Author and illustrator Kristen Radtke started working on a book about loneliness in 2016, four years before a global pandemic made the topic even more pressing and personal for all of us. “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness” weaves together personal stories, scientific studies and reflections on our relationship with technology over time. Radtke joined us for a conversation at the 2021 Portland Book Festival.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The author and illustrator Kristen Radtke started working on a project about loneliness in 2016, meaning four years before the global pandemic made the topic even more pressing and more personal for so many of us. The result is a graphic, nonfiction book called “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness.” It weaves together personal stories, scientific studies and reflections on our evolving relationship with technology over time. Radtke joined me for a conversation last weekend at the Portland Book Festival. It was actually the first time we had done a conversation in front of an audience of actual human beings right in front of us since January of 2020. I asked Radtke what her starting point was for the book.
Kristen Radtke: I started drawing a series about urban loneliness in 2016; I didn’t really realize that it was part of a bigger project. And 2016, I think, was a lonely year for a lot of people for reasons we probably don’t even need to get into. I was also in kind of a transitionary time in my life. I later learned that loneliness traditionally spikes at three ages: your late 20s, your mid 50s and your 80s. I was in my late 20s and just kind of trying to figure out what my life was like. So I started thinking about the feeling of loneliness and then kind of asking what loneliness actually was.
Miller: Why those three ages?
Radtke: I think transitions are often a point of loneliness. It’s like you have to recalibrate what your life is going to be. So that happens, I think, a lot at those ages. [In your] 50s you’re maybe edging towards retirement or, if you’ve had children, they’re moving out or they’re going to college. In your 80s a lot of people you love are gone.
Miller: Do you have an easy definition of loneliness at this point? Both, I guess, what it is and what it’s not?
Radtke: I think people often consolidate solitude and loneliness which are two very different things. Also people correlate aloneness with loneliness and that’s very different, too. It really has nothing to do with the amount of time you spend alone. I think of loneliness as the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want. Loneliness lives in that gap. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t have wonderful, fulfilling relationships. It just means there’s something that’s missing in some way.
Miller: So it’s the gap between the relationships you have and the relationships you want. And that helps explain why solitude, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily lead to loneliness -- it is not the same -- and that being with people isn’t a preventative measure, necessarily.
Radtke: Yeah. Everybody has a different biological threshold for how much time they can tolerate alone and how predisposed they are to loneliness. It’s ingrained in us. There’s nothing we can do to change it. People often conflate that with introversion and extroversion, but that’s also kind of a tidy too-simple explanation because introverts and extroverts can be equally lonely. And then too, [regarding] the cure for loneliness, people are always just like, “Put yourself out there, go do a thing.” And that’s not always a solution either because it’s not just about going and meeting a new person and having a conversation. I mean, loneliness to me is about not feeling known and so to go and just have a social interaction isn’t necessarily a solution.
Miller: That’s one of the things that you note early on in the book, this idea of not being known and also feeling like nobody else knows what you’re feeling, whether it’s the loneliness or what led to the loneliness to begin with.
Radtke: Yeah, I mean, the thing about feeling alone is you feel alone because you feel like no one else feels the way that you feel. So it kind of exacerbates that, I think, which is one of the reasons that loneliness can be so painful.
Miller: Could you read us a chunk from [your book]?
Miller: It’s about a third of the way through the book and I think this is the first time that you talk about your own feelings of loneliness, as well as science and other stuff.
Radtke: Yes, that’s true. Okay. [Reading] “Loneliness feels to me like being under water, fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else. The simple gestures you enacted so easily on the ground become laborious, pushing against a weight no body is built to move through. Studying loneliness for me has been driven in a small way by a desire to find a solution to its problem, a way for each of us to swim toward a once invisible ledge and reach for it. I’ve spent years trying to decode its science, hoping to find some chemical or biological explanation for the worst I’ve ever felt or the times I’ve watched people I love so unsatisfied, clawing toward connection that surpasses what I’m able to give them. But science can’t offer complete clarity. It wasn’t until 2016 that anyone finally identified the part of the brain that feels in response to isolation. A group at MIT found a cluster of cells in the back of mice brains that falls nearly dormant during solitary periods and goes into overdrive when they’re reunited with other mice, most likely to help them recover from the time they’ve spent alone. The hope is that this discovery can be used to answer all kinds of questions, such as why some people need a lot of interpersonal contact while others prefer to be on their own or how we might keep ourselves from dying when we lack connection for too long. When we crave closeness, I’m not sure if what we want is something we used to have or a hazy image of what we never will. And I don’t have an answer for what we do when we’ve lost the ability to do anything but tread. But the thing that’s the clearest, in a field of study only a few decades old, is that when it comes to loneliness and it’s aching spread, we still don’t have a clue.”
