Loneliness Is A Communal Experience In 'Seek You'
Kristen Radtke's Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness defies categorization — and it does so in spectacular fashion.
At once a memoir, a personal essay about loneliness, an exploration of the science of solitude and its effects, and an invitation to come together in a world built to separate us, Seek You looks at isolation as a problem and investigates where it comes from, how it shapes us, and why we should battle against it.
Loneliness is a silent epidemic in America. It affects people in variety of ways and has adverse effects on our physical and mental health, but we collectively refuse to talk about it — and our understanding of its consequences is not as complete as it should be. Now, the lockdowns brought by the pandemic have made it worse. In Seek You, Radtke's cuts to the marrow of our inner lives as well as our online lives and public selves to explore the ways in which community, interaction, and even touch affect us, especially when these elements are missing. Looking at everything from technology and social media to art and her own past, Radtke draws on a plethora of stories and personal experiences as well as scientific studies, writers, and philosophers to investigate how we interact with each other and what those interactions ultimately mean for our emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing.
"When I started writing this book in 2016, rates of loneliness had already been increasing exponentially for decades, yet it wasn't a subject I heard people talk about very often, at least not in relation to themselves. In the Spring of 2020, isolation was imposed on all of us at once," she writes.
Those words set the tone for Seek You. However, this hybrid graphic narrative goes above and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, Radtke looks at the history of solitude while simultaneously contextualizing its role in contemporary America. Her voice is confident and honest when talking about herself, but also openly questioning in her observations. Radtke looks at the narrative of her own life as well as the lives of others — friends, family, people online — and what emerges from that is a brutally honest book about what it means to be a human surrounded by others. She writes: "Living in a city can become a practice in containing the hostility we feel for the strangers we live alongside: annoyance when a man's leg is pressed up against ours in a packed subway car, tempering our rage-filled glances at someone vocal-frying to their friend for playing tinny music from a cellphone."
The beauty of Seek You is that it feels like a communal experience. Reading this book is reading about ourselves and our lives. The portion that deals with social media will surely resonate with anyone even remotely involved in it. The section that focuses on the work of scientist Harry Harlow is uncomfortable to read because of the horrible abuse perpetrated on monkeys, but also unforgettable because it illustrates how crucial interaction with others is. Also, the discussion about mass shootings and how the narrative about the shooters often focuses on them being "lone wolves" is chilling in its accuracy. While each of those segments shines, Seek You is more than the sum of its parts; this book is loneliness dissected, and the dissection involves all of us in a personal way that's impossible to not care about.
"Vivek Murthy, a former Surgeon General, has said that the most prevalent health issue in America is isolation," states Radtke, and the way she treats it in this narrative shows just how much she cares about making others aware of this. Because it is silent, ignoring loneliness — or confusing it with random sadness — is relatively easy, until it's not. Anger, depression, low self-esteem; these are just some of the most common results of loneliness, and while we certainly talk about them, we often fail to discuss where they originate. Radtke talks about her own experiences with loneliness with candor, and that might help others do the same. She writes:
"Loneliness feels to me like being underwater, 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."
Loneliness is a problem in cities full of people. Solitude is a silent killer that affects the elderly as well as the young. Feeling ostracized can make some people cry and retreat into themselves and it might make others pick up a rifle and take their anger out on innocent victims. Because of all these things, Seek You is not an easy read. We don't want to look at huge problems when we lack a clear solution, but the lack of a solution is exactly why we should be tackling the loneliness problem; it affects too many of us to be ignored.
While this is a graphic nonfiction book, writing is its most important element. The art is superb and each section uses different colors to set the mood, but words take center stage more often than the art, and that turns the art into the perfect companion; simultaneously a way of envisioning Radtke's words and a perfect frame for the information presented.
Seek You accomplishes a lot and its unique hybrid nature makes it a must-read. However, perhaps the most important thing it accomplishes is telling everyone that they aren't alone in their loneliness, and that could be the first step into ending the loneliness epidemic.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.