By Barbara Ehrenreich, from Living with a Wild God, out next month from Twelve. Ehrenreich, a longtime contributor to Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books, including, most recently, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.
I remember perfectly well the first time it happened. My mother had determined that we should do something “as a family” on Sunday afternoons, a domestic-management strategy she had gleaned from the women’s magazines. On this particular Sunday, our destination was a horse show in the town of Hamilton, Massachusetts. I could not tell you what was supposed to happen there to warrant the word “show,” since neither the animals nor the humans in attendance offered the slightest promise of entertainment. No one in the family had any interest in horses, either as aesthetic objects or as a means of transportation. The sole attraction for my father was the chance to sneer at the local gentry, who intruded on our lives, in classic feudal fashion, as landlords. There are some photos of the occasion still in my sister’s possession, showing her, about four years old at the time, toddling through the grass, and my mother sitting at a picnic table, looking off glumly to the side. I had wandered off and was leaning on a fence, staring at the woods in the pale late-summer sunlight, feeling nothing but impatience.
And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, and words. If anyone had asked, I would have said I was looking at a tree, but the word “tree” was gone, along with all the notions of treeness that had accumulated in the dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance — the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, but I was alarmed to discover that when you take away all human attributions — the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action — that when you take all this away, there is still something left.
I snapped out of it soon enough. The faces were reapplied to the heads of my family members; the trees crept back into the woods; we reassembled for the drive home. After what I remember as a muted dinner, probably because I wasn’t listening, I went up to the bedroom I shared with my sister. On my bedside table lay, as usual, The Pocket Book of Verse, with Longfellow reminding me, in a poem I could still recite at the time without irony, that “life is real! life is earnest!” More to my taste was “Ozymandias,” in which Shelley took death and futility head-on and still managed to emerge with human dignity intact. And here was Whitman, page after page of him, tremulous with desire in the lilac-scented night. They were just doing their job, these poets, which is really the job of all of us — to keep applying coat upon coat of human passion and grandiosity to the world around us, trying to cover up whatever it is that lies underneath.
I decided that evening that whatever I had experienced at the horse show had to be an aberration, like the retinal floaters that sometimes intruded on my vision after I’d been in the car too long on a hot, bright day. A chronic insomniac since grade school, I often read at night until I was too tired to read anymore and then lay there in terror of being caught awake by the dawn. Sleep deprivation does odd things to the mind, and this must be one of them, I thought — except it kept happening, and it gained legitimacy through repetition. I might be in school, concentrating on Latin conjugations or logarithmic tables, and suddenly notice my fingers holding the pencil and realize I was looking at a combination of yellow and pink, of straight and curved, that had never been seen before and never would be seen again by anyone in the universe, and with that realization, all that was familiar would drain out of the world around me. Or I might look up from a book to find a patch of sunlight pulsing on the floor and feel it leap up to challenge the solidity of the entire scene. Or I might be in the midst of a conversation with a friend when “without warning my sense of reality changed,” as I wrote in my journal, and my friend’s “image and voice and presence along with everything else seemed to slip like water off a sheet of glass.”
I struggled to identify precipitating factors — if not physiological, then atmospheric. Nothing untoward seemed to happen at night or if it was raining or the sky was overcast, which meant that at those times I was usually insulated or, as I was also coming to see it, locked out. Why sunlight was so important I still don’t know. I have read that some odd mental states can be triggered by strobes, but in my case none are required. When the sun, especially the afternoon sun, slants at a certain angle or refracts through venetian blinds or bounces off walls of brick — well, there’s not much I can do but wait quietly and see what’s going to be revealed.
I had no rubric under which to store these things; the phrase “altered states of consciousness” would not enter the mainstream for another decade, and the notion of “mental illness” did not cross my mind until a few years later. If I had any literary reference point in that first year, it was Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, whose epileptic fits were preceded by flashes of lucidity, which were intriguing enough but hardly analogous to my experience, seeming to involve, as they did, obscure insights into Christianity and Russian nationalism. So I came up with my own explanation, patched together from the fragments of psychology I had picked up at the Lowell Public Library, which suggested that the most routine perception requires an impressive creative effort. Photons don’t just stamp a little image on the visual cortex, captioned with a word like tree. You have to do some work — comparing one pattern of neuronal firing to another, sifting through the stored images that are your memories until you have a match, and so forth. From a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in as colors and lights and sound, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.
I wasn’t ready, however, to abandon the idea that I had gained a glimpse into some alternative realm or dimension. In science fiction there were always multiple worlds to travel between by rocket ship or subtler technologies, and science itself held alternative dimensions, folded up and hidden within our own world. So one way to imagine what was going on was to think of it as another universe, normally invisible, but every so often, where the dividing membrane had worn thin, shining through into our own. I was lucky enough to have some intermittent access to this place, albeit not at my own volition.
There is a word for the episodes I was experiencing, though it was not available to me at the time: “dissociation,” described in the psychiatric literature as “feeling unreal” (either that one is unreal or that the world around one is unreal, if those two conditions can even be distinguished). If the episodes of dissociation happen often enough, they achieve the status of “dissociative disorders,” which may be accompanied by a variety of other symptoms, including emotional numbness, depression, or amnesia, none of which afflicted me. In the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, dissociative disorder is described as a general cognitive breakdown, “a disruption . . . in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, [or] perception.” In other words, one of these areas is not working correctly. I suspected even at the time that my episodes of dissociation in some way constituted a punishable offense. Prince Myshkin ended up back in the sanatorium, didn’t he? And there was no shortage of mental hospitals in Massachusetts in the 1950s, menacing, dark brick buildings designed to enclose the people who refused to do what was expected of them or who said things that didn’t make sense. This was a few years before my mother and her sister Jean underwent their stints — voluntary or otherwise — in mental wards, for what we would call today depression, which was endemic at the time among housewives. But I did remember a particularly vacant-looking neighbor who, my mother explained, had been subjected to shock treatment because she hadn’t been making dinner or cleaning the house — tasks that presumably became much more manageable once the neuronal circuitry had been jolted back into submission.