Miller: Mhm. I should say that the images that accompany most of the pages -- that was about four pages, right? or eight pages, of images -- they are of a single body getting smaller and smaller, underwater in this sort of dark green, thick water. So that’s what visually accompanies the words you just read. One of the striking things, there are a lot of striking things in what you read; but one of them is that, despite the fact that loneliness, we can assume, has been around for as long as humans have been around and probably before that, we can talk about animals, too.. Despite that fact, you noted that the science of loneliness is still pretty young. How do you explain that fact before we get into the science itself?
Radtke: Science has not taken it seriously. In the same way that science hasn’t taken something like love seriously, until.. like 70 years ago was the first time that science would use the word love. Before that they said proximity, which we know is very different. So I think part of it is thinking that it’s not important or that there’s not consequences. One thing I should mention is that chronic loneliness is really dangerous. It increases your chances of having a heart attack, of getting cancer, it reduces your ability to fight infection. People who are chronically lonely do die sooner than people who identify as socially fulfilled. So it’s a really big problem, particularly because the former US surgeon general has said that by 2030 America will be in a loneliness epidemic. So we’ll see if COVID pushes that forward or slows it down; it will be interesting to see. One of the scientists I talk to in the book is Dr. Steven Cole. In the 90s he studied gay men who had been infected with HIV and discovered that those men who were closeted died a lot sooner than men who had communal support. And he just related that to stress. If you remember in the 90s, all anybody was talking about was stress. They were like, “Stress is the new smoking” and “Stress will kill you” which is true. So then Dr. John Cacioppo, who is kind of the pioneer of loneliness research, called Dr. Cole and asked him to come and study loneliness with him. And Dr. Cole was like: loneliness, what a nuisance risk factor, that’s not something serious. And then when they mapped the human genome for loneliness, he was shocked by what he found. Which is that basically any high prevalence killer like cancer or heart disease gets you faster when you’re lonely.
Miller: What’s the theory for why that is?
Radtke: It’s only speculation at this point. I think if we look at things like the stress hormone that builds up a lot when we’re alone and when we feel under threat, that limits our ability to fight infection and disease. The reason we feel loneliness is there’s a real biological purpose for that. It’s to propel you back towards other people because, in the grand scheme of human history, being alone is a really dangerous thing. When we’re living in caves and hunting together, we need each other to survive. So, when we’re feeling alone, we’re under threat and we need to find each other again. So, today, when we live in a world with maybe fewer wildlife dangers but a lot of time spent alone, we’re in that heightened stress hormone state for a really long time. And then that just builds up as we go.
Miller: Do you feel like the scientific establishment’s view of loneliness, that you talked about with that scientist saying, “I’ll look into this, but this seems like a kind of noise in the data. I’m not that interested in it.” How pervasive do you think that is societally? In other words, is the idea that, yeah, it’s a problem, but not that big a deal. Is that the baseline societal approach to loneliness right now?
Radtke: Before COVID, definitely. I remember when I pitched this book to my publishers: I was like, “Why don’t we ever talk about loneliness? Nobody’s ever talking about loneliness.” And then 2020, all we talked about was loneliness. [Laughter]
Miller: Did you sell the book before the pandemic?
Miller: So, there was enough interest that a publisher said, “Yes, let’s talk about it.”
Miller: But, nevertheless, you think something has changed societally.
Radtke: Yeah, because there was an imposed isolation on everyone. I do think it’s really important to separate the loneliness of the pandemic with issues of chronic isolation and loneliness. In the book I’m investigating American ideologies that are really deeply ingrained like American individualism and the sense that we can make it on our own, which we cannot. And that’s really separate from us being under lockdown or not being able to gather in groups which is a really separate thing. But I do feel like it was kind of a great equalizer for a moment in terms of how isolated we were and it caused a conversation to happen.
Miller: You write, “Loneliness is designed to alert its host to a need, just like sensations of hunger or thirst or exhaustion: go get lunch, go to bed, seek someone out.” So in other words, it’s our body telling us what we’re lacking and what to do. This isn’t always the case, but often if your body tells you you’re hungry, it’s relatively easy to make the physical decision to get food. And that’s true of thirst as well. But I feel like loneliness is more likely to not lead someone to do what their body, in your telling, is telling it to do. First, do you think that’s true?
Miller: How do you explain that?
Radtke: The solution isn’t easy. It’s not [to] call someone and have a conversation on the phone. Because that’s not necessarily solving the greater problem, particularly if you’re chronically lonely which is defined as being lonely for more than seven years at a time.
Miller: What? Can I stop you there?
