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Barbara Ehrenreich Still Wants to Be Surprised

“My hope for all readers is that they will shut the book and run out and protest. That’s what I always expect people to do. They seldom do it.”

Steven Voss/Courtesy of Twelve Books

“I think I was depressed,” Barbara Ehrenreich said when I asked why she wrote her novel, Kipper’s Game. Published in 1993 and reissued earlier this year, the story is part science fiction, part thriller, part mystery, part romance: Della, a recently divorced scientist, is searching for her son, Kipper, a video game developer who went missing a few years ago. He may or may not provide the connection between the other characters—radio hosts preaching apocalyptic doom over pirate frequencies, scientists studying devastating diseases about to be let loose in an unprepared world, nihilistically horny artists, power-mad neo-Nazis, genius alcoholic academics looking for research that could save the world from the wealthy exploiting the weak for personal gain, and the women who shouldn’t love them. There’s a lot going on.

Her answer wasn’t what I expected. “I wanted to do something that completely involved me and my imagination,” Ehrenreich explained, when I called to talk about her latest essay collection, Had I Known, which compiles previously published works into chapters like “Health,” “God, Science, and Joy,” and “Haves and Have-Nots.” The links between these essays and the nonfiction books Ehrenreich has published over the course of her career are clear: In Had I Known, readers can see how her reporting and thinking on science, justice, politics, equality, and class went from the medium of the moment—blog or essay, article or speech, undercover journalism or social satire—before it became one of the four books also re-released by her publisher earlier this year. Blood Rites, Living With a Wild God, Fear of Falling, and Natural Causes, written over the span of 25 years, all started with ideas in essays such as “The Warrior Culture,” “Welcome to Cancerland,” and “Death of the Yuppie Dream.” She has critiqued everything from media to medicine to movies, balancing an investigative approach with a clear appreciation for the nonsensical nature of real life.

Reality is where almost all of Ehrenreich’s work remains, and in a stack of crisply printed paperbacks, her fiction stands out for the very fact of existing. When Kipper’s Game was first released, Ehrenreich told The New York Times she considered publishing it under a pseudonym: It was, as she put it with her trademark bluntness, “a departure.” Still, readers of her work would have recognized an imagination and a mood always pointed toward power—how it is taken and given, lost and found, understood and explained.

Ehrenreich and I spoke twice on the phone, once on the morning of Super Tuesday, and again a few weeks later, after the spread of Covid-19 in the United States made time, as a reasonable concept, collapse. We had intended to focus on Had I Known, which is organized by topic rather than chronology. A decade can hold endless eras in miniature, and in these chapters, the reader goes between them all, the nuances of an age speeding by while the ideas deepened at their own pace. Instead, our exchange went where Ehrenreich took it, a quick back-and-forth between who she is today and how she remembers who she was back then.

Ehrenreich’s voice, like her writing, has shoulders—a tone capable of a shrug. “I’ve read what I’ve written,” she said. “There are no surprises. It’s not fun to read them through again and again.” She looked for obvious anachronisms or places where the language no longer fit. Like most writers, Ehrenreich is more excited by what she’ll write next and least interested in what she published last. She spoke about her book in progress, a study of narcissism beginning with Paleolithic cave art. In scope, it will be similar to Blood Rites, her social and historical study of the origins of war; in form, it will be another departure. After writing or co-authoring 23 books, she says, she is sick of chapters. “I realized, while writing, that chapterization was dominating me. All right, what’s the next chapter? How does it fit together with this one? And now I’m a little looser. I don’t want to just connect the dots.” Freed from arbitrary sections, Ehrenreich is experimenting with leaps in time and figures. “It’s global, and puts Donald Trump in a vast prehistoric perspective,” though she mentions that she doesn’t want to include that much on Trump because, she joked, “he might lose, and that would sink my book.”

Ehrenreich was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders, and the first day we spoke she was glad to report she was on her way to vote for him in the primary. This wasn’t because she had what she would call hope, she said. “I don’t approve of hope. It’s nice, but it’s wishful thinking. I think more about courage and determination. I’m thinking so much about the extreme individualism of our current society. It’s hard to see how people are going to mobilize their best quality—our most human quality—which is the ability to cooperate and achieve things together.” To Ehrenreich, this isn’t about whether collective action exists; it is a matter of scale. Since we first spoke, mutual aid networks, protests, demonstrations, and mass fundraising efforts have rapidly mobilized across the U.S. and globally. These attempts to protect each other in the face of state violence and neglect are proof that the bravery and resolve she wants to see from people is happening, though at an unconscionable cost.

What Ehrenreich still wants to convey in all her writing is what she calls “the bright side.” Not the relentless crush of forced happiness, like the kind of hollow optimism she dissected in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (the U.K. title, Smile or Die, managed to express even more of this idea in fewer words). Instead, she wants to get at the thrill of working collectively for change. Ehrenreich is her own toughest critic—capable of both the greatest insight into and completely unfair readings of the work—and tells me she’s not sure she’s accomplished the goal she set for herself: to persuade someone, with words, that the fight is worth it. “I’ve never found that I can convincingly convey it,” she said. “You have to feel it.” She isn’t wrong when she says things are worse than ever, and the stakes for getting it right have been raised accordingly. On the other hand, readers who have followed her every topic and truth might disagree.

