By Mayla Hsu
Barbara Ehrenreich graduated from The Rockefeller University (RU), Class of 1968, but never worked as a scientist. Instead, she became a journalist, best known for Nickel and Dimed, in which she documented the hardship of life working at a series of low-wage jobs. She has written nineteen books and numerous articles, on diverse subjects such as women’s health, war, economics, and the joy of dancing. Her most recent book is Living with a Wild God, a memoir describing her childhood into early adulthood, and an exploration of how a lifelong atheist reconciles episodes of mystical dissociation with an absolute conviction in reason and science.
How is it that someone who received a PhD in immunology from a leading university ended up as a leftist freelance writer? Natural Selections recently interviewed Ehrenreich to find out. It’s a story of a promising young scientist who took some unexpected turns by being completely true to herself.
The path to RU began in Butte, Montana, where Barbara Alexander was born in 1941 to a heavy-drinking, tough-minded copper miner and a severely unhappy homemaker. Although emotionally belittling and constantly fighting, the two were also free thinkers who read voraciously. Ehrenreich’s father, a charismatic, handsome, and brilliant man, earned graduate degrees in mining science and propelled himself into the lab and eventually management. Early on, she realized that excelling at school, particularly in science, earned her father’s approval. More complicated was Ehrenreich’s relationship with her mercurial mother, who insisted that young Barbara was too cold and unattractive to appeal to men, and was resentful of her daughter’s academic achievements and disdain of housework. Unsurprisingly, Ehrenreich’s upbringing was marked by alienation, much of it spent reading and writing, with frequent solitary wanderings at night. With little bitterness, she recounts that it was observing her volatile parents that began her life as a scientist. Her father’s influence and her own thoughtful nature led her to begin, as a teenager, the journal in which she charted her attempts to understand the most important questions of our existence. Why are we here? Why do we die? Is there something greater than the trivialities of everyday life? Why does religion make no sense?
She devoured books about religion and chemistry, which she describes as “an alternative world full of drama and intrigue…under the calm surface of things there exists a realm exempt from brute gravity, where atoms and molecules are in constant motion … somehow, out of all this invisible turmoil, the gross material world was supposed to assemble itself.” This reduction of all of life and the existence around us led her to ask even more urgently, why? Why was there anything at all?
Along with these ruminations began what became lifelong episodes of strange, extreme dissociation from normal sensory experience. The first of these occurred when Ehrenreich wandered away from a family picnic. She was staring at a tree, when “something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association … the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all notions of tree-ness … was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance—the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration?” Although she dismissed this as some sort of visual aberration, perhaps due to extreme fatigue from late-night reading, it periodically recurred, in school, or while reading, while alone or even in the presence of others. She wrote “at times like that I am not even real to myself. I don’t know where I am. My own thoughts are like a distant throbbing whisper.”
It was while returning from a ski trip with her brother and a friend that she had the most profound of such episodes. After skiing all day, and ingesting very little, the three slept uncomfortably in the car. In the morning, exhausted, she woke at dawn, and stepped out of the car to walk around the town of Lone Pine, California. She experienced a sort of mystical sensory overload, when “the world flamed into life…no visions, no prophetic voices, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured into it.”
After considering a number of psychiatric and neurological explanations for these experiences, she decided not to tell anyone about them. She also wondered whether she was glimpsing an alternative realm or dimension, and if so, who or what had brought her there, since she was unable to control their occurrence. Having been raised an atheist, and after much reading about religion, she concluded there was no god, no candidates to carry out this role.
Science offered a potential refuge: these disruptions of reality were possibly nothing more than transient breakdowns of normal biological processes, explainable by molecular interactions gone awry. Certainly, for an intellectually restless adolescent, an interest in science was timely. The launch of the Soviet space satellite Sputnik in 1957 sparked the imagination of people worldwide, but also led to a push for young Americans to excel in science. So it was no surprise that Ehrenreich decided to study chemistry, heading to Reed College in Oregon, chosen partly for its bohemian reputation.
