Interview with author of Lonely - Part II

07/20/10 Dawn Morgan Elliott
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Last week we aired the first half of an interview with Emily White, author of the new book Lonely: A Memoir. In the second half of the interview, WMNF reporter Dawn Morgan Elliott asks White what other surprise findings she came across in her research on the topic of loneliness.

"We tend to think of loneliness as something that affects the elderly. And it certainly does. But to a much greater extent it affects young people. And the reason we don’t recognize that is because young people don’t talk about it. The years I write about in the book I was about 32 to 36. Those are years in which we tend not to think about people getting lonely, but statistically, a lot of young people are."

What other factors can determine who’s going to be lonely?

"A really major factor coming to light is genetics. One of the leading experts on this is Dorret Boomsma, and she uses the word buffer. If you don’t have this genetic predisposition, then you’re going to be buffered against loneliness against say a separation or a move. But if you do have this genetic predisposition towards loneliness, you’re not going to be buffered. And you’re going to wind up feeling lonely more often and in a broader array or circumstances."

Your parents divorced when you were very young, and you make a direct connection between childhood trauma and loneliness in adulthood.

"Two New York researchers who came to the finding that the experience of having parents your divorce was directly related to loneliness in adulthood. And that the younger you were at time of the divorce, the more severe the adult loneliness would be. These findings are from the late 70’s early 80’s, and they might have changed a bit since divorce has become more common. But one of the reasons that’s been put forward is, if you as young child, go through the experience of divorce, especially an acrimonious divorce, you’re less likely to trust in other people. And the less likely you are trust other people, and to feel secure in your attachments, the more likely you are to become lonely in adulthood. And I think you know, it’s a hard idea to test or verify, but there’s a lot to it. In childhood you might come to associate relationships to risk or insecurity. And if that happens, it’s more likely that you’ll wind up struggling with loneliness as you enter your adult years."

In the book you often brought up the media’s portrayal of loneliness.

"In the media the lonely are often portrayed, if they’re men, as violent, and women as sexless and dowdy. So one of the reasons I wrote the book was to hack through stereotypes. And, you know, my book is just one voice saying these stereotypes aren’t true, because if stereotype is all you have, it has a real silencing effect. And that means that people struggling with loneliness don’t want to talk about it no matter how bad it gets because they don’t want to be judged for their loneliness."

What can someone with a lonely friend or loved one do?

"One of the best thins you can do for a friend or a partner, who happens to be lonely, is open up discussion of the subject and acknowledge that your not seeing it as a case of blame, or anything like that. And just create a situation where the lonely person can talk about their feelings. The other thing I would suggest is don't offer pat advice. What I hear from lonely people all the time is how frustrating it is to finally get up the nerve to tell someone that they struggle with long term loneliness, and be told ‘Go volunteer at the soup kitchen'. Sometimes, not offering advice, but just listening, is the best thing to do."

More information on Emily White’s book and blog can be found at

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