Book Review : Traumatized by a Fear of Loneliness

Alone in America: The Search for Companionship by Louise Bernikow (Harper & Row: $15.95)

"I have been unbearably lonely" is the direct quote that most stands out from this book, and it is said by the author herself. "Alone in America" is like a book on pain written by a person with an unbearable headache; a treatise on alcoholism written by a drunk. Louise Bernikow gives the overwhelming impression not just of having suffered from loneliness, but of having been extremely impressed by it, traumatized by it, so that this book--while often vivid, often touching--is also uneven, one-sided and ultimately passive; "helpless," as it looks at loneliness.

Because of this, "Alone in America" is undeniably haunting: "Life became a month of Blue Sundays, days that made people vulnerable to the fantasy that everyone else was with someone and not lonely, that lovers were having brunch and families were having picnics and the world was knit together."

Or again, because Bernikow writes from loneliness, she reminds us of "adolescents who imagined the world had gone away for the weekend and was never coming back, that they alone had been shut out of a tapestry of girlfriends and boyfriends and gangs in cars and parties, and long, close talks on the telephone."

'The Room Tipped'

Bernikow has the feeling down pat: When an "expert" she's interviewing opines that women are more capable of intimacy, because as mothers "they were 'so close to the beating heart of a child,' " she remembers that "the room tipped. . . . I have, by choice, carried no child. Was I not, therefore, by his definition, capable of intimacy? And other women who had not had children?"

This attitude, in fact, sums up the method, the fabric and the point-of-view in this book. Bernikow's method--more or less straightforward journalism--is to go out and dig up some lonely folks, or some experts on lonely folks, and interview them (never mind that the experts, as above, may be dolts, or that the lonely folks may call somebody up later in the afternoon and haul out to a movie).

The fabric of the book is hit-or-miss, made to fit a preconceived conclusion on the author's part--that a good deal of America feels the same hideous fear of loneliness that she does. The point of view, again, reflects that curious helplessness. (When that "expert" says that only women who have babies can combat loneliness, why not just laugh, and "tip his room" for him?)

A Cause of Addiction

As Marcia Seligson once searched for "options," and Charles Kuralt still searches for the old Americanisms, Bernikow pokes about the lonesome people. She hypothesizes that addicted adolescents are lonely, or else they wouldn't get addicted. She finds a depressed boy in a Venice half-way house who tells her that he's staying in "the loneliest place in the world." She deduces that "this generation of widows" is lonely, "because they grew up in a world where women saw each other as competitors, threats, dangers." So they find themselves alone , now, with each other, these women "unable to connect to other women in meaningful ways, being lonely, needing each other, despising each other, sister victims in a cold and deadly world."

It seems fairly obvious here that the author is, quite literally, carried away by her thesis. We follow her through a world where, if you work at a job, "you can't reveal your hand to anyone." If you lose your job you're reduced to staying home and building a greenhouse, and nobody ever calls you on the telephone. If you're a wife, your husband won't talk to you; if you're a man, you're trapped in the demands of a career; if you're "old," nobody will touch you because you're all soft and wrinkly.

Why There Are Parks

By overstating her case, Bernikow undercuts it terribly. Mothers home with children get lonesome; that's why the universe has parks. Some jobs are lonely. Bernikow finds a man who spends all day with his computer, but most of the world (or is this my bias?) goes to work for companionship as well as money: Look at restaurants, hospitals, lumber yards, offices, travel agencies, hardware stores, where people joke, talk, know each other. Yes, Sundays can be scary. But that's why God (if there is one) invented churches. Addiction is lonely. But that's why so many people go to AA. And the unemployed--well, that's what adult-education or charities, or politics or tenure, or marriage is for!

Besides stacking her deck to show only loneliness, Bernikow commits other misdemeanors here. She continually mixes up loneliness with apathy and/or depression, which are really different things. And she fails to take into consideration the transient quality of loneliness: that we can brunch at the Plaza this morning and mope in the afternoon; that we can cry with loneliness and then plan a dinner party, that we can--after waiting weeks for a kind word--give away kind words to others, and perhaps change our scenario.

Not to say loneliness doesn't exist in America: It does. But it doesn't, as Bernikow suggests, play itself out on one endless, relentless note.

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