In the late 1990s, Barbara Ehrenreich had a lunch conversation with formerHarper’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?
Online interviews with Barbara
Barbara Ehrenreich on The Connection, WBUR radio. Listen to the full show or excerpts.
Read a transcript of Barbara’s interview with Alternativeradio.org
The Atlantic‘s James Fallows exchanged letters with Barbara
Society’s Failure: A Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich from On The Page Magazine
Life on Minimum Wage audio from Radio Nation
Low-Wage Trade, interview with Lauren Sandler in the Village Voice
Interview with Robert Birnbaum at Identity Theory
Audio interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air
Society’s Failure, an interview with Zo Francesca with On the Page magazine
Trapped by low wages, an interview with Elizabeth Lalasz of Socialist Worker
Interview with Noel Murray of The Onion
Life on six bucks an hour, an interview with Rachel Cooke in The Observer