We all have lonely moments, but for several years in her 30s, Emily White was persistently, deeply and inescapably lonely, despite a successful career and nearby family and friends. Unable to stem her loneliness, she decided to investigate it. The result is Lonely: A Memoir, in which White intersperses her own story with a thorough examination of the research on loneliness—which was not easy to compile. Loneliness is a fairly recent field of study, and White combed academic and Internet sources, called doctors and psychologists around the world and advertised on Craigslist for lonely people willing to be interviewed. Luckily, she was tenacious in her quest, and she is thorough and clear in her explanations and analysis.
Loneliness, it turns out, is distinguished more by a perceived absence of intimacy than the literal absence of other people. While some people seem to be genetically programmed for loneliness, childhood isolation and adult losses are frequently the catalysts for chronic loneliness (which is qualitatively different from the situational loneliness most of us experience at some point). Loneliness has fairly dramatic negative effects on physical as well as mental health, and its prevalence is increasing, to the point of becoming a public health problem. At the same time, cultural and commercial representations of social life and friendship have made it an increasingly shameful and stigmatized condition. The most effective treatments for loneliness involve active support and guidance for learning how to reach out and connect.
White is just as clear-eyed as she tells the story of her own retreat into alienation and her ultimate re-emergence into an intimate relationship, if not a full social life. Sometimes her story fits her research; her parents’ divorce when her two much older sisters were almost out of the house clearly helped spur her lifelong sense of loneliness. At other points, she is less convincing, as when she insists that the stress of coming out of the closet in her 30s and a history of depression had little to do with her loneliness. Still, despite the occasional stumble, Lonely is a useful overview of an important and under-discussed issue.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.