Lonely No More: Isolation Comes Out Of The Closet

The title Lonely tends to conjure up words like shy, sad, and withdrawn, so it's something of a surprise that Emily White has written an impassioned call to arms on behalf of a condition no one wants to talk about.

White herself has been lonely, and not merely for a brief time as a result of a move or breakup (she calls such loneliness "situational" and distinguishes it from the more long-term variety). From 2002 to 2006, she experienced loneliness so total that she began to hear voices in her head, to dream at night of happy friendships, and to feel an anxiety she describes as "suffocating." She even felt the loneliness in her body — though in her early thirties, she developed cramps and night sweats that mimicked menopause. White emphasizes that she wasn't a shut-in — at the beginning of her loneliness, she held a job at a law firm, and she saw her mother and sisters with relative frequency. But a combination of circumstances and temperament left her starved for close connection, and she contends that this happens to more people than we think.

One of the strongest sections of the book is White's discussion of the taboo surrounding loneliness — how difficult it is to talk about in a society where we're all supposed to have tons of friends. White writes, "The whole time that I was lonely I was routinely presented with images of sociability, with Brad and Angelina leading their big brood of children through a playground, or Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes holding up little Suri for the cameras." However, she argues that people are actually more alone now than ever before, with one-person households on the rise, sheer hours spent in solitude increasing, and a full quarter of Americans in one 2004 study reporting "that they discussed important matters with no one." White writes,

As households have become increasingly inhabited by just one person, we've been presented — via everything from commercials to cooking shows — with images of big, intergenerational families. What's important to recognize is that isolation is one of the factors driving these representation. As we start to feel more alone, we're being comforted with images of what we've lost.

But these images aren't comforting if they make lonely people feel embarrassed or defective, and thus hide their loneliness from others — as White suggests many do. Of the lonely people she surveyed as part of her research, many reported reactions of shock when they told others about their isolation, so well had they concealed it. Unlike depression, loneliness lacks a cultural narrative — we don't like to talk about it, we don't even know how to talk about it, and this, of course, makes lonely people even more lonely.

White's book falls short of constructing such a narrative, however. While she mentions a possible genetic component, and debunks some stereotypes — like that lonely people are ugly, bitter, or unlikeable — she doesn't really explain why some people become chronically lonely while others don't. She gives economics as a provocative partial explanation — those with less disposable income are less able to make the coffee and dinner dates that increasingly characterize modern social life — but also conceives of loneliness as a state of mind, something deeper and more internal than simply having nothing to do on a Friday night. She even includes a discussion (albeit a somewhat equivocal one) about whether loneliness belongs in the DSM.

So is loneliness a state of mind, or a state of life? Probably both — White emphasizes that the best cure for loneliness is human connection, but also that she had felt the approach of loneliness even in times of social plenty, and may have inherited it from her mother. She's passionate and persuasive in her arguments for destigmatizing loneliness, and for creating more social programs to help the lonely (support groups, perhaps unsurprisingly, have proved effective). And she's very convincing when she argues that socioeconomic realities have created a population that's lonelier than ever. All this, combined with White's personal story, makes Lonely both comforting and fascinating for anyone who's ever had that terrible meta-lonely thought, "I'm the only one who feels this way."

White seems to want to go farther than this, however, to identify loneliness as a kind of mental and physical disorder, an illness that sets its sufferers apart from others in similar circumstances who still feel connected. And yet she also argues that the lonely are not disordered in other ways — that they don't lack social skills, are not socially anxious, and don't necessarily have trouble meeting people. This suggests that there's something deep at the root of loneliness, something that can't be entirely explained by lack of disposable income or the rise of the one-person household. The idea is tantalizing, but White doesn't fully explore what this deep thing might be. As she notes, though, she's forging new ground — popular culture lacks a language for loneliness, and it's no surprise that the one White's invented still has some gaps. What she has done is create a framework, so that those who follow after her will be a little less alone.

Lonely: A Memoir