Harper Perennial, 2011. 338 pages.
Reviewed by Atara Herman
“Life is loneliness,” wrote Sylvia Plath, and “the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” Such somber sentiments have been echoed by many a tortured artist. Loneliness as a defining human condition has been both the inspiration and the theme of vast works of literature, art and music, as well as the subject of philosophical and political discourse. Isolation and solitude as an inevitable and painful part of the human experience has been pondered, painted and portrayed repeatedly in its many forms. A most intimate friend, a heavy cloak, a melancholic mood, a terrifying threat, loneliness plays an emotional and psychological role that — especially in the context of today’s fast-paced, competitive and socially networked world — can be widespread and, some may go so far as to argue, pathological.
In her memoir, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, Emily White describes the debilitating aspects of chronic loneliness, or “a frightened isolation,” emphasizing that loneliness differs from depression and is, in fact, an affliction in its own right which has become rampant in an often disaffected modern society. An expert on loneliness, White mixes her personal experiences with scientific and sociological research, and writes about the impediments to treatment as a result of what she considers to be general ignorance and a basic lack of awareness. After finding herself withdrawing more and more from human contact, White began to study this condition, examining it from all angles with the diligence and persistence of her legal background. She conducted interviews and performed case studies while simultaneously weaving her own experiences into this autobiographical account of her personal struggle with loneliness.
White is adept at conveying the damaging effects of chronic loneliness. She presents a great deal of data to show the cognitive disabilities that occur in those who suffer from chronic loneliness, including memory loss and confusion, poor word recognition and language difficulties. She repeats ad nauseam throughout the book the physiological and psychological health risks caused by loneliness, claiming that loneliness “undermines the body. It leads to dementia. It sucker-punches the immune system, cues self- defeating behavior…”
Furthermore, White explores the different kinds of loneliness that can develop, ranging from temporary and situational to genetic, long-term and chronic. Adult loneliness is often linked to parental divorce during childhood; and moreover, this so-called affliction can be as much about a traumatic violation of trust as it is about one’s biological predisposition or one’s particular circumstances. The lonely, according to White, feel a sense of constant danger and impending doom as they both yearn for and avoid companionship.
White does not elaborate much on the difference between loneliness and solitude, but concerning the latter she does indicate that when one deliberately separates from the world for the purpose of self-nurture or perhaps for artistic creation, there is an element of choice involved that is unlike the inescapability of loneliness. Sometimes one simply wants or needs time alone, and “the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude…” Solitude, in other words, is a kind of “contented aloneness,” whereas feelings of restlessness and dread occur with loneliness.
Although her subject is compelling and her writing is engaging, White tends to be rather redundant and her book lacks a certain sharpness. At times the reader gets lost in the repetition, and begins to question why the distinction between depression and loneliness is really all that urgent or even relevant. White goes so far as to proclaim that loneliness should be listed in the DSM manual as a psychiatric disorder, and that one day there might even be a pill for loneliness. She is hell-bent on attaining political recognition of loneliness as a disease as real as depression or anxiety and on gaining government intervention to help fund loneliness research and eventually find a cure.
At best, this book provides some comfort and solace for those who suffer from loneliness, as they read that there is “nothing wrong with loneliness” and “no need for shame and self-blame.” In challenging its stigma as a “crushingly uncool” problem, White attempts to redefine loneliness and is oftentimes quite convincing. On the other hand, by the book’s end the reader cannot help but feel a strong sense of frustration as seemingly important details, such as the author’s sudden discovery of her homosexuality, are glazed over. White completely undermines all of her work when, in the Epilogue, she suddenly exclaims, “Perhaps all my studying and thinking and reasoning about loneliness was based on the wrong premise… I’m not, despite adequate skill or powerful desire, able to write an end to my own loneliness story.” How utterly disappointing! How disconcerting to the lonely reader who has been holding White’s hand throughout this re-telling of her struggle with loneliness as she rallies against it and provides authoritative evidence of its crippling effects. How misleading that all of the author’s efforts have been “based on the wrong premise” and that in the end the reader is left dangling alone and lonely, just like White herself.