Loneliness, writes Kristen Radtke, is “a variance that rests in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want.” In her new book of graphic nonfiction, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, the writer and illustrator — who is currently the art director and deputy publisher of the Believer — renders loneliness in vibrant color. Seek You started as a four-part graphic series exploring urban solitude for The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” — people napping on the subway or working isolated jobs — and expanded into a book-length survey of a tangled fog of a feeling so pervasive that it’s nearing classification as an epidemic.
The book has four sections: Listen, Watch, Click, and Touch. In them, Radtke explores the history of loneliness and its many expressions — internet chat rooms, sitcom laugh tracks, a U.K.-based 24/7 hotline for lonely seniors, research from evolutionary biologists and psychologists, and testimonials from her and her friends. There’s even pop-culture analysis — Radtke observes we’re taught to view single female leads in rom-coms as sad and the loneliness of contemporary male protagonists like Mad Men’s Don Draper as meaningful, cinematic even.
Seek You feels particularly instructive as we begin to recalibrate our bodies to be near one another again after a year of social distancing because it lays out an important truth: We don’t just want to be around each other, we need to be. The Cut spoke to Radtke about why loneliness is a biological warning bell we can’t ignore, color is a language, and how being hugged more can make you better at your job.
In the book, you draw a parallel between your father using ham radio in the ’60s as a child and you using dial-up internet to get into ’90s chat rooms that suggests every generation experiences loneliness. It’s just something woven into the tapestry of the human experience. Why is it now an emergency?
I don’t know the answer to that. What we do know is that loneliness has been increasing for decades. Epidemiologists believe loneliness will be classified as an epidemic by 2030. There’s a couple of reasons for that that we know of. One is that we’re living longer and so we’re more likely to, toward the end of our life, be without a lot of people that we’ve spent a great deal of time with and that we love who are gone. Part two, relatedly, is that we work longer and harder. There’s this real emphasis on production and our own success to the point where we’re not spending as much time community-building as we once were. We’re having fewer children, we’re moving away from home more often. All these factors compound.
I am interested in the question of whether or not technology is attributable to that problem, because I think it’s an easy scapegoat. We’re often like, “social media is ruining everything.” But I don’t know if it’s just a tool we’re using to enact the same problems that we’ve always had or if it’s actually exacerbating the problem of isolation. I think we maybe need more time to figure that out.
You also point out that there’s a unique strain of American loneliness embedded in America’s infrastructure and identity — the frontier myth of lone cowboys, the art of Edward Hopper, and the abundance of “loner” mass shooters. Can you speak to that a little?
Loneliness is sort of encoded into the ideology of America. There’s something about American individualism that feels very dangerous in terms of the way that we understand our relationship to one another. There’s so much value placed on “doing it yourself” — and I don’t mean stupid projects around your house, I mean like succeeding on your own. That’s so foundational to the way we think about success and it’s a total fallacy. Since the Second World War in particular, we’ve really prioritized space. America is so much about big spaces. We’re always putting space between ourselves and another person as a measure of success, like “I can afford ‘X’ amount of square footage” or this amount of acreage in my yard. That’s viewed as this benefit when really, we should be living together in closer confines.
The reference photos for your drawings are pulled from really interesting places, like scouring the #selfie hashtag on Instagram, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s famous photo series “Heads,” and your personal street photography from public spaces like two people you saw in a windowsill in Brooklyn. How did you decide on the visual language of this book and what loneliness would look like?
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision. I never said, “This is the style for this book,” or, “This is what loneliness looks like to me.” It just became refined over time by the fact that I was drawing every day. The biggest challenge for me with this book was color. I’ve never worked in color before, especially in a long-term project. So I was really learning the language of color and recognizing that it actually is a language. Color can communicate as much as shape. Also these drawings are different than standard comics. They’re not sequential; they’re not in panels. That gave me some flexibility to depict things that weren’t narrative.
It’s like collage. I’m combining all these different elements from my mind, but also from Google Images and from pictures I take when I’m walking through Brooklyn. I’ll put them to the side of where I’m drawing and start piecing things together and imagining from there, which is one of the fun things about graphic nonfiction; you can literally show the process of research in images.
I appreciate how you really dig into the science of loneliness. Talk to me about “skin hunger.”
The science of loneliness is really what made this book the project I wanted to make. I never expected to discover the things that I learned, like the surface severity of loneliness in terms of what it does to our bodies. “Skin hunger” is a term that scientists use to describe our need for human touch. I talked to a lot of touch therapists and they talk about how we actually really need touch to survive. It creates a biological feeling in us that we are okay, that we’re safe and loved. That’s one of the reasons the pandemic was so difficult for a lot of people, particularly people who lived alone. We actually really need physical touch to be healthy. There’s studies that show that if you hug someone for like 60 seconds in the morning, they’ll perform better at work. I hate to put it in those capitalistic terms, but you feel mentally and physically better. It’s also easier for you to fight infection if you’re having physical contact, not necessarily sexual, it can be purely platonic or maternal or paternal as well. There’s this whole industry that’s cropped up around people’s need for touch and they call it the cuddle industry.
You describe loneliness as a tool. How do we use loneliness?
Loneliness is like a biological warning bell. It’s just like feeling hungry or thirsty. Your body’s telling you you need something. The challenge is learning to listen to loneliness. We experience loneliness because in the grand scheme of human history, when we’re alone, we’re in trouble. We were more likely to be harmed by a wild animal or something like that when we were living in caves and so we’re supposed to feel freaked out when we’re by ourselves because we have to be near each other to protect each other.
Now, we’re less likely to be cornered by a wolf than we were during that time when we were still evolving, but we do spend a great deal of time alone or isolated in some ways and we’re still experiencing those feelings, which build up in our body and become what’s called hypervigilance. When you’re chronically lonely for a long time, it creates a kind of a paranoia or a decade-long feeling of FOMO where you just believe nobody wants to hear from you. If you reach out to your friend, she’s not going to want to get lunch with you anyway, so you stop reaching out and you self-isolate. The really big challenge with feeling lonely is that you have to find a way to fight that cocooning impulse. You might feel the desire to withdraw further, and you have to really push past that because that’s how you get into that cycle of chronic loneliness.
You wrote something like “loneliness is the most universal feeling, but no one thinks anyone else is experiencing it.”
Exactly! And that’s what makes us feel so lonely. The pandemic was obviously an exceedingly lonely time, but it wasn’t the loneliest time of my life because there was a kind of solidarity in that loneliness. You know, the sense that we were all in it together.