would have said, “No, what are you talking about? There are no gods. What could that be? Obviously what happened is that you had some kind of breakdown.” I was very rational about it. And it took me decades to say, “No, I saw something. There was something other than myself there. And I’m going to take that seriously as some sort of empirical evidence, or clue, or glimpse.”
What would you attribute those experiences to now? If you saw something there in Lone Pine, what was that thing?
That’s the question. In my religious-history studies I immersed myself for a while in the writing of mostly Christian mystics. And most of them say “Yes this was God, this was Jesus, this was whatever,” but then there is also running through it a strong sense that whatever it was was so strange that it doesn’t actually fit into their notion of a monotheistic god.
The other thing that had pushed me toward being willing to say it was an encounter with some kind of other is the critique of science I was developing, for refusing to acknowledge the consciousness or agency of nonhuman animals, for example. Up until the Eighties, to say “I don’t want to do this experiment by killing mice and rabbits because they have feelings and are thinking creatures” would have been nuts. But now science has crept over to a point of view that nonhuman animals are often very intelligent — I would say conscious. They have feelings, they have culture, in some cases they do art. And that created a whole other idea of the universe. Whereas if there is only one mind, which is ours — or two minds, ours and that great monotheistic point-of-light type of god — that’s pretty lonely.
We as a species seem to have a lot invested in maintaining our singularity. We’re basically fine with ascribing those qualities to other people, but that’s about as far as we’ll go.
That’s one of the points that I make, that it’s expected and normal for me to think that you are a conscious being like myself with feelings — although all I know is that you are a voice on a telephone, possibly computer-generated. But that would be insane, right, for me to think that? So if we’re willing to take the mental leap to imagine our conspecifics as conscious other beings, why can’t we do that occasionally for other sorts of living things?
There is great revulsion toward accepting the consciousness of other creatures.
It’s more than revulsion. It’s a fantastic amount of hubris. And this is very much tied to the rise of monotheism. Before that there were a lot of animal gods, and female gods, and all sorts of things — the world was much more alive — and then they all get crushed. There can only be one deity who is perfect and who resembles us. And what kind of megalomaniac egotism comes to that idea? The whole thing, invented for us. A mass, collective solipsism.
I had had these various personal experiences when I was an adolescent, and had never talked about them. And I started thinking, you know, maybe I could use some of this in a history of religion. And my agent said no, the personal stuff is fascinating. So it got somewhat inverted, and the historical context got mobilized to be background for what is more a philosophical memoir. That’s my excuse for writing something as vain as a memoir.
You quote a lot from the journal you kept as a teenager, in which you were repeatedly drawn to deep philosophical reflections — at one point writing that you knew only two things: that you existed, and that you knew nothing. What drew you to these questions at such a young age?
I decided when I was twelve that I needed to know why. I needed to know what is going on here. And I thought it would take me just a few months, with really clear, logical thinking. I was on this mission to truly understand everything in the universe, which is nuts. But I think most of us ask these sorts of questions when we’re young. And most of us just get the answer “God — taken care of, shut up, God.” But if you don’t get that answer or don’t believe that answer, you can be tormented — until you reach that magic point known as maturity. That’s when you stop asking the big questions, stop being tormented, get married, get a mortgage. Or at least we used to in the old days.
Now you just get student loans.
Now you just get student loans. It’s all up for grabs again. There’s no point in maturing.
You’ve done so much great investigative reporting over the past few decades, among the histories and essays — and now you’ve turned to memoir. Are you still working on journalistic projects?
I’m doing something one step removed. I started a project a couple of years ago that attempts to raise money to support starving journalists, which is an awful lot of them, to do reporting on issues related to poverty. It’s called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. So I work with other reporters to generate journalism. It’s part of reproducing myself, I suppose.
How has that been going?
Well, the difficulty is in raising money — convincing foundations that a lot of journalists are in precisely the conditions we want reporting on.
How did the project come about?
In 2009 I approached the New York Times to write a series of reported essays about the effect of the recession on people who were already struggling. And they were quite generous with space for me, but not with money. And I realized somewhere early on that I probably was not even going to make my expenses. And my second thought was, well, I don’t care, I’ll spend six months on this and not earn any money. I can do that. Third thought: This is nuts. Does this mean that the only people who can write about poverty are people who have enough money and savings to do it for free, practically? That’s when I decided on this project.