Radtke: Please. [Laughter]
Miller: Um, I just, I don’t, I mean it’s hard... Seven years? Because it seems preposterous to me, and maybe illustrative of what we’re talking about, that that’s what experts would decide: At that point it’s chronic and serious and worthy of attention as opposed to way earlier than seven years.
Radtke: Yeah, totally. I mean we see certain countries, like the UK is getting better. They appointed a minister of loneliness which sounds like a really cool but very sad job. [Laughter] America has not caught up to that yet. But I think we look at that seven year mark because it’s the state where we can enter this state called hypervigilance, which is where we begin to perceive rejection before rejection actually occurs. Basically, our brain can’t distinguish [between] emotional pain and physical pain. They’re the same in our brains. So, if I feel rejected by my friends or [if] I moved to a new place and I feel alone or someone I love has died, my brain is interpreting that as a physical threat. And so it’s releasing all the stress hormones. As those build up over time, like the seven year period, (it can happen of course on a sliding scale; that’s an average) we become resistant to developing new relationships at all. So, even if we meet, we have a great conversation, we could become friends, I might be kind of unable to open myself up to a new friendship, a new relationship, which is at the point that it’s super dangerous.
Miller: Are scientists or therapists or anybody talking about ways to help those people? What you’re talking about is, it’s like there’s a moat, the drawbridge is up. You’re so on guard that you can’t let anybody in. How do you start to open up again?
Radtke: I don’t know. I mean, there’s very few studies on loneliness, if you compare it to pretty much every other emotional state. We’ve done a lot of work to destigmatize depression. We’ve done millions and millions of studies on depression, not so much loneliness. But yet, I think probably everyone in this room, when I was describing someone in a state of hypervigilance, probably has someone in their life that they can think of who’s in that place. I have several. I think it’s very painful to watch and be a part of and kind of be unable to access someone in that way.
Miller: In 1985, you note that the group AARP which now is just known I think by that acronym, it’s like IHOP, they have ceased to be the words, they’re just the letters. In any case, they put out a kind of mantra for people which seems like kind of, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get rid of your loneliness by pulling yourself up, thing. They say, “I’m only lonely when I think I am.” And you’re relatively dismissive of that in the book, I think, understandably so. But is it pure hogwash, or do you think there’s something to that? I mean, can you switch something in your brain, not at the seven year point, but how much of this is under an individual’s control?
Radtke: Some. Some of it definitely is. One of the things, when we’re feeling alone, we start to feel that desire to turn inward, which can happen after a day. If you’re alone for a long time.. I mean, how many people have felt like they were going to reach out to someone, but no one reached out to them. And they’re like, “Well no one wants to hear from me anyway.” Like, “I don’t want to invite Jessica to lunch because she doesn’t want to get lunch with me. She didn’t invite me to lunch.” You can get into this spiral. So I think going back to that biological need, when you’re hungry you eat. I think it’s also about ignoring or kind of overriding our worst impulses to turn inward when we’re feeling alone and to push past that discomfort.
Miller: You mentioned that there are hundreds more studies and focus on depression than on loneliness.
Miller: Thousands. What’s the connection that you’ve come to think about between something like depression, or anxiety which is related to it in some ways, and loneliness?
Radtke: There was one study that put it as loneliness is how you feel about your relationships or about being alone and depression is how you feel period.
Miller: Mhm. I’m trying to parse that out. So that implies a connection but a separateness, too.
Miller: You could feel one and not the other?
Radtke: I think, yeah--
Miller: I guess what I’m wondering--
Radtke: It’s a good question.
Miller: It makes more sense to me that you could feel.. I think actually they still seem related to me.
Radtke: Very interlaced. Yeah, at the same time, just like there’s a difference between solitude and loneliness or aloneness and loneliness, there’s a big difference between sadness and depression. So I think that is important. And you can feel sad about loneliness without being chronically depressed. Maybe it’s like a situational depression.
Miller: One of the scientific findings that I found most surprising was, you point out, that loneliness is socially contagious or interpersonally contagious. What does that mean?
Radtke: Yeah, so one lonely person can transmit loneliness up to three degrees separated from them, three degrees removed. That’s because of that inward impulse, where we turn inward. When we feel lonely, we cut other people off and that creates a sense of loneliness in people closest to us who then pass it along.
Miller: Oh, so it’s not that being around somebody, we get their vibes. It’s more physical. It’s that you’ve closed off your node. And so you’re not interacting with somebody who you may have had a relationship with which makes it more likely that they will then close up themselves.
Radtke: Yeah, but also if you’re in a real state of loneliness, you might not be interacting as openly as you would be normally.
