Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness. Kristen Radtke, Pantheon Books, 2021
I stumbled upon Kristen Radtke’s book “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness” in my local library at a particularly lonely moment. I had just moved to a new small town, started a new job, and moved in with my boyfriend. According to the mainstream narrative, being in love and part of a healthy couple should have kept me from all those lonely feelings, but they were weighing on my heart. I missed my best friends – they were the only people I felt could understand the nuances of the desolation permeating my days. I felt alone in my isolation, but as it turns out, I was not.
Loneliness in the United States is an epidemic. That’s what now-U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy proclaimed in 2017, and after two and a half years of the pandemic, things have only gotten worse. A third of all Americans and more than 60% of young adults are plagued by “miserable loneliness,” according to a Harvard report. In her graphic novel memoir, Radke, 36, explores this phenomenon.
The first pages of this graphic memoir are steeped in gray-green hues, luring us into this introspective and sometimes heartbreaking work of loneliness in the modern age.
Radtke, a master storyteller, weaves together poignant, vulnerable anecdotes about her own experiences with loneliness, cultural reflections and explorations of loneliness, and reporting on research about loneliness, love, attachment, and isolation. It is an intensively reported memoir, catalyzed by her detailed, expressive and hauntingly beautiful illustrations. Radtke is formerly the art director of The Believer magazine and the associate creative director of The Verge. The book came out of a series of meditations on loneliness for The New Yorker.
One of Radtke’s themes is that loneliness is natural, “designed to alert its host to a need, just like sensations of hunger or thirst or exhaustion.” It propels us toward others, an instinct that evolved during a time when separation from our tribe meant death. It pushes us to go back to people, so we have a chance to reproduce.
Loneliness compounds itself. The more time we spend lonely, the more likely we are to become overly sensitive to rejection, isolating ourselves further. Our stress compounds, building up “to the point where we’re no longer open to developing new relationships at all.” And the loneliness is contagious, creating clusters in social webs, up to three degrees of separation from one lonely person. As Radtke writes, “A person who is feeling disconnected works as a transmitter for loneliness.”
The best aspect of this book is that we see loneliness through the lens of Kristen Radtke – her complex, perceptive mind churning over often overlooked but rich and evocative details. She talks of the subtle possessiveness in friendships (a “shameful urge for ownership”), of the lonely, performative aspect of arranging one’s (solo) apartment for the guests one hopes to invite over. She points out the difference between loneliness tinged with superiority (like Mad Men’s central character, Don Draper) and the loneliness of rejection that implies a pathetic loser.
Radtke contemplates aspects of our culture that stem from or implicate loneliness. The laugh track, for example, was invented at a time when families were becoming increasingly nuclear, a feature “coaxing a solitary viewer into a sense that she isn’t, in fact, alone.” She explores the media’s tendency to stoke fear and a sense of danger, sharing anecdotes of her mother quizzing her on how to turn down gang initiation proposals in rural Wisconsin. She sees our acquisition of guns as a way to push people further away, writing: “To arm ourselves is the most extreme form of separation I can imagine.”
Sometimes I had to close the book to recover. Radtke doesn’t pull back from the excruciating dark side. Old age can be a lonely time (Radtke tells us loneliness peaks at three ages – late 20s, mid-50s, and 80s) and we hear about hotlines to support seniors who otherwise might go weeks without speaking to anyone. (For some reason, I’ve always found that watching an old, seemingly lonely man makes my heart ache even if I know nothing about his life.) We also learn of the ethically dubious tactics used in some of the research – most notably that of the controversial scientist Harry Harlow – that led us to our scientific understandings of love, isolation and loneliness.
Harlow, who suffered from severe depression, led a life marked by loneliness, despite his being in a gapless string of marriages. He isolated rhesus monkeys, separating babies from mothers and forcing the isolated female monkeys, when grown, to breed with a device that immobilized them while male monkeys mated with them. Harlow said, “Not even in our most devious dreams could we have designed a surrogate as evil as these real monkey mothers.” The mothers ignored their babies and killed or maimed them. The experiments were horrific, and perhaps part of an underlying sadism on Harlow’s part. As American literary critic Wayne C Booth wrote in the 1970s: “Harry Harlow and his colleagues go on torturing their nonhuman primates decade after decade, invariably proving what we all knew in advance – that social creatures can be destroyed by destroying their social ties.”
But as Radtke points out, Harlow’s research is the primary reason that US experts shifted back toward encouraging parental and caretaker affection towards children. Before, she writes, caregivers “were separated by fears of wimpy offspring and disease.” Caretakers at orphanages tried to touch babies as little as possible to keep them healthy. By exposing the darkest sides of mammalian isolation, suffering and abuse, Harlow proved that love and touch are essential.
And love and connection are not just crucial to preventing severe, life-threatening depression. The physical health costs are also high. According to Dr. Steven Cole, a genomics researcher studying loneliness, those who live alone are more likely to die early by “just about every high-prevalence killer in contemporary epidemiology.”
My own loneliness reached a peak a couple weeks after reading Radtke’s book. There were people around me, but I felt disconnected. Any rift in my partner relationship made me feel like I was by myself on an island. I had started collecting and naming toy animals I had around the house, sometimes making up stories about them. There was DD, the purple Pegasus and her pink Pegasus lesbian partner; Heinrich, the tailless wooden rabbit I picked up from a thrift store; and Penelope, the wild boar skull. They all kept me company when I didn’t have many friends around.
It reminded me of the efforts detailed in Radtke’s book to soothe aging, lonely elders. Radtke describes Paro, the Japanese robot seal given to those with dementia, or, in an experiment led by MIT scientist Sherry Turkle, “My Real Baby” dolls that made sounds. But Turkle turned a corner after her research on artificial intelligence and famously warned of our increasing attachment to technology and the ways it interferes with real human warmth, interactions and presence. Radtke writes, “We should all be uneasy about human interaction substituted for soothing robots, as if the goal is just to placate and pacify someone until they die.”
Sifting through the stories in Radtke’s book worked a little bit like picking up a radio transmission using the code CQ. Radtke opens the book with an anecdote her father’s habit of sending out CQ calls over amateur (ham) radio. It’s a Morse code (_._._ _._) call-out to find out if anyone is listening. If they hear your call, they’re expected to send a postcard acknowledging it. Reading Radtke’s book wasn’t the same as talking to a close friend, but it was a reminder that we all feel lonely sometimes. At the heart of it, this simply means we are capable of love.
MindSite News contributor Rachel Cassandra now works for a radio station in Alaska, where she lives with her cat Indigo. Her last story, Cowgirl Boots, Anxious Nights, was published in August.