My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked this one up because I am a fan of Ehrenreich’s other work, and because since I was younger I’ve had an abiding interest in religious experience, particularly “alternative” religious experience. I don’t have much use for fanaticism, from whatever part of the spectrum it originates. I wouldn’t call this work fanatical, exactly, though Ehrenreich’s early descriptions of her atheism are somewhat borderline. Perhaps this is just the enthusiasm of youth, as this book is based largely on a journal she kept when she was an adolescent. I have to say, for the first half of this, I had to almost force myself to go on with it. I was a little lost, much less interested in what she had to say than I wanted to be. I eventually had to look up the word “solipsism,” to make sure I had the meaning right, since it appears, in one form or another, several times on nearly every page of the early chapters. This is the story of one woman’s quest to find meaning, and to discover whether there really is a God, or whether “religious experience” is a real thing, and if she, in fact, had one (much to her apparent bewilderment). It’s a story that seesaws between classic or typical and utterly unique. I’m not sure which one, if either, it is. She has a scientific mind and background and training, and a family with a staunch adherence to atheism, so she would seem to be the last person to experience the mystical directly. But then she does, and it colours everything she thinks and does from that point forward (actually she is preoccupied with the metaphysical even before her encounter with God, but it certainly grows afterward). However, when I read it, after some buildup, I expected to be more wowed by it than I actually was. Perhaps this was intentional. I didn’t really get drawn into her story until later, when she enters the ’60s, becomes involved in anti-war activism and feminism, and begins to question her role in the scientific research community. That’s when the Barbara Ehrenreich I recognized from her earlier works emerged, and that’s when I got interested. She does kind of rush through this period, and the narrative is a little uneven that way, or maybe it just felt like she spent way more time describing her early adolescence because I wasn’t as captured by that part of the story. In any case, in this section she begins to explore some very interesting ideas about “spirituality” (a term she hates) and mental illness, and their possible linkages throughout history. Ehrenreich’s clear but descriptive style is terrific here, and kind of saved the story for me. If her writing wasn’t a joy to read, I’m afraid many of the ideas expressed here might not have come across to me so well. I’m happy I read this book, and I’m happy I’m finished reading it.