Barbara Ehrenreich and Doris Grumbach have much in common. Distinctively bright as children, they both went on to earn advanced degrees, become committed social activists, and have successful careers as writers. In their 70s, they suffered from depression and serious health problems. The most uncanny similarity is that both women had “mystical experiences.” Their reactions to these experiences, however, were very different.
Ehrenreich’s latest book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, is in large part a memoir. She had a tough childhood (tougher than she seems willing to admit). Her parents were both alcoholics, and hers was a home without affection or tenderness, although she was very fond of her scientist father and pursued a career in science to earn his approval. A startling anomaly in her young life was an experience she describes as “ecstasy but without happiness or euphoria.” She says there was “Blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. . . . It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.”
Having been raised by unwavering atheist parents who valued only the provable and the rational, Ehrenreich found herself without a context in which to frame her experience. At first she was afraid that she had lost her mind, but after quickly discarding that fear, she simply dismissed the experience as “an aberration” and after recording it in her journal, put it out of her mind. Coming across that journal in a late-life move, she revisited the experience and was compelled to write this book in an attempt to make sense of it.
Doris Grumbach’s mystical experience came to her a bit later in life than Ehrenreich’s. In The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany, she explains that when she was a young wife, she sat one afternoon alone on her back steps, her husband and children having gone into town.
Sitting there, almost squatting on those wooden steps, listening to the quiet, I was filled with a unique feeling of peace, an impression so intense that it seemed to expand into ineffable joy, a huge delight. . . . It went on, second after second, so pervasive that it seemed to fill my entire body. I relaxed into it, luxuriated in it. Then with no warning, and surely no preparation or expectation, I knew what it was: for the seconds it lasted I felt, with a certainty I cannot account for, a sense of the presence of God.
Like Ehrenreich, Grumbach had no context for her experience:
You cannot know how extraordinary this was unless you understand that I was a young woman without a history of belief, without a formal religion or any faith at all. . . . But more astonishing to me, at that moment, was that I identified, without a moment’s doubt, Whose presence it was I was experiencing. I cannot account for this certainty; I only know I was sure.
But unlike Ehrenreich, who fled her experience, Grumbach embraces hers, yearning to find a way to invite that “presence” back into her life. Late in live, still mindful of that single epiphany from young-adulthood, Grumbach steps away from participation in a church community to worship alone and to work to make a space for God in her life. She discusses her endeavors with her minister daughter, corresponds with a preacher friend, and reads the Christian classics on prayer, all of which she shares in this thoughtful little book.
At the end of Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich explains, “The impasse was this: If I let myself speculate even tentatively about that something, if I acknowledged the possibility of a nonhuman agent or agents, some mysterious Other, intervening in my life, could I still call myself an atheist?” She makes an uneasy peace with what happened: “Experience–empirical evidence–requires me to keep an open mind. And human solidarity, which is the only reason for writing a book, requires that I call on others to do so also.” Doris Grumbach does not speculate, is not tentative; in The Presence of Absence she continues her search for God, wild or otherwise.