Amid your move from science to activism, and then to social-science research in the 1970s, when did you come to realize that writing was the thing you wanted to do?
It didn’t happen immediately. I got my Ph.D. in cellular immunology and then sort of walked out of science. I got a movement job, as we called them, a very low-paid activist-type job advocating for better health care for low-income people in New York. And we had a newsletter, and I turned out to really enjoy editing and writing. But it still took me a few years before I realized that’s what I had to put down on my IRS form. My big breakthrough was sometime in the late Seventies, with a story I did in Ms. magazine, an investigative piece [debunking a faddish theory that feminism led to heart disease], and they made it the cover story. But it was very different in the old days — you could make a living as a freelance journalist if you hustled, and I don’t think you can do that anymore.
It is sort of the lost dream. But it’s still so important to have people go in and look at what’s actually happening on the ground.
We are trying to promote that kind of journalism. We’ve got some good things in the works. We had a guy who worked as a day laborer for warehouses, and that was a great piece. And we have a guy who was a very successful journalist until he lost his job, and now he works in a retail store for $10/hour. And he’s describing all the humiliations, the pat-downs when you come into work, or go out for a two-minute break.
Like you, I come from a very different class background than most of the people I met at college and beyond. And I often feel like the people I encounter in the publishing world here in New York just don’t have a clue about what it’s like to be poor.
No, they tend to be very insulated, very class-insulated. I just bang my head against this all the time as a journalist and now as somebody trying to deal with editors to get other people’s stuff out. Responses like, “Oh, no, we had a piece about poverty two years ago.”
It seems like poverty is looked at as kind of an indistinct problem — there’s only one experience of it, there’s only one story to tell — whereas every other part of the world is rich with possibility and stories and angles.
Right. Yeah. What we emphasize in this project is that poverty is produced. And once somebody starts falling into poverty, they tend to get poorer and poorer, because there are so many vultures preying on them.
When you were preparing to go into these communities yourself, did you have apprehensions that you might set yourself up as a kind of an ambassador to the working class?
No, I don’t think that would be a way of thinking that would be available to me, because it’s not a separate world. My family and social life is pretty intertwined with people in those situations.
So it didn’t feel like taking a voyage into another world?
It was not an alien world to me in a social sense. And in fact I fit in very well, suspiciously well. The first bookstore appearance I had for Nickel and Dimed was in Key West, which is where I had been living. And a woman came up to me and said, “I was working at Denny’s when you were” — it’s not called Denny’s in the book — and she said, “I remember seeing you when you were there for your interview, and saying to myself, ‘That woman is hiding something.’ ” And I said, “Oh yeah, what did you think it was?” You know, expecting her to say, “Well, I could tell you were really a highly educated, sophisticated sort of person.” She said, “I thought you were just out of jail or a shelter.”
And did you find that you had to alter your behavior much to fit in?
No. Most of what you do in a job is work. So I had to struggle at each job not to let my coworkers down by screwing up. Most of them were women, and when we talked it was generally about things like men and children and health. If you don’t have health insurance, you’re getting a lot of information from other people like yourself. And using a lot of painkillers.
What was the original source of your interest in issues relating to class and women’s rights?
I don’t know. All those things were swirling together in the Sixties and Seventies. I was kind of skeptical of feminism until about 1970, when I had my first baby and had a prolonged exposure to medical care, specifically lower-class clinic care. And I was enraged, just enraged at the sexism. And then one thing led to another.
What exactly about feminism were you skeptical of?
In my first exposures to feminism — it seemed, it’s kind of funny to say, but it seemed a little elite. I was a mother of two small children in suburban — but not wealthy — Long Island. And the feminists were these very intimidating gals in Manhattan who argued forever. And I remember going to a couple of meetings, and just thinking, “Oh shit, this is beyond me.”
And what happened at the clinic?
I’ll give you an example. Toward the end of the pregnancy, I got a pelvic examination by the head of the obstetrics department at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. And after he did it he said, “Oh, you’re coming along,” or something like that. And I said, “The cervix is getting to be effaced?” And he looked at the nurse, not at me, and said, “Where did such a nice girl ever learn to talk like that?” And I just thought, “Fuck you. I’m a Ph.D. in biology. We look down on people like you.” I was just shaking. You know, I had had a certain amount of intellectual self-confidence. And wham, I was meat.