Somewhere along the line, I became Barbara’s friend, and it occurred to me that the factor that makes each of her books so completely unique in American intellectual life is her persistent sensitivity to matters of social class. She can always see through the smokescreen, the cloud of fibs we generate to make ourselves feel better about a world where the work of the many subsidizes the opulent lifestyles of the few. That, plus the fact that she writes damned well. Better than almost anyone out there, in fact.
I got her on the phone a few days ago to talk it over. Here is our conversation, lightly edited.
That’s right. It’s a memoir about one particular theme, one particular long-running concern.
I first of all think there is a great deal of vanity in the very notion of a memoir. The subtitle in the U.S. edition was “A Memoir” before, and we changed that to “An Unbeliever’s Search For the Truth About Everything.”
I was able to figure that out because I got the galleys…It’s kind of an intimidating memoir, intellectually speaking. The teenaged you, and I guess the adult you too, are pretty relentless in following this quest wherever it takes you. It’s scary.
That was my opinion. In some ways. Because there’s no soft landing here.
You don’t give us a way out.
No. And I don’t grow out of it either. What I was very conscious in the back of my mind was the standard coming-of-age narrative and putting away childish things and the idea that you can, in your youth, be a little bit crazy and think big thoughts, but you then grow up. I hate that.
That’s in Corinthians in the Bible, putting away childish things.
Well, you know your Bible better than I do.
I know because I quoted the passage in my column a few weeks ago and there is another part in that same passage, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” And that’s sort of what happened to you.
Yeah. I haven’t read enough of the Bible. You know, I’m saving the Bible for if I ever get imprisoned and the only reading material was the Bible.
Yeah, when you’re imprisoned in a motel. It happens to me all the time. Gideon’s Bible…
Winnie Mandela was imprisoned and all there was to read was the Bible and that made a big impression on me. I thought, okay, I better save the best part.
Speaking of that, in South Africa, religion had a big role in the apartheid state. The Dutch Reformed Church.
You have been very hostile to religion over the years.
You can’t just say, uh-huh!
Oh yeah. No, I haven’t seen much socially redeeming about religion. I’m an atheist. I don’t here want to get into the Hitchens or Dawkins style attack on religion. I was raised on that. It’s boring.
The Tom Paine style?
Robert Ingersoll. He was not a marginal figure in American life. He was a great orator. He gave the nominating speech for James G. Blaine in 1876. One of my all time favorite speeches for silly bluster. He’s the one who called Blaine the “plumèd knight.” Blaine “threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen forehead of every defamer of his country.” This sort of outrageous rhetoric. That was Ingersoll.
You see, he was very, very popular with middle class audiences. There was also this strain in American working class culture, native born. Well, no. There were plenty of atheist immigrants too—Swedes and Germans, and so on. There was something called “free thought” in the 19th century and I think that’s what may have had an influence on my ancestors who were blue collar working class and were in some cases small farmers. But they were more concerned with reading and learning.
From my own reading of Populist newspapers in the 1890s, I know there was a lot more going on in working-class culture back then than we give them credit for today, or rather than we would expect today. People read all kinds of stuff.
Yeah. It amazes me when you would see an occasional letter written by, say, my paternal grandfather, how extremely articulate and grammatically correct and everything. This was a man who didn’t go to school.
But he probably read a lot.
Here (in Living With a Wild God) we see a very different Barbara. This is you spending your life contemplating metaphysics. And chemistry. That’s also new. I didn’t know you had a PhD—is it in chemistry or biology?
The final PhD was in cell biology.
I’ve read a lot of your writing and I didn’t know you had studied science until you told me that one day.
Yeah, no, I’m a secret scientist.
There it is.
You’re like me. You have many different channels going on in your mind at once. Mine just happen to be very different from each other. Minimum wage, the universe, etc.
The method’s the same in this book as in your others: to look relentlessly beneath the surface. You’ve done this with social class, with gender relations, with war, and now you’ve taken on the biggest subject of them all.
Yeah. I’m an obsessive. When I get a problem, a question in my mind it can take me over. And this metaphysical stuff was the longest running of that.
To continue with the religion stuff, in Nickel and Dimed, you said you could always tell if somebody was going to be a lousy tipper if they wore one of those WWJD bracelets.
People would come in on Sunday after services. You’d serve the whole table and get a dollar tip. And I was criticized for saying that in Nickel and Dimed, that that was straight-up prejudice. But I’ve seen, I’ve come across recently, articles asking what’s wrong with Christians? Why don’t they tip better?
Really? That would have never occurred to me.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me either. But that’s what Nickel and Dimed got a lot of heat for, being anti-Christian, when in fact it was the other way around.
The Christians were anti-you.
(laughs) Well no. The book was sort of pro-Jesus.
We’ll get to that in a second. And the same with your book Bright-Sided. Bright-Sided I thought [was a] fantastic book and it had a very sharp attack on the prosperity gospel.
Right, but I stopped short in Bright-Sided. And I knew I was stopping short, saying that the ultimate in bright-siding would be to believe in a benevolent God.
What could be nicer? Everything is going to be okay. That’s the worst. And I stopped short of taking that on in Bright-Sided. I said, “No, that’s another book.”
And this is that?
So Jesus. You do have kind words for Jesus.
I think I have very kind words for Jesus. And that all comes out in the section about going to a tent revival.
But not his followers.
No. I’m not interviewing the followers in the tent revival or anything.
I mean, the later books of the New Testament.
No. What happens is, here you have this amazing, charismatic, madly generous Jesus, who says that when someone asks for your coat, give him not just your coat but your cloak also. Someone sues you in the court of law, give him everything. Then he turns into God, or the Son of God, and becomes the risen Christ. Now everything changes. Because now there is a personal selfish goal to be achieved in following this faith. To get into heaven. To get into heaven.
Is it like getting into Harvard?
What bothers me about that is it seems to me that what Jesus would say is you must give up your space in heaven to some poor sinner. Give it all away. So it’s kind of an inverse Jesus. Everybody’s out in their own little careerist scheme to get into heaven.
It sounds like they should have cosmic SATs.
To get back to the book. The kind of stuff you were reading in high school. I think it’s fair to say that not many high schoolers read those kind of books anymore. Was that common back then? Tell the readers what you were reading first.
To me, looking back, it looks like a pretty standard reading list for an alienated nerdy kid. Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Camus, a touch of Sartre.
You also said Kant, Hegel.
I didn’t read Kant. There was no sort of order to these things except for the way they were arranged in the library shelves.
I loved that scene in the Lowell library, Lowell, Mass., where you say Jack Kerouac spent all that time.
Yes. Which I only found out recently of course. So I had no system. I probably got to Hegel before Kant because he’s ahead of him in the alphabet.
And Descartes. You were very struck by Descartes. You think Descartes was a cop out.
I thought he was silly.
His nerve failed.
Well, now I have slightly more respect for his radical skepticism. But at the time I thought, “I think therefore I am”? Well, how could you think if you weren’t? How could you even put those words together? I thought it was sort of a tautology.
A lot of Nietzsche too.
A lot of Nietzsche? Yes. yes. (laughs)
So we come to the central experience in the book…the epiphany in Lone Pine, Calif. For something that has fascinated you your entire life, it takes up very little space in the book, about a page and a half.
You have to say what happened for our readers because I’m not even going to try.
Well, the circumstances were a bit unusual. I had gone on a skiing trip with my brother and a high school friend. My brother was 13. I was 17. And I don’t know whose car it was or what the deal was. And my uncle lived not too far from the Mammoth Mountain Ski area in Northern California. So we were all going to stay with my uncle and then spend a day skiing. After that day of skiing, for reasons which are investigated in the book but I didn’t understand at the time, we did not go straight back to LA, but slept in the car in Lone Pine. Meaning, [we] pretty much didn’t sleep. The conditions, the physiological conditions for a Plains Indians vision quest, I realized, were all in place. Sleep deprivation, probably hypoglycemia, exhaustion, physical exhaustion. And after that night in the car, I got up before the others and just started walking down the street, probably looking for a restroom. And that’s what happened, where it happened. The only kind of words I could find, the only kind of imagery after all these years is to say the world flamed into life. Everything was coming at me. I was flowing out into it. It was exhilarating and kind of terrifying.
You described it as kind of an encounter with something living.
Well, that’s how it felt. Then, after reflection for a couple of months, I decided no, it can’t be an encounter because, what am I talking about? What’s to encounter? The world is dead. That’s what I know from science. So it must be mental illness. It must have been some kind of breakdown. And that’s how I filed it away as much as I could for years.
You call it dissociation.
Well, I think there’s a series of little strange things that happened there. First when I was 13 I started having these, what I now found out now are called, dissociative episodes which — suddenly the layer of language and associations and significance peels off the world, and you just see what’s underneath.
It’s fascinating, especially since I’ve never had an experience like that. I think most people probably haven’t.
Well, I am now impressed by how many have. I couldn’t have written this book, I wouldn’t have had the confidence, if I didn’t begin to figure out, in the last couple decades, that some people seem to have had similar experiences, but they generally framed them in religious language or in some other way that completely turned me off.
Drugs, that’s a common one.
Well, drugs is different. I have never taken LSD or anything like that, because I’m afraid to. But from what I can tell, that is different sort of experience — that things get kind of lurid and wriggly and multicolored and there is a real change in the nature of the world. And I never saw anything happen that seemed to break the laws of physics.
Do you think there’s something about, that you were so philosophical as a child that it set you up for something like this? Could something like that just happen to someone who hadn’t done all the reading and studying and thinking that you had done?
I think so. Here’s what I’ve read on the dissociation front. There is a website, a support group, for people who suffer from such things and they don’t seem to be like major philosophical thinkers. In fact, they seem to hate the experience. They’re terrified. They want to get “better.” And I didn’t see it like that. I thought, “Wow, isn’t this interesting.” You know, because the dissociative episodes are the first thing that challenged, for me, the nature of this consensual reality we are all supposed to sign on to. Know what I mean?
It’s just so strange to me to read these people saying, “Oh, I can’t get better. I’ve tried drugs. I’ve tried therapy.”
Maybe it’s very unpleasant. Does this still happen to you?
Yeah, but I’m more likely to shut it off. I can’t control whether it’s going to happen or not but I can generally say, “All right, enough. Come on! You’re driving a car.” (laughs)
Really? Do you know how to turn it on?
No. That’s the trouble. I’d probably spend a lot more time there.
Yeah, I was going to say, if you can turn it on whenever you want, I’d like to have a shot at it. If you could just tell me what the steps are, what the procedure is.
People often think that the route to such uncanny experiences must be through some kind of discipline, meditation, et cetera. Not in my experience.
Well you said, hypoglycemia and sleeplessness. One of the things that really intrigued me about the book was how you intertwine biology and metaphysics all the time. I like that … I want to get you to talk about that.
What about it?
We’ll come to that in a second, actually. Tell us about the dynamite.
Actually, I did research for this [book]. I did new research. I kept thinking that things would not have gotten so peculiar and out of hand, that mystical experience wouldn’t have happened, if we hadn’t spent that night in the car in Lone Pine. If we had gone back to L.A., I would have wakened up in my own bed. So I had, in my mind, filled in the possibility that we had had some kind of car trouble. That was sort of what I filed it under. It must have been that. But then I talked to my brother and he said, “No we never had any car trouble.” In fact, my friend, Dick, who was doing the driving, was actually very good with cars. And then I tracked down this guy Dick. Not easy to do after 50 years. And he was the right guy. He remembered the trip, knew the same people in high school, and at the end of our not very productive conversation—because he had turned into kind of a right-wing crank.
Yeah. Well, nobody was left-wing then. He just turned into something that I couldn’t really talk to for very long. At the end of this conversation, when I’m trying to get off the phone, he says, “You want to know a secret about that trip we made?” “Yes!” I’m trying to conceal my eagerness to hear it. He said, he needed to get to Death Valley. After staying that night in Lone Pine, he said, “now it’s morning, it’s not too far out of the way to go to Death Valley on the way back to L.A. Let’s do that.” I was still so completely in a state of shock, I was like, sure. So we spent that whole day—this is a day that begins with a mystical experience at dawn—stumbling around in Death Valley where aftershocks from the morning’s experience keep continuing for me. I didn’t know what he was doing. We were looking in a lot of mine shafts. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to any of it. Anyway, he told me now, in his old man form, that he had been to Death Valley a year before with some boy friends and they had found some dynamite in an old mine shaft, and he wanted to go back and get it. Why? Because he liked to take it out into the fire road around L.A. and shoot into it with a gun. Better than fireworks.
So your whole experience was made possible by this.
He said to me with glee, “It was really old dynamite. It was leaking nitroglycerin.” Now, you don’t drive around in a car on bumpy roads with nitroglycerin, and he was just sort of proud of that. That he had done this daring thing and brought back this dynamite to L.A. And it blew me away. Here I am telling a story of myself, he’s just background character, and here’s my drama, and I have this really bad experience, and there is this whole other mission going on.
He has another agenda, you might say.
Yeah. Another person…completely unknown to me, at any depth, was doing this.
Wow. When you were young you also describe your dabbling in solipsism. Which is something I always thought of as a literary term, but for you it was real.
It was a philosophical stance. It’s mainly used now as a pejorative if you really want to put somebody down. I was just being logical. I don’t have any complete solid evidence for your existence, Tom. There is a voice, sound, coming through the telephone.
Barbara, I’m a projection of your mind.
