Barbara Ehrenreich earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before achieving recognition for her writing on contemporary social issues (Nickel and Dimed; Bright-Sided). Her work has always reflected the rigors of science combined with her own empirical experience. Those qualities inform Living with a Wild God, a breathtaking and unsettling account of her lifelong search for meaning.
Ehrenreich, with dysfunctional alcoholic parents and boasting a precocious intellect, began keeping a journal at 14. She wrote to understand "the point of our brief existence here" but also to make sense of the dissociative episodes she had begun to experience, which culminated in an inexplicable encounter that challenged her atheism. Years later, she returned to those adolescent brushes with the mystical and her existential query.
The result is not quite autobiography and not quite rigorous philosophical inquiry, though it borrows from both. She examines the role of experience in whom we become; the line between routine dissociation and mental illness; and the insights of poets, spiritual leaders and other thinkers on alternate ways of understanding. She is fearlessly willing to reveal intimate observations; anger and grief over the inhumanity of her childhood infuse her narrative, as does her complicated love for her father. But the routine details of autobiography--romances, marriages, accomplishments--are missing in deference to the more personal story of her quest.
Ehrenreich doesn't give up her atheism but gradually allows for the possibility of experiences that defy science. Her conclusion will surprise and unsettle many of her readers, and it is a testament to her unsparing honesty that she makes it unapologetically. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer