In Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets,” her 2009 collection of poems on grief and loss, loneliness is “solitude with a problem.” Which is a useful way of understanding loneliness. Being alone and feeling lonely are not always the same thing. Except, of course, it’s complicated. Emily Dickinson wondered: Was loneliness “the maker of the soul”? Or its “seal”? Does loneliness define you? Or exacerbate what’s already broken? Or does it even matter? As Arthur C. Clarke wrote: “We are either alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Some of us seemed stitched together by our loneliness. Henry Kissinger once said that “the essence” of Richard Nixon was probably loneliness.
OK, now forget all of that.
Because Kristen Radtke, formerly lonely in Chicago, still occasionally lonely in Brooklyn, has written and drawn an excellent new book — a graphic essay of sorts — that’s expansive in its approach to loneliness. To her, loneliness is a malady and sometimes a balm, sometimes a diagnosis and sometimes a lens for understanding the United States. Loneliness is among the harshest forms of punishment. Or just a misplaced sense of being out of the loop. When Radtke finally offers the clinical definition — that gap between relationships you have and relationships you want — it feels small.
Not nearly existential enough.
“Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness,” the Columbia College graduate’s third book, reads like a kind of sequel to her acclaimed previous graphic essay, 2017′s “Imagine Wanting Only This.” That book considered our everyday ruins — starting with the crumbling landscape of Gary, Indiana, but then found room for Iceland and Italy, for family tragedy and art and an abiding sense of fatalism. One more book this melancholy, she’ll have a High Lonesome trilogy.
Do you have abandonment issues, I asked her.
“Who doesn’t?” she said.
Still, the fear of abandonment in “Seek You” — which takes its title from “CQ,” or ham radio shorthand for “anyone out there” — seems so acute, when Radtke notes how loneliness is often conveyed glibly by pop culture (a heroine eating at the sink, or owning cats), the harmless becomes cruel. Loneliness here is tactile, eager to bite into our vulnerability.
“I remember my first two years in Chicago as some of my loneliest,” she said in a phone interview. “I was at Columbia, but I was also waiting to find my people. You’re waiting for the life to start that you had always been told would happen. So I moved to Chicago from rural Wisconsin, my life is becoming what I expected. Then suddenly, I feel at sea.
“At the same time, I also remember my first summer in Chicago — which felt like magic. I opened my windows and the city just came in and it was unbelievably romantic. I lived in the Loop, then Humboldt Park, then Logan Square. And then I graduated and moved to Italy to work as a nanny and that whole time I’m watching my friends on Facebook, all of them back in Chicago, all together, and now I felt I made some irreparable mistake. Loneliness likes a good transition period. Which is one reason it stings for us so much.”
A few years ago, when Radtke was on her book tour for “Imagine Wanting Only This,” she was speaking at a book festival in Wisconsin. It was her hometown and not many had turned out. The auditorium looked sparse. Then someone asked about her next book.
“I said ‘loneliness’ and it became like a AA meeting. People would raise their hand and we started going around the room and telling stories about the time we felt the loneliest in life. Someone said they called drive-time radio shows just to talk to someone. Right there, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m on to something,’ this universal feeling we’d prefer to ignore.’”
Indeed whenever she would randomly ask people to tell her about their loneliest moments, the floodgates open and the stories piled up. One part of the book is drawings of some of these people, their stories paired with word balloons beside them.
“That became such a surprise,” Radtke said. “I had thought loneliness was not something we admit to, but people leaned in and gave stories with the kind of detail we tend to associate with traumas. These (moments of loneliness) were often after someone gave birth, or were pregnant, or came out, or were newly sober — moments, in our imagination, we expect to feel the most connected. But you’re rebuilding yourself.”
I told her about the time I moved to London without an apartment and sat in a hotel room for a few nights telling myself if I had a huge mistake — I had screwed up bad.
“Which is why we don’t talk about loneliness,” she said. “It feels like a personal failing.”
Radtke, 34, is art director and deputy publisher of The Believer, the longtime literary journal from McSweeney’s. She arrived at her illustrated style of essay while studying for her MFA in the University of Iowa’s writing program — she decided that some of what she had to say made more sense as a collage of images or a brief anecdote inside a word balloon. The result is less a comic and closer to the pages of a children’s book, dreamy clouds of text and close-ups of objects and faces, with a touch of photorealism.
Radtke grew up near Green Bay, Wisconsin. She said that, from time to time, she has a predilection toward loneliness, but nothing outsized. “Everyone where I grew up lived far away, as in any rural community. My parents were strict, my father was stoic and worked a lot. I had younger brothers. But that’s the thing: You can have a strong family and feel lonely.”
“Seek You” began on a whim.
Radtke found herself drawing strangers who were by themselves — someone walking across a parking lot, someone fallen asleep on the subway, someone seen through a window sitting at home. “They weren’t inherently lonely, I was just projecting loneliness on them.” She was in her late 20s, which, studies show, is one of three peak periods for loneliness. (Your 50s and 80s being the others.)
Americans, it appears, have been headed toward widespread loneliness for a while.
We even have a name for this: the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon — famously identified by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who studied America’s decades-long drift away from civic organizations, church groups, neighborhood block groups, bowling leagues. As much as it is possible in an interconnected digital age, we’re becoming islands onto ourselves. The study of loneliness — pioneered by University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who died in 2018 — has identified loneliness as a form of self-preservation, and found that severe loneliness is as bad for health as smoking. It also describes loneliness as a genuine “epidemic.” And that was before the pandemic.
“One of the most shocking things I learned doing this book,” Radtke said, “was that loneliness can be contagious. One lonely person acts as a transmitter of loneliness. It makes sense: A family member cutting off people and assuming people don’t want to be with them then makes the next person assume that family member doesn’t want to hang out with them. And so on and so on. Soon, we imagine rejection. And what scientists have learned is that severely lonely people die prematurely and have higher blood pressure.” Loneliness releases a stress hormone in the brain — not so different from what happens when we feel threatened. Remain in such this elevated state long enough, our ability to stave off infection erodes. “Loneliness can remap DNA,” she said.
“Seek You” takes the form of a kind of lyrical probe, starting with the biological then moving in concentric circles, drawing in pop culture, sociology and history, widening the lens: There’s the loneliness implicit in the use of TV sitcom laugh tracks (inserted to covey a feeling of inclusivity); there’s the loneliness on the face of Diana, Princess of Wales; there’s the loneliness of “long distance dedications” on old episodes of “American Top 40.” One of the book’s most bracing case histories concerns the 2013 tragedy of a woman in Washington State who tweeted that she’d learned her husband died in a car accident then proceeded to tweet constant updates throughout the night, including the surprise that she’d gained 800 new followers since she began tweeting about his death.
“I thought about her a long time,” Radtke said. “Every generation looks for a diagnosis of its ills and, from trains to television to telephones, technology is often scapegoated. Now it’s social media. I get why people had ire for that woman but I also see maybe this was how she witnessed a horrible moment and how it made her feel more connected.”
In other words, an urge born out of feeling alone resulted, presumably, in more loneliness.
But then, irony is often embedded in stories and feelings of loneliness — after all, as the cliché goes, one of the most beloved women in the world (Diana) was also one of the loneliest. Feeling alone itself is often rooted in a feeling that doesn’t overlap with the facts. The story of Harry Harlow, the book’s finest moment, is the story of an abusive Iowa man driven by fame whose lasting contribution to science is our understanding of how mothers and children bond. Harlow, a University of Wisconsin researcher, in one experiment, infamously separated newborn monkeys from their mothers and raised them at the bottom of inescapable enclosures. Harlow himself was treated with electroshock therapy for severe depression, and later accused of blurring the line between research and torture.
“He was almost a clichéd mad scientist,” Radtke said. “I was obsessed with him, actually. His reputation now is good. He was wildly important to science. But he also devoted his life to the study of the existence of love and was unable to show it himself.”
Americans, in particular, seem to unwittingly nurturer alienation through our national myths. It’s a point that transforms “Seek You” from a rangy assemblage into more an urgent cry. Rugged individualism, independence above all, an up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, even Batman — it’s all rooted in an implicit understanding of a lonely road ahead.
It’s also false. Or rather, too easy.
“It’s one of the reasons America is such a lonely country,” she said. “Trust and loneliness are hugely connected. Without trust, we don’t feel connected to one another. So when we go through periods like now, when we don’t know what’s true, a feeling of isolation creeps in. If you can’t be honest with those supposed to be your community, it’s alienating, destructive — a lot of problems just expand and fissure outward from there.”
You start to see the loneliness at work in the overwork, paranoia, financial anxiety, gun violence. You start to see how retaining some constant degree of loneliness is part of being human, and you feel less alone. Radtke told me she’s more actively engaged with her neighborhood than when she began “Seek You.” She knows everyone who lives on her block. She says this like it’s an accomplishment.
Because, in 2021, in the United States, it is.