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Soul searching

Atheist journalist gets personal on spiritual odyssey

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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. Despite their parental shortcomings, the author continued to uphold her family's 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 the end of a busy life of muckraking and progressive politics? Ehrenreich undertook this spiritual odyssey after unearthing 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8:16 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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