Ehrenreich is a writer of structure: Her work moves level by level, starting at the surface of our most obvious inequalities before pulling back to reveal the subtleties of systemic failure. Each of her books, in its own way, refuses to let a deliberately unconscious bias mimic as truth. Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich’s bestseller, was one such work—an immersive investigation into the reality of minimum wage in America, it directly refuted the idea that working a full-time job, or two, or three, could provide a decent living in an age (much like this one) when political careers rose and fell on selling that lie.

The critical and commercial success made Ehrenreich a household name and the very figure her work is most skeptical of: the expert, or authority. The distinction between Ehrenreich and other oracles is that she does not lecture or preach, command or chastise. Each of her books, in its own way, provides a key to understanding how Ehrenreich has earned that status: by considering first and always how words earn their readers. Living With a Wild God, her 2014 memoir about transcendent experiences, was another noticeable deviation in her work—a personal narrative about religious experiences by a lifelong skeptic—yet her childhood rule, shared in an early chapter, reveals something instructive about who she has always been: “Think,” tiny Ehrenreich commanded herself, “in complete sentences.” So much of being a person defies language, let alone grammatical composition, but that is what Ehrenreich’s writing does. She brings brilliance to the ordinary, revealing the way what we see most stays hidden: a spotlight in the form of attention and revelations out of what we should already know.

In recent years, Ehrenreich’s work has interrogated the freedoms her fame has brought her. Had I Known is dedicated to the next generation of journalists, and the introduction is taken from an essay originally published in The Guardian, in which she describes the conditions that make someone want to write, as well as the circumstances that might prevent them from doing so. “I patted myself on the back thinking I could afford the declining pay,” Ehrenreich recalled, as the last recession lowered and stagnated wages, “and then I thought, wait a minute, that’s really fucked up—am I saying that people who have enough money are the ones who can write about poverty? No. This would not do.”

Ehrenreich co-founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project with Alissa Quart in 2012, a program that provides grants to journalists reporting on economic inequality no matter their financial standing, in part influenced by the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration programs from the Great Depression. At the beginning of her journalistic career, Ehrenreich was very familiar with the many compromises made by media workers. For many years, she balanced bylines between the magazines that paid higher rates and the magazines that let her write what she wanted to write. “I had two young children to support, with a little help from their father, and it was always a torturous trade-off,” she told me. A favorite and often recounted memory is the story she wrote called “The Heartbreak Diet,” the title economically explaining the “benefits” of getting skinny from sadness.

The material realities of trading off between commerce and critical inquiry made an impression, but it was also in part that trade itself that led to Nickel and Dimed. Once Ehrenreich tried to pitch a story to a women’s magazine about marrying blue-collar men—a pause here to imagine how such a piece might have read—but the editor instead asked if those men could talk. While listening to Ehrenreich recount these stories, I can hear the echo of what is another consistent quality in her writing. Her books contain a chorus of voices, saying what is too often too easily ignored. Can they talk? is devastating as a dismissal, but there’s a statement hidden inside that question: I won’t listen.

“Two things guide my writing,” Ehrenreich told me. “One is anger, and the other is curiosity. Just curiosity. I don’t have an ax to grind, for example, about Paleolithic cave art. I just wanted to understand something.” Ehrenreich first studied to be a scientist, and the laboratory as influence is all over her work—in her attempts to get to the bottom of a truth, she tests a hypothesis, relying on empirical evidence and collaborative efforts to confirm what becomes the final piece of writing. She has also always, in some way or another, been an organizer: of her neighbors, her communities, and against injustice. Some of her books are very clearly delineated between these two qualities: For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women is an analytical survey of all the ways authorities have tried to control women’s behavior, inquisitive and incisive; while Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers is a brief and provocative book arguing against contemporary medical authorities and their condescending dismissal of historical healing practices. Every book and every essay finds a way to intertwine those experiences and emotions until they are as inextricable on the page as they are in life. All of her work is a sincere attempt to prove it—the scientist’s guiding principle—to show, beyond doubt, how evidence can become an understanding.

In looking back, there is a clear shift between the writing in which Ehrenreich appears as an observer and when she is a character. Sometimes she is the subject, other times she is the messenger. I asked if she knew when a piece of writing called for an “I,” a question she admitted she didn’t always have an answer to. To be a reporter like Ehrenreich requires thinking of oneself as a narrator, while remembering that an audience is not captive and that its attention might not hold. In writing about socialist feminism specifically, Ehrenreich recalls trying to speak to people who were new to the concepts of feminism and class, thinking not just about the sound of her voice but the way her voice would carry in different rooms. “In the 1980s and 1990s, I really tried to influence feminist organizations to be more concerned about welfare reforms, health care, to think about local organizing. I tried to bring the classes together—including anyone who wants to defect from the ruling class and be a class traitor. Our big problem is not finding minute differences to argue about,” she said, talking about 40 years ago and today, “Our big problem is to pull together enough people who want to see our species survive.”

