Why Do We Look Down On Lonely People?

A new graphic novel argues that even though social isolation is extremely common, it is too easily maligned.

An illustration of two abstract faces
Excerpted from Seek You, by Kristen Radtke. Copyright © 2021 by Kristen Radtke. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved.

Last month at a bar, a man called me a bitch. I had let him sit with me at my table and he was peppering me with questions. I was working on a deadline and snapped at him, uncharacteristically. He seemed genuinely hurt. Women, he said, always gave him an opening and then backtracked, laughing at him or shutting him down or calling him a creep. “Why do you go out if you can’t be open to meeting people?”

Sexism aside, I happen to agree with him, and I usually do try to be open to meeting people when I go out. He had attempted to make conversation, with varying degrees of vulnerability. He boasted about his company and how much he paid in rent, but also taught me how to wish someone well in Hebrew. He mentioned how hard he’d tried to meet someone in New York. “People are mean,” he said. I felt helpless. People are mean. I wanted to care, but did not. I regretted my curtness, but the damage was done; all I’d managed was to prove him right to himself.

Kristen Radtke’s new graphic novel, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, explores the biological and cultural contexts for loneliness; in doing so, it argues that loneliness affects not just lonely people but also those around them, those who move past them. As Radtke shows, scientists have been tracking increasing isolation for decades (one recent preliminary study conducted during the coronavirus pandemic estimated that more than a third of Americans, including more than half of young adults, experienced “serious loneliness”). The novel’s title is a play on the “CQ call,” the name given to the series of beeps amateur radio operators sometimes send out across the airwaves to invite listeners to respond. A CQ call is an active reach toward a stranger—the opposite of society’s growing tendency to push people away.

The book combines documentary, memoir, reporting, and stunning art: low, dark colors with the occasional neon, making the reader feel like she’s floating on a reflective surface, a reflection with no original. Grays and blues and sea greens recall rain highlighted by streetlights, televisions talking to empty rooms. Through vivid images of people fumbling with house keys late at night, falling asleep on the subway, leaving a liquor store, Radtke shows how recognizable and universal loneliness is—but also how easy it is to remove ourselves from others’ loneliness, to turn theirs into an experience incompatible with our own. We can romanticize loneliness, applying what Radtke calls “an Edward Hopper glaze over the crystalline banality of a stranger’s routine”; we can pathologize it, especially when it shows up in our lives in extreme ways, as with “incels” who become mass shooters.

One prominent theory posits that, biologically, loneliness has an essential function: to stimulate an itch that needs to be scratched, to make sure we “feel deeply troubled when we observe minor social shuns so we can correct our behavior” and revert to not-loneliness, our ideal state for survival. But in an epidemic of loneliness, a chronic and overactive immune response to loneliness can lead to high levels of inflammation, which is in turn linked to feeling even lonelier. “Hypervigilance” experienced by lonely people can lead to them perceiving snubs and exclusion where none exist. Loneliness foments more loneliness.

Narratives of mass shootings tend to highlight social isolation as a cause. “This explanation offers some relief: if the shooter is a loner, he is not one of us,” Radtke writes. It’s easier than contemplating the alternative: that all our loneliness may be connected, that the depression of one person has real significance for everyone around them. Radtke is interested in challenging these distinctions.

Her investigation recalls Tony Tulathimutte’s viral short story “The Feminist,” whose protagonist steadily becomes unhinged as his attempts at intimacy are repeatedly rejected, despite his desperate efforts to be good. The people around him find him gross and want to avoid him; after slowly being forced into invisibility, he finally shoots up a restaurant. This protagonist is the picture of loneliness, and, perhaps like many of the men who have talked to me at bars, he becomes worse at not being alone the more he is alone. He becomes worse at appropriate conversation the more people refuse real conversation with him. “There are so many ways to bear arms, and we do, all of us, all the time, whether we are the shooter or the mourner,” Radtke writes. “To arm ourselves is the most extreme form of separation I can imagine.” There are many ways to be a victim, too; I may have been the target of sexist language at the bar, but I’m not the one who went home to an empty apartment.

One of Radtke’s most striking readings of loneliness concerns the story of Harry Harlow, who studied the effects of isolation on rhesus monkeys in order to better understand social deprivation and early-childhood development. Some of the baby monkeys that he raised in cages, deprived of any maternal or other physical contact, starved themselves and cowered in a corner when finally placed in a group. Some of those who had been raised in isolation, when they became mothers, killed their newborns.

While Harlow was studying social deprivation in monkeys, his first wife, a graduate student who gave up a promising career to marry him, filed for divorce, citing his neglect. His second wife, a colleague, was similarly forced to step down from her research position after she married Harlow; she became terminally ill, and within a year of her death, Harlow, having undergone treatment for depression and become obsessed with his research, remarried his first wife. “For someone who spent much of his career studying isolation, he exhibited an almost pathological inability to be single or alone,” Radtke writes.

Harlow’s cruelty toward his subjects and his mistreatment of his family register as significant because of his obsession with neglect. “What if, instead of ambition or sadism or his teenage hope for fame, I imagine that his work was born out of love?” Radtke asks. “In every monstrous act, there was also a person so desperate to understand the circumstances of this sadness that he spent decades creating it … until he was himself reflected back.” Love and loneliness may seem like opposites, “but the drive of each is similar. They’re both designed to keep us together.”

This type of generous reading of other people and their loneliness is what Radtke’s book seems to call for—a willingness to read loneliness where we might otherwise see monstrosity, to read love where we see loneliness. Widespread loneliness is not a problem just for the chronically lonely; it says something ugly and true about all of us. Reading Seek You forced me to rethink my own various brief interactions that left a lonely person feeling lonelier.

Radtke doesn’t offer solutions; as she admits, she herself is never free of loneliness. But passing interactions and relationships might still be meaningful: touching a friend’s elbow and making eye contact when talking with them, dedicating a song to someone on the radio, playing with a loved one’s hair. “I want us to use loneliness—yours, and mine—to find our way back to one another,” she writes. What if, just as she chooses to read Harlow’s work and life as motivated by love rather than cruelty, we choose to collapse our distinct experiences of isolation into a shared loneliness, so that even though we are alone, there’s still hope of reaching toward one another, and being lonely together? “To move through a life without weapons,” she writes—weapons of any kind—is “to remain open to the world, and at its mercy.”

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