You probably are, or you’re computer generated by something else. There just never was enough firm evidence.
To go from solipsism to solidarity is a pretty big leap, and that’s sort of the story of your life.
Well, it’s a crucial turning point in my life. And of course having kids helps too.
Before you do that turn, you have a different turn where you take this big detour into biology.
Into science. What do you mean? When I actually go into biology?
That’s what I meant, when you go to college and then graduate school.
Yeah. Because I went to college. I was still shocked and shattered by the mystical experience and said, “Okay, I’m going to be humble, I’m going to take another approach to my quest. I’m just going to try to learn what everybody else has learned and build up the universe from the smallest parts and the most minimal principles and rules.” This of course is a multi-thousand year project but…
And no one’s ever tried it before of course…(laughs)
There’s a very interesting idea in your book, that the microscopic organisms determine the big organisms.
Yeah. This was the…We’re still in the era of reductionism and I’m in many ways a reductionist thinker myself. But the idea that the world is built up out of small particles. At the bottom of things, of everything, are these little particles. This is certainly how it came across to us in the Fifties. And then they organized into atoms and molecules and cells and whatever. Sure.
There’s the big change from solipsism to solidarity. Another epiphany. We’re into the Vietnam War by this time.
Yup. And also sort of out of the blue.
Tell us about it.
It must have been 1965.
Shortly after U.S. combat troops go into Vietnam.
At that point, I had some acquaintance with left-wing people. I was in New York in graduate school. But I didn’t pay much attention to the news or anything. Then I remember just being in the lab one night and my friend Jack, another graduate student, who was usually so cheerful was kind of bent over his bench and he said, “There’s no point. There’s no point to this. I’m going to be drafted and go to Vietnam.” And that stunned me. He wasn’t even a close friend. But it just confronted me with the idea of power that could reach right into our lives. Some power from somewhere. And it’s like my whole social imagination suddenly caught fire. That there were people in Vietnam, not that I could even imagine what they were like or exactly where they lived, and for unknown reasons this nice guy who helped me with the equipment and stuff, was going to be sent there to die or kill.
And then for years after that, that’s who you were, that’s who you became.
Yeah. I said, this other stuff, this metaphysical stuff, was petty bourgeois self-indulgence.
Did you really?
Well I didn’t quite use those terms. But I added a new mission to my life: I have to end human suffering as much as I can. You can’t say I ever took on too small of a problem.
Yeah. No kidding. You go from the biggest quest of them all to the second biggest.
Yeah. I tried to put the first one aside. Get out of science. Get out of graduate school and become an activist and eventually from that a writer.
And have a family and all that stuff.
I like the way you describe it. What is the chapter title about the species?
“Joining the Species.” As a biologist, as a sort of biologist, only then did I realize we really are such a hive species.
I hadn’t really thought of that. Here in America we think, rugged individualism.
We do. But it’s hard to find a more sociable creature until you get to the insects. I don’t think there are any other primates that are so intertwined.
There are so many fascinating angles here. Do you mind if I reveal to our readers the suggestion you make at the end of the book?
That there is some giant vampire squid controlling everything?
That god is a parasite.
That’s one suggestion…
Yes, but you put it in a very compelling way, kind of a shocking way.
Well, I’ve always been a science fiction fan. And it’s in science fiction that you can find the most interesting speculation about the nature of the deity (if there is a deity.) Because that kind of speculation is totally prohibited by religion and of course by atheism. But sci-fi is different. It allows for speculation. There was a tremendous amount of it in the Fifties, if that’s what you’re looking for in sci-fi. Very often, they are advancing the idea that there is some larger conscious being at work, but it’s not nice. One of the key books for me—though I didn’t really understand it when I was 13—was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in which these creatures, invisible creatures called “the overlords” send their emissaries to Earth. They tame the human race. No more war or violence or any of the ugly things we do, and this is all for the purpose of getting humans to all go into some zone or trance or mystical experience and unite with the overlords. After which the entire earth is blown up with everybody on it. Now I don’t see that as real nice. I see that as a little bit self-centered. But Arthur C. Clarke is not passing any judgment. Possibilities like that could exist in science fiction.
The “Wild God.” Living With a Wild God. You have to explain your book’s title.
Well, it was a chapter title and the editor liked it.
I like it. I think it’s awesome.
Oh good. My friend George doesn’t like it and he said it’s sounds like “living with rheumatoid arthritis” or something. (laughs) My biggest fear is people say, oh, now you’re a believer. No.
I think you believe in something.
I don’t believe.
But you had this experience.