Miller: And maybe not giving people around you the sense of talking about what you’re going through and so they may not get the sense that there are people like them who are experiencing what they’re experiencing.
Radtke: Yeah. Like you ask fewer questions, things like that.
Miller: I was wondering as I read and looked at the book [about] the process of drawing loneliness for you. In some ways you even note that you were ascribing loneliness to people you would see in the subway or somebody you’d see in the window as you walked down the street. You would assume they were lonely. And there’s page after page in your book of images, your own idea of the visualization of loneliness. Did that make you feel more lonely or less lonely or neither?
Radtke: Less lonely, definitely. Yeah, I think for me the experience of writing the book-- I don’t solve loneliness in this book. I don’t know how to fix this problem.
Miller: Spoiler alert.
Radtke: [Laughs] I’m nowhere closer to figuring that out and probably in some ways less because I understand how hard and complicated this issue is. But I think, by understanding.. Emily Dickinson called loneliness the “horror not to be surveyed,” which I also think is a very beautiful definition. I think for me it’s also about the horror of not being understood or feeling like I’m the only one experiencing a certain thing. And kind of understanding how pervasive loneliness is, makes me feel more connected.
Miller: Can you help us understand that line: the horror not to be surveyed? So, she didn’t mean that this horror is so terrible that it should not be surveyed, but the horror of not feeling like people--
[Both speaking simultaneously]: are seeing you.
Miller: Yeah, it’s a powerful line.
Miller: You mentioned the American ideology of individuality, individualism. Is there something now that you think is truly, particularly American about loneliness here? Or is this a global affliction or both?
Radtke: Both. America is not the loneliest country in the world. It’s one of the loneliest. The UK is also very lonely, a couple of countries in Scandinavia, Japan is really lonely. Also, it depends kind of on the political moment. Countries who are maybe under an unstable regime or a totalitarian regime are way lonelier, it goes through the roof. Because you literally can’t trust your neighbors and trust is the foundation of all connection in relationships. Which is why I think -- I’ve never seen a study about this, but someone needs to do it -- I’m confident that loneliness spikes during election years. But.. What is the question? [Laughter]
Miller: The question is--
Radtke: Ohhh, America. Yeah--
Miller: What is particular about our flavor of this sad affliction?
Radtke: Yeah. Our relationship to work, I think, is a big part of that. But I think the main part is American individualism, this sort of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” thing, this idea that we all make it on our own which is never true. It’s also kind of like a “look out for yourself rather than look out for your neighbors” sensibility. At least that was the America that I grew up in. So, that’s actually I think one of the positive things about the pandemic. In my community mutual aid organizations formed; we understood that it was our responsibility to care for one another. I think the question is whether we will continue that after the emergency has passed.
Miller: Do you have a gut feeling about that?
Radtke: We won’t. We will not do that after the emergency has passed.
Miller: Why do you say that?
Miller: Let’s get back to normal?
Radtke: Yeah. And it’s like, okay we did this thing. We got groceries to our neighbors when they needed it, who maybe had lost their income or who were immunocompromised. But that’s very different; getting someone a good or a service is very different than forming a relationship and feeling kind of responsible for someone in that way.
Miller: So, if we know that the UK and Japan and the US have particularly high rates of loneliness, does it mean that there are people out there who have some version of a loneliness index, the way we now hear about a happiness index? Are they asking people all over the world, “How lonely are you?”
Radtke: Yeah. There’s something called the UCLA Loneliness Index or Survey, UCLA Loneliness Survey, which started in 1974 and it’s been revised a couple of times. It’s just like a questionnaire and you rank strongly agree to strongly disagree on a number of questions [such as] “I feel like I don’t have anyone to talk to” or questions like that. And then that’s your score and that determines how lonely you are. I’m not sure actually what the sample size is when someone’s determining how lonely a country is. I think it probably depends on the research group.
Miller: Radtke mentioned that she thinks people are probably more lonely in an election year. She actually argues that there’s a connection between loneliness and the election of Donald Trump. I asked her to explain.
Radtke: Yeah. I will say that a lot of Amazon readers did not like that connection that I have made. [Laughter] But, yeah. I come from a very rural place, a place where it’s a lot about separating yourself from each other. A measure of success is how much land you have and people brag about not being able to see their neighbors from their wooded lots. And it’s kind of a gun toting culture of, “I can take care of myself, I can take care of my family, it’s me against the world.” I think that is, first of all, it’s wrong. It’s not true. Second of all, it’s a really dangerous quality because it makes it feel like you’re responsible only for yourself and not your community. So, when I see really anti-immigration sentiments... I live in New York now and when I went home over the summer, we went to the local bar..
Miller: When you say home, to Wisconsin where you grew up?