Ehrenreich’s college days coincide with the dawning of the molecular biology revolution. During this time she identified physics as the root of chemistry, which underpinned biology, the determinant of much of the social sciences. It was there however, that she discovered she actually hated lab work. She says, “I am not a patient person. I am not neat. So much about bench work was about having sterile test tubes and things carefully labeled.” Glassblowing was terrifying, and poring over expensive instruments for hours was monotonous. However, the desire to further delve into the fundamentals of life and nature led her to graduate school. She originally applied to RU’s nascent theoretical physics department, thinking that without a linear accelerator, no experimentation would be required.
RU in the early 1960s was clearly in a different era. During her admissions interview, Dean Bronk asked whether she planned to get married and have children, and she says “I knew enough to say, ‘of course not.’ She recalls that there were very few women professors and students, and male students pinched her bottom in the lab. She found it disorienting that “you’d been admitted to this amazing elite. On the other hand, you were actually a sort of a lowly apprentice. It was clear that if you want to stay here, you have to be an obedient serf. I’d never been to any place like this, where we had a dining room where lunchtime service was segregated by rank: students and professors in one dining hall, technicians in another, blue collar workers in a cafeteria somewhere. My friends and I would go eat in the workers’ cafeteria because it was informal.” By 1964, feeling defeated by theoretical physics, she began a project with Gerald Edelman, a brilliant and demanding taskmaster, with whom she had a tense relationship. Her studies of chymotrypsinogen conformation required long, tedious sessions with a spectrofluorometer and more of the repetitive experimentation she disliked.
By this time, Ehrenreich’s parents had divorced, and her mother, drinking heavily, made the first of her eventually successful suicide attempts. After Ehrenreich’s return from visiting her, she realized that her life had become seriously misdirected, and that a future as a middling scientist would not answer her intellectual questions. She became an activist against the Vietnam War, organizing protests and participating in marches. The civil rights movement also drew many students off campus. In the spring of 1966, Edelman sternly suggested that Ehrenreich’s relationship with her father was responsible for her “problem with authority”, even though Edelman knew nothing of her father, and anti-authoritarianism permeated an entire generation. He threatened her with expulsion from RU, which was only troublesome as an end to her fellowship. John Ehrenreich, a fellow student and her future husband, convinced her to finish the degree. So she moved to the lab of Zanvil Cohn, a shy, kind mentor who took the time to actually teach. After completing a thesis on pinocytosis in macrophages, she graduated, and to Cohn’s dismay, became a freelance writer.
Still unsolved was the mystery of the dissociative episodes. In middle age, after establishing a writing career, raising two children, and weathering breast cancer, two divorces, and depression, Ehrenreich returned to the metaphysical questions. She emerged thinking that it is the monotheistic faiths, so completely unconnected with nature, that are insufficient at explaining deep questions of existence. Older views, such as the belief in spiritual forces populating the natural environment, or animals as the embodiment of gods, are part of pagan or animist traditions. For her, these were more plausible in explaining her dissociative perceptions, which were so full of pulsating life. And as for whether her physical state of health (exhaustion, dehydration, etc.) was relevant, she comments that although there are material bases for mental experiences, science can’t explain everything. “One example would be love between people. We can give all kinds of neurophysiological correlates, but they don’t tell us much about the experience of love.” So, she concludes that something exists outside of scientific description. While she continues to reject the idea of an omnipotent being demanding worship, she proposes that if there is such an entity, it may be simply seeking notice by revealing itself occasionally to humans.
Nowadays, Ehrenreich is working with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to support journalists writing about poverty. When asked how she feels about leaving science, she says, “I don’t have any regrets. I love to read about scientific developments, but just as a layperson. I’m happy that other people are doing the work. Let them do the work, and I’ll read about it. I’m a consumer of science.” Looking back, she notes the similarities of being a journalist and being a scientist: “You have to get at the truth about something.” Next she plans to write about the biology of macrophages and their association with inflammatory disease. So, at long last, she will use the RU PhD she earned almost fifty years ago in the service of science.