This is a beautifully written autobiography about a pitiful life trajectory. Barbara’s life is a disaster in her youth through no fault of her own, because of her childhood, and she scored high on the Adverse Childhood Experience ACE test. Her alcoholic parents were depressed and later suicidal. They physically beat her when small, verbally abused her to the end of their lives, and even when she tied for first place in school condemned her for not beating her academic rival. She was on a path to self-destruction through most of her life and never formed lasting relationships with her husbands and many boyfriends. Because of her learning to write well at an early age, probably because she was constantly reading excellent books, she became able to express ideas to perfection.
Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich tells of a desperate search by a nonbeliever in God for the truth about everything. She is fully versed in the problems of belief, and rejects Saint Augustine’s most famous statement, Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe, because it violates common sense. On page 232, she writes, “I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; ‘faith’ a state of willed self-delusion.” Thus it appears that she refuses to lie, even to herself, just because it would give her some existential relief. She claims to feel alone in a vast and unfeeling Universe, and yet to me she seems to be adored by a vast and supportive public.
For me the best statement in the book was on page 236, “To ask why is to ask for a motive or a purpose, and a motive has to arise from an apparatus capable of framing an intention, which is what we normally call a mind. Thus the question why is always really the question who.” This problem plays right into Pamela McCorduck’s main idea in her book, Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence. Also, that idea is the core of this year’s question at edge.org.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s life story seems reminiscent of Richard Rhodes. He too suffered a terrible childhood but rose to literary prominence writing about the sufferings of humanity.
Revealing a life of pain doesn’t help others find a path to tranquility.