Radtke: Northern Wisconsin. Yeah. We went to the local bar and everyone was like, “Oh yeah, I went to New York once, but I would never go back. It’s too dangerous now.” Because they’re hearing something on television or whatever. It’s this idea that everything else is bad. But basically, the longer that you’re isolated and the less that you interact with world views that are different from your own, biologically, we start to associate difference with threatening. It’s that same thing about hypervigilance and assuming rejection before rejection occurs. So we start to think this threat of something I’ve heard on television -- that is in no way impacting my town of 400 people -- suddenly feels like everyone’s against us. And that, I think, is deeply, deeply related to isolation and loneliness.
Wes finished with this following remaining section.
↓↓ Please see the comment I left around page 14.
Miller: You also make the point that loneliness is endemic in this country, it doesn’t just affect small towns and rural Wisconsin, it affects everybody everywhere to some extent, at least every place. So do you think that loneliness affects people of different political ideologies differently?
Radtke: That’s a great question. I’ve never been asked that question before.
Miller: I got one! [Laughing]
Radtke: I don’t know. And I’m not trying to say that this is a conservative problem. It’s not, it’s absolutely not. But I think the way that we see people get swept up by conspiracy theories and stuff like that, relates to a really intense desire to belong to something. So in the past . . . I also resist the idea that we’re idealizing some moment, like the fifties or sixties or something, was equally bad to now, but equally good if you’re a glass-half-full person. But there were more community centers and more community gathering that wasn’t centered around commerce, than there is now. There were bridge clubs, there [was] the Rotary Club, there were all of these things that people were more involved in. There was a more active involvement in churches for example. These are all things that give you a community support system that begins to fall away, particularly now, when people have to work so much more in order to survive.
Miller: And Q doesn’t replace that, Q-Anon world. I mean that was the answer’s in the question.
Radtke: Yeah, definitely. It’s a desire to be a part of something or to explain something.
Miller: Let’s turn to technology, starting with the name of the book, the title of the book, “Seek You”. Can you explain the origin of that phrase?
Radtke: So in amateur radio or ham radio, if you want to call out across the airwaves and just talk to anyone, you make a CQ call, the letters C and Q. And so either you do that morse code, or you just say CQ CQ CQ CQ. And over time people took it to stand for “Seek you”, and I think that’s just like a really strange, beautiful phrase about longing for connection.
Miller: And there’s a familial connection to that phrase. Can you explain how you heard about this too? And then and then what it means.
Radtke: So my uncle, [when] I was visiting him many years ago, and he started talking to me about his childhood with my dad, and talked about how he was obsessed with ham radio as a kid. And he would, from ages 9 to 16, stay up half the night in his room with this old transistor and make CQ calls, and just talk to people across the world. Which was shocking to me because my dad was so stoic and strict. I had just no idea that he had ever tried to make a connection with another person. Because you’re a kid, you don’t recognize that in your parents, I think you don’t see them that way. And he worked all the time. He didn’t seem like a person who was a real community-minded person, or a person who wanted to relate to people who are different than themselves, which was my own misunderstanding of him in my childhood. And so I just started investigating and researching about it from there.
Miller: Have you talked to him about that misapprehension [that] you assumed he had, and what he needed when he was an adolescent?
Radtke: I haven’t talked to him about it. I dedicated the book to him, and I write about it in the beginning of the book and he did read it. So he knows that I feel that way. But we haven’t talked about it directly.
Miller: In the middle of the book, you have a kind of generational analysis that gets to this thing. You write this: “I don’t disagree that we’re doing a worse job connecting with one another than we once did. That our tendencies to move away from home and have fewer kids and walk down sidewalks with our heads drooped over our phones, haven’t changed our notions of what community actually is. But when my father sat before his radio transistor in the sixties, was he any less lonely than I was 25 years later, waiting for the grinding of a dial-up modem to grant me access to a network of strangers?” When I read that, I assumed that the answer was no. That’s the implication of where that long sentence was heading. But what’s a fuller answer?
Radtke: I don’t know. Pretty much every person who studied loneliness and every scientist who studied loneliness has said loneliness is increasing. There are surveys that are done, like the Pew Research study. There’s a bunch of different annual surveys [and] the last survey they did for the last 10 years showed that the number of Americans who say they have not one person in their lives with whom they can discuss important matters, fell from to one in three people can say that, and that was not true 10 years ago. So we see evidence of this. But I do think loneliness has always been a part of any culture. And I think particularly childhood can be a really lonely place, because you’re trying to figure out who you are, and your life is sort of defined by all these other choices that you have no control over.
