When Barbara Ehrenreich considered writing a book about the history of religion, she knew the subject might seem strange coming from a lifelong atheist.
“I have never been stopped by the fact that a subject is new to me,” said the social critic and author of more than 20 books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed.
But she did have a point of reference from her youth that she thought would fit.
“I wanted to work into it somehow that I didn’t understand, but I respected the ... ineffable experience that seems to make some people religious,” Ehrenreich said in an interview from her home in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s not alien to me.”
After some prodding from her agent — and with the help of a decades-old journal — Ehrenreich turned the idea of a broad exploration of religious history into a personal story. Living with a Wild God (Twelve, $26) explores a period of a couple of years from the author’s youth that were marked by breaks with reality, strange sightings and plenty of soul-searching.
The author’s early life was unsettled: The family moved frequently for her father’s work in science and then management, settling finally in Los Angeles. Both parents drank heavily; Ehrenreich’s mother eventually committed suicide.
Ehrenreich started keeping her journal in 1956, when she was 14. Initially, her entries are filled with musings on the drudgery of typing practice, school literature assignments and ideas about science. But bigger questions nagged: Why do we exist? What is the purpose of life? One particularly bleak entry: “I have lately been considering the utter futility of the lives of almost every living thing.”
A year earlier, during a weekend family trip to a horse show, she had experienced her first disassociative episode. She wrote: “Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words.”
Such experiences started to happen more frequently — usually prompted by sunlight — culminating in an event in 1959 that she described in the book as “so strange, so cataclysmic that I never in all the intervening years wrote or spoke about it.”
Ehrenreich was on her way home from a spring ski trip in Northern California with a high school acquaintance and her younger brother. After spending the night sleeping in their car in the town of Lone Pine, she wandered out in search of a bathroom.
Exhausted, her blood sugar low and stress level high, the 17-year-old came face to face with something she could neither describe nor explain. “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it,” she wrote.
She could not figure how to speak of the encounter. “What would I have said?” she wrote. “That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angels — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?”
So Ehrenreich avoided the topic, regretting the one or two times she tried to bring it up. She assumed her encounter was the result of a brief bout of mental illness. Even in therapy years later to help her cope with a difficult divorce, she did not mention the incident.
“I never thought of talking to the therapist about this because I thought she’d think I was nuts,” she said.
The experiences stopped when she started attending Reed College in Portland, Oregon, later that year, thanks in part to the general lack of sunny weather. Ehrenreich threw herself into science studies, embarking on a path that earned her a Ph.D.
Over time, she discovered that others had experienced similar mystical encounters. She gave herself permission to mull over what she had gone through and consider possibilities beyond “it was probably all in my head.”
“At some point, I guess I felt intellectually confident enough to say, ‘Suppose it wasn’t some sort of breakdown,’” she said. “Suppose it was some sort of encounter. How do I think about that?”
While she now acknowledges the “possible existence of conscious beings” like spirits or extraterrestrials, Ehrenreich said she does not consider her experience a religious one.
“This had nothing to do with a deity,” she said. “And I have to say that because I’ve had people who just looked at the title of the book and said, ‘So you found religion?’” (That includes her sister, who was “just horrified” by the title. “She thought I was betraying the family atheism.”)
She wrote the book to finally tackle the question of what she had experienced in a way she wasn’t equipped to do as a teenager: “I’ve got to get through this, I’ve got to think it through,” she said of her motivation. “I guess the thing about writing is it’s a way of thinking — a very hard way of thinking.”
Even so, telling other people what she was working on was not easy.
“I was talking to my son and I said, ‘I’m working on something, it has something to do’ — stammering — ‘with something that happened to me when I was a teenager,’” Ehrenreich said. “He looked aghast, like it was some story of horrible abuse or something. I said, ‘No, no, no. It was a mystical experience.’ He kind of laughed and said, ‘Oh.’ That was fine; a generational difference.”
Since the book was published, Ehrenreich said, the feedback, including responses from readers who had similar experiences, has been better than she expected.
“I would say in general I’m very pleased that responses have been intelligent and understanding and often curious about what this all means and so on,” she said. “I was totally sure that people were going to say, ‘You’re crazy, and this is nonsense.’ But no. At least they didn’t say it to me.”
Wednesday at the fair
5-9 p.m. at The Swamp: Everyone’s a DJ; #6WordsMiami/Last Call Edition; “Badass Lip Service: True Stories”; tribute to Churchill’s.
6 p.m.: “An Evening With Barbara Ehrenreich,” Chapman Conference Center; $15
8 p.m.: “An Evening With Chuck Todd,” Chapman; $15.
All events at Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami. Tickets: www.miamibookfair.com