Top positive review
35 people found this helpful
on 6 May 2014
Barbara Ehrenreich, whose "Nickel and Dimed" is one of the best books I've read in the last fifteen years or so, is in her early seventies now (as I almost am myself), and it's quite wonderful to see her turn her unsentimental, humane eye on her own earlier life, and in particular, on some strange and intense "dissociative" experiences that she had as a teenager and, to some extent, still has today. These experiences she has come to present as encounters with something "other," and like the empirical scientist she used to try to be, her book is really an appeal to keep open the possibility that that "other" is something that we shouldn't rush to categorize in the language of religion, or psychiatry, or neuroscience. I have to say that nothing in "Nickel and Dimed" prepared me for this, but readers who are familiar with writers like Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen might think that Ehrenreich is exploring some territory that they too are interested in.
The book has two focuses of interest: first, her experience itself, which includes vivid accounts not only of what we might call uncanny moments but also of a very difficult childhood with two unhappy and finally alcoholic and suicidal parents. Ehrenreich writes about her parents with a detachment that is well short of clinical, but it's a detachment we can well understand as being the product of strategies that she, an unusually self-conscious, articulate child, devised to survive her relationship with these parents. She doesn't over-analyze, however: she contextualizes, and her adolescent encounters with uncanniness, along with her solipsism and precocious reading are set forth without any tightly connecting web of causes and effects being drawn between them. Her turn to social activism, while she was a graduate student in molecular biology, is as unpredictable as anything else in her telling of the various strands that made up her younger life, because before she made that turn, she was prone to denying altogether the possibility of interesting consciousness in "other minds." And when she does take the turn to activism, she does not fly to the other extreme and become an overflowing fount of "feeling" -- she is still empirical, practical-minded, and conscious of herself as a rather strange creature.
The other focus of interest is the possible meaning of her "uncanny" experiences, one of which, at Lone Pine, California, in 1959, was particularly intense and upsetting. These experiences she sees as almost beyond language, and even as she tries to put them into words, she's always warning against both her own wording and the wording that religious believers and psychologists might be tempted to use about them. Her final two chapters are meditations on these experiences, and they invite the reader to consider the possibility of a "life" in the universe that is beyond categorization and that she is pretty sure the categories of monotheistic religions just don't "get." She is talking here not of what she believes -- "I believe nothing," she says -- but of what might possibly be believable. The actual experiences of religious mystics like Meister Eckhart, the ongoing examinations of consciousness and possible intentionality in animals, and the parasitic and symbiotic relationships of micro-organisms with hosts are all adduced, not to "explain" what happened to the young Barbara but to remind us that there are forms of life, relationship, and consciousness that we would do well to keep an open mind about. I found the book compelling in its storytelling and intriguing in its implications -- I couldn't put it down.