Miller: Since your book came out, there has been a steady stream of revelations about Facebook, from the Facebook whistleblower, and I’m curious, and especially about what they know, the data about how people use their product, and then the algorithmic choices they’re making to get people to use their products more and more, or at least not less and less: I’m curious about what stood out to you from those revelations from the context of loneliness.
Radtke: I don’t know. I think that it’s really easy to say that all of this is about technology. I think we often hear that argument but I think if we look throughout history, basically every time there’s a technological advancement it gets demonized. They said that about the train. They said that about the telephone. I quoted in the book, there was this amazing editorial in the New York Times when the telephone was invented, that said – or something like – we will soon become nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other. Which is an amazing line, and of course was totally not true. The telephone connected us in ways we had never been connected before. I don’t think technology is like the root of all the evil that makes us lonely. I do think the internet is a tool that can absolutely be misused and separate us from one another.
Miller: You point out in particular about social media that one of the ways that it could be doing this more so, say, than ham radio or the telephone or television is funny is it different because it’s more about something just hitting us as opposed to an interaction. But what you point out is that and this isn’t a surprise to anybody who’s heard one thing about social media or used it but the self presentation that most of us, if we use social media that we put out there, it’s a kind of sanitized scrubbed idealized version, the exact kind of thing that can make it less likely that, that somebody is going to recognize the struggles that, that in somebody else that could give them a sense of not being alone. That does seem different than a telephone.
Radtke: Well, it depends. I don’t know. It definitely is amplified, because we can see … I don’t have to directly call you to see you posting a picture of your vacation. So there’s things like that. But I also don’t think people have always told the truth about how they feel. If your aunt is calling to check in on how you’re doing, she’s not going to be, “I’ve been feeling really bad lately”. I mean maybe it depends on your aunt, but a lot of aunts would not say that, and haven’t said that. So I think we’ve always kind of presented a veneer over our state of mind.
Miller: The person that you devote the most pages to in the whole book is a really fascinating scientist named Harry Harlow. So let’s talk about him. Can you remind folks? Because I didn’t know the name, even though I had seen pictures of wire fake mother monkeys, which may ring a bell with other people. So who was this guy?
Radtke: So Harry Harlow was a scientist and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and he started by studying maternal bonds. And so if you ever took a psychology class in high school, he was the one who separated baby monkeys from their mothers and put them in a cage with a wire mother and a cloth mother. And the point of that was to either prove or disprove the assumption at the time, which is that babies only loved their mothers because they provided food, which was the understanding at the time. This was also the same era when people didn’t use the word “love”. He once like bellowed at a conference, when someone kept correcting him and said, “certainly when you say love, you mean proximity”, he said something like “it is perhaps that proximity is all you know of love, but I thank God that I have not been so deprived” or something really mean … [interrupted by interviewer]
Miller: But we should say, I mean that sounds like this high-minded “you don’t know about love”, but when you read the book, it’s very easy to make that same accusation of this guy.
Radtke: Absolutely. So he proved that it’s not true [that] the monkeys loved the cloth mother more, even though the cloth mother didn’t provide them food, only the wire mother did. And that changed dramatically our understanding about child rearing at the time. The understanding was that we shouldn’t cuddle or be too affectionate with our children because it would reduce their ability [to] live well in the world. It would make them soft. Which is as we know now, not true. But then his studies kind of snowballed from there, and he started wanting to study depression and isolation. And so he would isolate the baby monkeys sometimes for well over a year at a time. And then horrible, horrible mad-scientist stuff ensued.
Miller: Why are you so fascinated by him? I mean I can feel your fascination and to the extent that we can quantify it in terms of pages devoted, he is one of the stars of your book.
Radtke: I became just totally obsessed with him. I read everything. I think I read everything he ever published. I read everything I could find about him. My publisher was “this is too disturbing, you can’t”. There’s a lot of really disturbing things that he does in the book to monkeys, but I just couldn’t get enough. I was just fascinated by his mind, and my theory about him is that he had a lot of mental health struggles, and he was a really lonely person. He seemed kind of pathologically incapable of being alone. He married this woman who then left because he was a horrible husband, and then he married another woman who then died in the next week. He went back to the first wife and asked her to marry him again and she did. And he really couldn’t take care of himself, he really couldn’t be by himself, but he really didn’t show love at all to either his subjects or to the people in his life. And so I was kind of interested in the idea that he was trying to replicate his state of mind in these animals in order to understand it. And then I wanted to try to write about someone who was – on paper – a monster, with empathy.
Miller: And do you argue that he fundamentally changed the way society thinks about love and connection?
Radtke: Definitely for the maternal, with the monkeys, with the initial monkey studies, with the cloth mother and the wire mother, definitely. That completely changed our understanding. They reissued parenting books because of that study. It was essential to our understanding. Another scientist probably would have gotten there. It’s not like it was only in his mind, but I think less so for some of the later studies.