Sometimes she changes tack, moving between simplicity and sarcasm to different effects—the anger, especially, comes through in her satire, and Had I Known contains newspaper columns and blog posts in which she mocked the middle-class sensibilities or liberal sentiments of class, race, and gender. Lately, however, Ehrenreich has been less inclined to choose irony in her writing, whether it’s a thought published in a book or on Twitter. She will be the first to point out that satire itself can’t compete with our present absurd reality, and it often confuses rather than clarifies, such as her since-deleted tweet about Marie Kondo’s use of a translator in her Netflix show, which she first defended as satirical in nature and then ultimately apologized for, calling it “a terrible mistake.”

Ehrenreich writes bluntly about her race and gender when she writes about labor, economics, culture, and politics. She’s known for having a radical morality, as well as an imperative to get the story right. Cynics often talk about the inevitability that our heroes disappoint us, which is a banal prediction based on trying to avoid admitting a bad feeling. More succinctly, online parlance refers to this phenomenon as a “milkshake duck.” To dismiss this disappointment as somehow fated requires a readership that doesn’t want to experience those same emotions Ehrenreich described—anger and curiosity, the force of a feeling that makes one want to speak up. Missteps and mistakes matter; when they happen, the relationship between a writer and their readers becomes less passive or fixed, crystallizing into something capable of changing both who wrote it and who read it.

Toward the end of Kipper’s Game, Della is declared insane, and she decides it is easier to accept a diagnosis than keep telling a story no one believes. Ehrenreich wrote a monologue for her character’s psychiatrist that I have thought about often since reading it. Here, again, is Ehrenreich on structure; here is a rare moment in which she might be saying that these catalogs and taxonomies are not incomprehensible, but their purpose is often unclear. The psychiatrist claims to respect paranoid delusions: Without them, he says, there would be no religions or nations. But her combination of characters, Nazis, extraterrestrial travel, hallucinatory technologies, and second comings is “traveling down one of the main thoroughfares of the contemporary mind. A well-worn path, not to say trite.” Others, he tells her, might find reality boring. “They should only have to sit in his chair and hear the same fantasy ingredients strung together, again and again.”

The strangest part of ideas about the future is that they stay constant. Whether they are apocalyptic or utopian, conservative or radical, the visions of what is possible are as shaped by what we already know—by montages in movies we shouldn’t have watched right now, or science fiction novelists with more cohesive political systems than elected representatives—as by what we dare to hope for. In the present—well, perhaps it’s best not to dwell on that right now. But the past, to a researcher like Ehrenreich, is capable of more surprise than it gets credit for, and the word she used most when we talked about the quality and the content of her work was surprise. “My favorite of all my books,” she said, “is Blood Rites, because it was full of so many surprises. Those rare, thrilling moments when you’re in the research, and you say, I was wrong! I was looking at the wrong thing!”

Ehrenreich might be eminently rational in her lack of attachment to the labels of a life’s work, but she also retains some romance about her chosen profession—the fated, tortured kind of romance. “I taught essay writing at Berkeley for a while, and I would say to the class,” she recounted for me, “Do you want to be a writer? Are you prepared to suffer?” Her writing, according to Ehrenreich, is one of the biggest determiners of her mood: “If my work isn’t going well, I get depressed, and then, the next day, a flash of insight comes along, and I get happy.” The question of what her work is worth is distinctly tied to the way she considers herself. Ehrenreich does not just pay attention to what makes her want to write—she considers why she should write at all.

Ehrenreich isn’t quite sure what new readers will make of these collected essays. The material seems like it should be familiar, though she knows that isn’t necessarily the case. What does it mean to say the same things, again and again, to someone who has heard them a thousand times before? What could it mean to say the same things, again and again, knowing that there might be a person hearing them for the first time? “We’ve been heading down this path toward greater and greater inequality—social, economic, racial—for some time now. If anything, this collection of essays, some of which go back to the 1980s, documents that.” For those paying close attention to what writing can do and what media should be, reading these books will produce a curious sense of something beyond uncanny. In her descriptions, we could recognize, if we squint, this moment. But when we concentrate too hard on parallels, we risk telling a story that unfolds into the present just to collapse. Thinking in sequence is a gift writers give to their readers: The illusion of order. Like the construction of the chapters in Had I Known, Ehrenreich’s body of work is not the result of writing in a straight line, no matter how much it may seem that way in hindsight.

These reissued books and republished essays all rely on research that could easily be read as prophetic. They could convince us she is psychic. But Ehrenreich does not want people to wait for a far-off future. “My hope for all readers is that they will shut the book and run out and protest. That’s what I always expect people to do. They seldom do it.”

Not yet, at least.

“No,” she agreed. “They’re probably saving it.”

Ehrenreich is driven by the possibility that there is truth still to be discovered, or ideas not yet thought, or readings in search of a reader. “I live for surprises,” she said toward the end of our conversation. That’s what makes the future still possible—not whether our predictions will come true but what we’ll find if we arrive at the now-unknown. “Although, at this particular moment,” she admitted, “maybe I wouldn’t mind being unsurprised.”