Two Sentence Summary: Emily White has struggled with a feeling of being alone her entire life, but was frustrated by the way the feeling simply wasn’t acknowledged. So she wrote a book about it.
Two Sentence Review: Is it possible to write a memoir about loneliness that is not depressing? Yes, and this book does it really well.
Why I Read It: I enjoy memoirs, and chronic loneliness seemed like an interesting and not-often-covered topic to write about.
Review: Lonely is a hard book to describe. It’s billed as a memoir, but memoir is really only part of it. Lonely is also a well-researched piece of nonfiction, complete with both quantitative (surveys, numbers, studies) and qualitative (interviews, personal stories) information about the idea of loneliness. And it’s a personal and professional argument that chronic loneliness is a real problem, different from depression or anxiety or other mental illnesses, that needs to be recognized and addressed.
My biggest question as I started this book was whether or not reading about chronic loneliness was going to be depressing. In the hands of another author, perhaps, but White wrote in a way where I didn’t feel saddened by the topic. It felt comforting, I guess, to read a book that was so frank about something society is often loathe to really talk about. I’ve never experienced chronic loneliness, but I have felt alone enough times to know that it can be hard to admit the feeling even to people we are close to.
White uses her own history of chronic loneliness as the narrative of the story, starting with her childhood and following the path through her life. She then uses research — both from the limited studies on loneliness and a series of personal interviews she conducted — to round out each of the phases and explore our current thinking on loneliness. I liked White’s experiences for the emotional pull they gave the memoir, but found myself more interested in the research side of the story.
My favorite chapters were the ones on context — the thinking, culture, and taboo surrounding our discussions of loneliness. I think I enjoyed them best because they both stayed away from the “all about me” feel that memoirs can sometimes have and also provided me with some food for thought on my own friendships and occasional loneliness.
For example, White talks about why loneliness is sometimes common for people who live alone — the lack of “passive company,” which White describes as,
the comfortable, quiet state of cooking as your spouse reads the paper at the kitchen table, or half-listening from the study while your brothers takes call in the living room. Passive company provides us with the change to simple be with someone.
As someone who lived alone for a couple of years, I know that feeling, of just wanting someone to be around even without really interacting.
I didn’t agree with all of White’s arguments and conclusions. I think there’s a disconnect between her argument that chronic loneliness is a mental illness that the lonely can’t or don’t face, and her suggestions that what the solution is more programs devoted to the problem of loneliness. If people who are chronically lonely don’t face their disease or refuse to talk about it, how will groups for loneliness based on an Alcoholics Anonymous model help them? On the other hand, she makes a good argument that one of the biggest things we need to deal with is the stigma surrounding loneliness, and I suppose if that stigma were lifted more lonely people might be inclined to take part in those programs.
As an aside, White’s writing style is really lovely. She has a way of making feelings and intangible things into really concrete metaphors that I enjoyed throughout the book. Take this description of what a stigma is, for example:
And this means that loneliness possesses the classic properties of a stigma: knowledge of one aspect of a person’s life — in case, a sense of isolation — tips over like a pot of coffee and stains everything else, such as looks, personality, and charm. There’s a blotting-out function that attaches to stigmas: a trait goes from being an aspect of personality to something that engulfs the personality as whole.
I finished this book over the weekend, and I’ve been surprised at how much it’s caused me to think about both loneliness and friendship. While it probably makes a difference that I started reading Gail Caldwell’s memoir about friendship, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, directly after, I think it’s also evidence that Lonely is a book that covers a lot more than its simple title suggests.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!