Miller: Later in the book, you talk about how technology is not just seen as a cause of loneliness, but – because this is consumerist, capitalist society – it also may be the savior. And one of the things you point to is an animatronic seal robot. Can you describe this thing and what it’s used for?
Radtke: It’s called Pero. You might have heard about it. It’s gotten a lot of coverage. It came about I think 15 years ago, or something like that, for nursing homes. And it was given to people who are in hospice and nursing homes, and their level of cognitive interaction and their demeanor completely changed. It’s a robot seal, it’s really cute and it responds when you talk to it or when you pet it. It completely changed the state of mind and the health of a lot of the patients who had it.
Miller: If I’m honest, what was most disturbing about that? [Not that] it was created but that it sort of worked? How do you explain that?
Radtke: Well, there was also this thing called – does anyone remember My Real Baby? It would react. It was different than the animatronic babies that just would like coo and make noise at random. It would do it kind of in reaction to you. So it would seem like you were having a relationship in some way, or like you were impacting the doll. And that made its way through nursing homes as well. And there was the writer and scientist Sherry Turkle [who] did a lot of interviews with people who had had this doll. They said that there was this one guy who said “she makes me feel understood, and I tell her about everything. I tell her things I would never tell anyone, or that I don’t have anyone else to tell”. There was another person who would name it, who named the baby his dead ex-wife’s name, and would use it to talk through what had gone wrong in their marriage and to apologize. And it’s really horribly tragic things, but it’s just giving a person, I think, an outlet for when a person doesn’t have it.
Miller: What have you come to see as a connection between consumerism or capitalism and loneliness?
Radtke: Everything. Our relationships [have] to work for sure. I think also it has to do with that individualism of “I’m in it for myself. I need to get the things I need for me and my family.” I think capitalism is often in opposition to community care.
Miller: What do you mean by that?
Radtke: How many places do we have to gather, that you don’t have to buy something? There are parks, there are churches, there are like a handful. But there are very few community centers left. That was one of the wonderful things, one of the few wonderful things about the pandemic in New York, was that – I don’t know what happened here – but the streets were closed off, and they became like town squares, and it was wonderful.
Miller: I mean another thing that a lot of people did was connect on Zoom in various ways: Zoom happy hours with old friends maybe they hadn’t seen for a long time. That was true for me. I spent a lot more time with college roommates doing Zoom stuff than we had, because we were scattered around. I mean what have you come to see in terms of the ability of virtual spaces to actually provide truly meaningful interactions that can stave off loneliness?
Radtke: That’s why I think that we can’t demonize technology too much. It’s true that it can be misused. But I have one of my dear friends [who] is a full time caretaker for his mother who has Parkinson’s, and their life didn’t really change under lockdown. She has a lot of mobility issues, but the world also opened up to them because more people were online where they spend all their time. And their community just grew incredibly. So I think it’s really important that we not just dismiss something that is a lifeline for a lot of people but definitely. It’s all about the quality of connection and conversation that you’re having which can happen over zoom or the phone or in person.
Miller: At the end of your book, you write “I want us to use loneliness, yours and mine, to find our way back to each other”. So what might that look like?
Radtke: I think it’s hard. That’s definitely my hope. I do feel like it’s a hopeful book. I feel like I am hopeful about our ability to connect with one another. But it is hard and I think that’s part of what we need to realize, is that this is something just like any relationship requires constant attention and work. We need to prioritize the relationships that matter to us. So America is in terms of how it relates to other countries … in surveys, Americans are the most likely to – what they do every day and what they say and what they say is valuable to them – is the most off-kilter. So something like 6 in 10 Americans say that close friendships are essential for a meaningful life. But then something like 2 in 10 Americans say they regularly prioritize and make time for their friends. So things like that: it’s about acclimating the way we spend our time with what we think is important and what we value.
Miller: That puts the onus on us as individuals, which makes sense because we’re talking about such an arena where personal choices are so significant. But you mentioned at the beginning that there are now ministers of loneliness in the U.K. And then Japan recently followed. So what can governments do to make us less lonely? I mean the fact that these jobs have been created implies that bureaucrats in various places think they can do something and often bureaucrats do think they can do things that they can’t or don’t do. So maybe they won’t do anything. But what should they do?
Radtke: Make more funding for research and education. Doctors are some of the first people who can kind of spot this problem. But I talked to a lot of nonprofits in the UK … there’s one in New York, it’s called the Neighbor Network and it connects [people]. You sign up to get phone calls, and then you talk to people on the phone. I struggle with the solution there, because those feel still slightly artificial. It doesn’t feel like the same as having an organic and meaningful long term connection. It still feels somewhat transactional, but I think it’s a start, I think it’s better than nothing. So I think allocating more resources to programs like that.