Nothing like that could happen to me, because I did everything that was expected of me and did it fairly well. I set my hair nightly in the metal curlers my mother provided me with. I was up every morning with homework completed, appropriately dressed and ready for school. I babysat three or four times a week and spent most of my earnings on LPs — classical with an occasional venture into jazz — and subscriptions to sci-fi periodicals. But if I never imagined myself qualifying for incarceration, I did worry about committing what amounted to treason where my family was concerned. Human beings are connected not only by love and loyalty — or by neurotic symbiosis and material dependency — but also by our joint agreement about the “real.” It’s what we share — the rock there by my foot, that little white cloud in the sky — amounting in sum to the grand project of “empirical reality.”
There was one time when I badly wanted to talk about my perceptual excursions. In the fall of 1956, I had an argument with my friend Bernice during one of our Latin tutoring sessions. Bernice was not automatically seen by the school as college material; she lacked the hereditary credentials I’d been granted by virtue of my father’s white-collar status. Her parents ran a tiny coffee shop in downtown Lowell, above which the family made their home and where she and I often copped a free doughnut before school. She was good enough company for about an hour a day, but we were friends mainly by default, since Lowell High School culture was segregated into the Irish, the “French” (-Canadian), and a tiny handful of Jews, none of whom made me welcome at their lunch tables. This left me with the Greeks, like Bernice, who in their own way were outsiders, too, and when she determined to win a place in the “academic track” by mastering Latin — the language of her nation’s ancient conquerors, I couldn’t help noticing — I offered to help.
Our dispute arose over the declension of the Latin word deus, when I emphasized — completely unnecessarily and pedantically, I admit — its plural as well as feminine forms. At least to the Romans, “god” was not some singular point of light but a whole category of beings, and none of them qualified as moral exemplars: Jupiter with his rages, Juno with her petty jealousies, Venus with her vanity. I may have needled Bernice a bit, out of sheer intellectual wickedness, for trading in the colorful polytheistic tradition of Ancient Greece for this ghostly abstraction of a God she wanted me to “believe” in.
She struck back with surprising vehemence, her dark-brown eyes hard with reproof: It wasn’t just that atheists were immoral; they were “shallow” and trapped in the commonplace. Banality, that was the problem with atheists — and as she said this I could feel banality weighing down on me. I reached for the only weapon that came to hand — the flabby, soft-minded notion of the “spiritual,” a concept that would embrace both her religion and my adventures in perception, both the incense-driven mystery of the Orthodox rite and the stark beauty of the place that lay beyond words. There are spiritual insights, I told Bernice, that have nothing to do with religion.
Oh yeah, she wanted to know, what are they? If I had these supposed “spiritual insights,” could I recount or explain them?
No, of course I couldn’t — later writing that “I could not would not shall not tell her.”
I ceded the fight to Bernice, who went home in triumph, leaving me, still steaming, to ask my mother, who was busy in the kitchen making dinner, could something be true but not explainable? Of course not, she said. If you can’t explain something it isn’t true and has no basis in fact — which I took to mean that, in her view, all human experience maps perfectly to Webster’s Dictionary. What isn’t in there isn’t real. Everything that humans can experience has already been named, alphabetized, and stored in a single volume, supplemented by the Encyclopedia Americana. I concluded that there is an entire category of experience that is not suited to intraspecies communication, so you are advised to keep it to yourself. “Everyone,” I observed in my journal, “thinks he or she is unique and likes to think that he possesses great powers of perception and is of uncommonly profound nature.” For the religious, God was the ticket, “the final superiority that humans can conceive for their selfish delight.”
But where did I get my edge from, my sense of being special, or, as we would later say, my “self-esteem”? Certainly not from being more beautiful, more athletic, or smarter than other people, although I acknowledged I was a little smarter than many. No, it was from the “very important things” I knew, or inferred, from my unique access to the world as it “really” was — things that even my genius father did not seem to know, and I was not going to share them with “any old clod” like Bernice.
Go to the “Depersonalization Community” at dpselfhelp.com, and you’ll find one report after another of agonizing detachment, failed treatments, and long slow slogs back to a shaky “normality.” Self-identified victims of “DPD” have radically different reactions to dissociation than I did. Was I exempted from the menace of pathology simply by my ignorance about mental illness? I don’t know, but what they seek to cure, I took as a special privilege. If I needed anything from the grown-up world, it was not some concerned professional to interrogate my feelings and direct my metaphysics toward a presumably healthier and more productive path. On the whole, despite family tensions, social isolation, the ongoing horror of puberty, and occasional philosophical despair, I was not unhappy, or if I was, I did not see fit to write about it. There was too much going on for that, too much to find out and absorb, and emotions were not my natural beat. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by the aesthetic runoff from adolescence — the shameless beauty of the world, regenerated each day as if by magic, without any help from me. Lowell, all coppery in the winter sunrise, looked “like a Sumerian city on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates,” while the junior girls’ calisthenics class was a “dance of priestesses of the sun.” “These things fascinate me,” I wrote when I was sixteen:
bees, straight lines, the ocean, the idea that every word is an example of onomatopoeia (sp?), the music of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Borodin, Ravel, Debussy, ancient Egypt, other planets, the idea that the stars as I see them are not only trillions of miles away but are millennia ago and may no longer be there, Greenland, people and everything else. I like the line “alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea.”
If this was mental illness, or even just a particularly clinical case of adolescence, I was bearing up pretty well.