August 17, 2014

The tragic loneliness of Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about EverythingLiving with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Call this book review "The deep loneliness of Barbara Ehrenreich" or maybe "The Tragedy of Barbara Ehrenreich." Or the title up top.

I wrestled with exactly how to rate this book. Her alleged metaphysical experience as a teen, and her return to it at late-midlife crisis time? That part's a 1-star, and I knew that when I had read an excerpt online. She even admits that, as William James notes, the physical "symptoms" she had of her allegedly mystical experience are not uncommon. Yet, she wants to mystify them, even after noting that her hypoglycemia, sleep deprivation of a moderate sort and stress in the hours and days leading up to her experience could easily have caused her own version of a common experience.

That's especially true in light of her history of depersonalization and disassociation. There's fairly solid evidence that some people are by nature more susceptible to such things. Or -- by childhood.

And here we get to the reason I'll give the book a second star, and start talking about the title.

About 4/5 the way in, she says, (semi-exact quote), "If this were a biography, this is where it would begin."

But, the book IS a biography of sorts, a sad and tragic one. The fact that she doesn't seem to see it that way ties in with the very psychological tragedy that she seems to want to avoid discussing further, even in her 70s.

Here's the basics on her childhood:
1. Two alcoholic parents, with an emotionally manipulative father and an emotionally unavailable mother.
2. A physically abusive mother. (Yes, Barbara, that's what "slapping in the face" is, especially when done with some regularity. I'm sorry that you can't call her what she was.)
3. Frequent moves. (She notes that a stay of 18 months in Lowell, Mass., was longer than usual.)
4. Marital trauma that eventually led to divorce not too long after Barbara's "experience," both remarrying, dad divorcing a second time and mother near that point before her suicide.
5. Some history of mental health problems on her mom's side of the family.

Well, I would call that traumatic in some way, shape or form.

And, depersonalization/dissociation is a kind of common "defense mechanism" in such cases. And, perhaps she had some inherited susceptibility, too.

The "solipsism" she later on discovers in her teenage and college self is another defense mechanism. So, too, in all likelihood, are some of the ritual behaviors of her pre-teen life she describes but fleetingly. So, too, as an adult, is writing about your own life in a semi-detached, semi-third-person style.

And yet, she can be "hard" toward others who have as many, or more, depersonalization experiences than her, even referring mockingly to a self-help website for depersonalization.

Per one other two-star reviewer, it's too bad that counseling wasn't as great then as it is today. But, it is available today. Even with anti-depressants for her depression, she probably could use help facing her childhood still further. Her attempt to cling to her childhood experience as pointing to the existence of a mystical Other also seems, tragically, to be in part a defense mechanism.

I suspect her childhood was worse than she's told us, too.

The mystical attachments aside, the book isn't trash. But, it probably should not have been written. And, I think the disjointedness and sometimes poor style reflect the issues I mention above. Or, as part of professional help and other things, maybe it should have been written three years from now as an actual biography.

It's very hard to believe that the author of Bright-Sided could have written this. Unless, again, this is seen as cri de coeur first, paean to mysticism a distant second.

And thus, here at Goodreads, I did NOT put it on my religious study/theology shelf, and certainly not on my philosophy one. It's on the biography shelf -- and the psychology one.

This all said, I feel empathy for her. There's reasons I can say that she doesn't appear to be fully facing her childhood. There's reasons I can identify many actions and stances within her childhood as seeming to be defense mechanisms. Barbara, you can't change that past. But, I hope you can face it more fully, and in doing so, gain more acceptance of that, and some additional consolation, inner strength, or whatever.



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