Miller: I’m curious, when I talked to writers, if they’ve written a book about Japanese camps, they get a ton of emails and letters from people who want to share their experience, with their families’ experience with that. Same as basically anything that a writer really devotes time to, they get sometimes inundated with people who want to share their experiences. Has that been the case here? Are you now a kind of flame that lonely people are drawn to talk about their loneliness?
Radtke: Yeah, I’m shocked at the number of letters that I’ve gotten about people talking about their experiences.
Miller: Have any of those taught you something you didn’t already know from five years of deep diving?
Radtke: I mean it very meaningful to me that someone is “this is how this is how it feels” or “this is what my life is like”, and what’s fascinating to me about them is the letters are from everyone. They’re just such completely different people. I don’t mean everyone in America is writing to me. I mean a broad swath of people from very different demographics. I have a lot of elderly people. or a lot of people who have maybe lost someone, write to me, and then I’ll also have a trans parent or something writing to me and saying this is something I really struggle with and this book is helpful in that way. So the only compliment I think I would ever want in this book is just that reading it made someone feel less alone.
Miller: And you’ve gotten that? It’s good to get the only compliment you want. [Laughter] Let’s take some questions, go ahead.
Audience member: Thanks so much for this. This is really powerful work and I think it is so important to be talking about loneliness. And when you’re talking about Harlow and some of these studies as well as talking about Pero, and this thing about contact, really made me think about how fundamental contact is when we think about loneliness, right? That contact in it’s largest sense, that’s not just physical contact, right? But touch seems so fundamental. And we’re thinking about this issue and this is a society that is impoverished in contact. We don’t touch each other really, more than in other countries, I would say. And there’s the sense of not really having a capacity for making contact and touching in an attuned way.
Radtke: Yeah, I could be thankful for that. I could not agree with you more. So scientists call our need for human touch “skin hunger”, which is a perfect phrase. And we do need human touch in order to feel safe, to feel like it’s safe. We have the same stress hormones that raise when we haven’t been touched for a long time. And I don’t mean just sexual romantic touches. I mean like platonic every day, friendly touches. And touch therapy is a lot about this. There’s something called the cuddle industry [that] has emerged, where you can pay to cuddle with someone or you can …
MIller: It’s here too, which maybe does not surprise you.
Radtke: In Portland? I know, I interviewed someone from Portland about their cuddle industry. Or there’s cuddle groups where you can all go cuddle together. So it’s definitely something I think about a lot. Especially as I was thinking about it when you said “please don’t touch the microphone”. I was [thinking] how long are we gonna be where we feel like we can’t touch each other, which was already I think a feeling that we had, like you mentioned, where we’re not a very touchy people to begin with.
Miller: Yeah, thank you for that. Please go ahead.
Audience member: I was hoping that you can talk a little bit about your creative process, the left and right brain coming together and making this beautiful book. How did that come to be?
Radtke: Thanks. I usually start by writing a little bit and then I start drawing in reaction to that. And then the drawing changes the writing a lot because I realized I can say something in a drawing. And usually my rule is if I can say it in a drawing, I won’t write it. I think nonfiction is particularly rich for this. It happens a lot in fiction too. And fiction graphic work, but in nonfiction I like to really diagram things or you can kind of interact with research and information and show your research process. So I think in that way there was something that I don’t want to say easier, but kind of. I could show my hand in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have if I was just writing prose. And so the process sort of became a part of the visual part of the book too. Then I just rearranged it 100 million times.
Audience member: Hi Kristen. When you were talking about Emily Dickinson’s quote, “the horror to not be surveyed”, I started thinking about how the graphic medium is a way of seeing the story. And I was wondering if you consciously thought about that medium and what it means to be seen in your story in relation to your content?
Radtke: No, I didn’t. But that’s such a beautiful idea. I love that. I think I just made it a graphic book because that’s just how my brain works. And that’s the only way I felt like I could construct a book. But it was a challenge to think about what you were saying earlier, like these are your representations of what you see as loneliness or what you see represents loneliness, which is the whole book. I mean, it’s not like this is a comprehensive survey of loneliness, it’s just the way I experience it, or am interested in it. But it was this challenge, like “how do I stop drawing?” Just like one person alone in an empty room. There are certain visual tics there that I had to work on.
Miller: Thank you very much. And Kristen, thank you so much for this conversation. That was Kristen Radtke talking about her book “CQ. A journey through American Loneliness”. We spoke in front of an audience at the Portland Book Festival last weekend.
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