SOUL search­ing

Athe­ist jour­nal­ist gets per­sonal on spir­i­tual odyssey

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

JOUR­NAL­IST Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich is best known for her riv­et­ing book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Get­ting By in Amer­ica. This award-win­ning ex­posé of Amer­ica’s work­ing poor de­scribes how the un­der­cover jour­nal­ist sur­vived on min­i­mum wage for three months. It was a Clin­ton-era take on Ge­orge Or­well’s so­cial­ist clas­sic Down and Out in Lon­don and Paris. It blew the lid off re­gres­sive wel­fare re­form. In her lat­est book, Ehren­re­ich leaves be­hind the daily grind to ex­plore the ephe­meral. Liv­ing with a Wild God is a ra­tio­nal­ist’s search for a higher, spir­i­tual truth. It’s a rad­i­cal de­par­ture for the non-fic­tion jour­nal­ist and is her most per­sonal book thus far. The au­thor of 14 books is a fourth-gen­er­a­tion athe­ist who re­veals that she was raised by a pair of un­re­pen­tant al­co­holics.ic De­spite their parental short­com­ings,in the au­thor con­tin­ued to up­hold her fam­ily’sf com­mit­ment to athe­is­tic be­liefs. “The one place I never thought to look for an­swers was re­li­gion,” she writes in the first chap­ter. What prompted this in­tro­spec­tion at thet end of a busy life of muck­rak­ing and pro­gres­sivep pol­i­tics? Ehren­re­ich un­der­tookto this spir­i­tual odyssey af­ter un­earthinge her teenage diary, the only sub­stan­tial piece of writ­ing that re­mained af­ter her home in Su­gar Loaf Key, Fla. was de­stroyed by hur­ri­cane Wilma. As a teen, she was on a mis­sion to “dis­cover the pur­pose of life,” an earnest aim she con­cedes good-na­turedly was a bit of a con­ver­sa­tion-hal­ter. Ehren­re­ich is a gifted writer who em­ploys some deft nar­ra­tive strate­gies, no doubt bor­rowed from im­pas­sioned con­verts and lost souls. Liv­ing with a Wild God fits awk­wardly into the genre of con­ver­sion nar­ra­tives in the same vein as Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Mug­geridge’s Con­ver­sion or Saint Au­gus­tine’s Con­fes­sions. It was St. Au­gus­tine who ut­tered Chris­tian­ity’s best one-liner: “Oh God, save me from my sins... but not just yet.” “What have you learned since you wrote this?” her younger self asks Ehren­re­ich, who feels com­pelled to re­spond in kind. What fol­lows is an en­gag­ing and painful story of parental ne­glect, in­tro­ver­sion and an un­wel­come spir­i­tual awak­en­ing. Like all good pil­grims, the an­swer to her ques­tion comes in the form of a hair-rais­ing “vi­sion” of God in Lone Pine, Calif. For the re­main­ing chap­ters, this off­spring of an up­wardly mo­bile cop­per miner-turned-white-col­lar sci­en­tist and his em­bit­tered wife uses logic to un­ravel the mys­tery: was she men­tally ill or did she re­ally see divin­ity first-hand? While she’s no Saint Teresa, avert­ing blow­back from the Catholic Church for her hal­lu­ci­na­tory vi­sions, Ehren­re­ich did face a pos­si­ble sec­u­lar in­qui­si­tion from her athe­ist par­ents. Ehren­re­ich con­cedes that her up­bring­ing left her vul­ner­a­ble to the neg­a­tive ef­fects of so­cial isolation: “As a fam­ily, we were de­signed for fric­tion­less mo­bil­ity with no com­pet­ing long-term bonds — to friends, for ex­am­ple, or com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions — that might have di­luted our de­pen­dency on each other, as ei­ther an­tag­o­nists or po­ten­tial al­lies and sources of ap­proval.” The young “prophet” rec­og­nizes that a God sight­ing would have been re­ceived with mock­ery and dis­gust at the fam­ily din­ner ta­ble, so she keeps mum about her Lone Pine epiphany. Where does an athe­ist go for spir­i­tual in­struc­tion? “If I had com­pleted my quest and found ‘the truth,’ the mo­ment of com­plete and ra­di­ant com­pre­hen­sion, then there was not much point in hang­ing around ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional sat­is­fac­tion pro­vided by a good book or a sur­pris­ing chemical factoid. And if I could not claim to have com­pleted my quest, since ob­vi­ously I was un­able to re­port what I had found, then how was I sup­posed to pro­ceed?” There’s an es­sen­tial lone­li­ness at the heart of this mem­oir. Many read­ers will iden­tify with Ehren­re­ich’s out­sider quest for self-knowl­edge, dig­nity and per­sonal au­ton­omy. Liv­ing with a Wild God is a tes­ta­ment to her fierce cu­rios­ity, sur­vival in­stincts and fear­less ex­plo­ration of life’s most com­plex ques­tions. Pa­tri­cia Dawn Robertson first dis­cov­ered Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich via her clas­sic women’s health book, Witches, Mid­wives and Nurses: A

His­tory of Women Heal­ers.

ANDREW SHURTL­EFF / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich’s teenage diary sparked the jour­nal­ist’s pil­grim­age.

Liv­ing with a Wild God: A Non­be­liever’s Search for the Truth About Ev­ery­thing

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