As a clinical psychologist, I've worked on several occasions with clients whose chief complaint was that they were "lonely." I soon learned that loneliness is not a simple matter. Some people, for example, were lonely because they could not experience social connectedness with friends and family. Other people spent large amounts of time alone but didn't consider themselves lonely. And there were individuals whose loneliness was situational, not chronic. For Emily White, being lonely was "something I'd come into the world with," a "state" that made her feel different from everyone else. In Lonely, she tries to discover the source of her social isolation and how to overcome it. An attorney by training, White's investigation is exhaustive: she reads psychiatric journals, interviews social scientists, speaks with other lonely adults, and dissects every facet of her life with uncompromising candor. As memoir, Lonely is a strong personal narrative, rich in self-analysis and storytelling that elucidates the phenomenology of the lonely person. At the same time, the book approximates an academic tome, filled, as it is, with detailed accounts of research studies, epidemiological statistics, neuroscience, and theoretical contemplations about the human condition. We learn, through the prism of White's self disclosure and her interpretive conclusions, that loneliness is not synonymous with depression, may qualify as a personality affliction, is not caused by having poor social skills, and quoting the author, "can become something of a haven, a state associated not only with feelings of stress and isolation but, paradoxically, with a sense of calm and control." And therein lies the dilemma for Emily White and, I suspect, many other people--loneliness is simultaneously a displeasing condition and an acknowledged comfort that resists efforts to make it otherwise. Thanks to skillful writing, Lonely succeeds in telling an intriguing personal history as well as exploring the social psychology of loneliness with admirable sophistication.
© 2010 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA-D is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and over 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.