Yeah. And I take this experience seriously now. I no longer think it’s all insanity or temporary insanity that can be explained by various breakdowns in the neuronal circuitry or something. Yeah. It probably can, in some way. But there’s still the subjective experience. And that’s what I cannot deny. That is overwhelmingly real for me.
You talk about the mean god in Arthur C. Clarke and you also talk about Nietzsche. There’s a strong flavor of Nietzsche in your teenage musings. And Nietzsche talks about the Will to Truth, which is sort of what your quest is. But he also talks about the Will to Power. And when I read something like this, I think, well, you could have easily gone the other way. “The Wild God Wants You to be Rich.”
Do you see what I’m getting at? Think of the Barbara Ehrenreich method, all of this work and explaining and illuminating and understanding, and all of these quests, and it’s all very valuable. I love these books. But the rewards of writing are so small, whereas, they could be, if you played it differently, you could start a positive thinking cult…
Do you think there’s a cult possibility here?
What would it look like?
Well, I could imagine a lot of products, maybe tote bags.
(laughs) This is going to sound a little religious but I’m going to say it. I think it’s disrespectful to the idea of God, which I don’t share, but the idea of a God who is the author of the universe, to say he or she gives a shit about how rich you are.
Is that blasphemy or is that the opposite?
It’s a very religious statement.
That sounds like you coming down hard on the blasphemers.
Yes. If you think there is such a power and if you think it was this power that keeps the galaxy spinning and keeps the black holes eating matter up all around them, and you think that power is also interested in your weight loss plan, that just horrifies me in a way that seems to me almost religious.
You and me both. I think you’re a closet Calvinist, Barbara.
(laughs) Well. I don’t think I’m a Calvinist but I think I do have the makings of an evangelical preacher.
Reading about the teenage you, I kept thinking of Ayn Rand. And Ayn Rand is the preeminent philosopher of teenagers. They love her. She’s huge when readers are in high school. And there’s a strong whiff of Ayn Rand in the teenage Barbara. Think about it: the atheism, the primacy of reason, the horror of feeling responsibility for your fellow humans, which you describe very vividly. The solipsism, the complete selfishness. This is all her. And yet, you grow up and take it all in a very different direction.
I was not consciously that interested in Ayn Rand. I read a novel. I probably read “Atlas Shrugged”…
Or “Fountainhead” maybe?
Yeah, one of those and [I thought], “I don’t know, that’s pretty interesting.” But no, philosophically, I just thought of her as light entertainment.
I think of your life story. You might not know this but the whole plot of “Atlas Shrugged” is a strike. It’s a strike novel. The billionaires go on strike. Because they have agency and they are geniuses and the rest of us are subhuman. You’re the anti-Ayn Rand.
One strand in here is from my upbringing. The blue-collar roots and the lingering royalty to Butte (Montana) and all that it stood for. It was a very big principle in my upbringing that you should respect everybody’s work. The street sweeper. Everybody. You should never look down on anybody for their work.
Of course with Rand it’s different. You respect engineers and geniuses…
Oh no. The whole Butte spirit was, you don’t respect anybody in a suit, ever.
So it’s the opposite of Ayn Rand. It’s exactly the opposite.
The atheism was mixed up with a general populist anti-authoritarianism against priests, lawyers, doctors, certainly the bosses.
That is very interesting that you just named those four, Barbara. I’m looking right now at a postcard I have on my office wall. It’s a Populist sculpture garden in Kansas called the Garden of Eden…Some old populist in his retirement built a sculpture garden out of concrete and one of the sculptures is called “Labor Crucified.” And it shows a working man crucified and surrounding him are the four people who have done this to him and they are labeled, “Doctor,” “Lawyer,” “Preacher,” and “Banker.”
(laughs) Yep. Well.
Kansas has come a long way, by the way. So has Montana. Do you ever go back to Butte?
Oh yes. I have been back three or four times in my adult life. Now there are no living relatives, because when the deep mining ended, there were no more jobs. A little strip mining goes on but that’s for very few people, very few workers. So, no. It’s a sad, sad place.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to Butte.
The last time I was there, I think three years ago, and I just didn’t think there was an anti-depressant large enough for me. The uptown Butte, which is like downtown but just higher on the hill is…there are billboards all over warning you about methamphetamines. About meth. It is just so sad. It’s an environmental disaster area because the mining companies didn’t keep on pumping out the mines when they left, and they flooded part of the city with a toxic lake.
Lord! And do you know about Libby, Montana, where they did the vermiculite mining? All these people were poisoned. There’s a lot of stories like that from that part of the country.
Well, they just used places up, and moved on to Chile, for the copper I think.
So on that happy note…