Lonely in America
Suzanne Gordon’s second book, Lonely in America, is a concerted effort to explore loneliness as a mass phenomenon of modern American life. As a journalist who has published in The Washington Post, MS, The Village Voice, and other media sources, the author’s point of view remains principally one of observer-chronicler. In her previous book, Black Mesa: the Angel of Death (1973), a study of the conflict over use of Hopi Indian land for an energy development project, she established her credentials for dealing with the negative effects of modern society on more traditional human and social values. In this book, she continues to study these effects by focusing on the problems of loneliness as experienced in our society today. Relying on standard journalistic techniques of interview and observation, Gordon has added extensive documentation from a wide selection of social science and popular readings to produce a comprehensive, if depressing, view of this common malaise.
The guidelines for this study are stated in quotes from two commentators on modern life: C. G. Jung and Jules Henry. From Jung, the founder of analytic psychology, Gordon has expanded the concept of the collective unconscious, Jung’s theory that shared myths and patterns of belief become the psychological cornerstones of human society and cultures. The particular aspect explored in Lonely in America is that collective problems often appear as individual personal problems, while in reality, they are consequences of “. . . an insupportable change in the social atmosphere.” Gordon’s central thesis is that loneliness, while experienced on an individual level, is so pervasive in our society that it must be a collective problem caused by mass societal changes, not necessarily by individual psychoses.
From The Jungle People by Jules Henry, the author has taken another major theme of her book. Henry describes people polarized between love and death in the case of absence of meaning in their lives. When a person feels his life has no significance, it often becomes a choice between death as an escape from life, and love, a clinging to it. Gordon postulates that loneliness is a state of emptiness, a void caused by lack of love. Lonely people become obsessed with a search for love to supply meaning for their existence. The many examples in the text picture individuals whose lives seem totally centered in the experience of aloneness and attempts to escape from it.
There is more to this study, however, than a mere chronicling of lonely people’s sufferings. The author also discusses, as she proceeds through the human life cycle, the causes for the pervasiveness of this feeling in contemporary American society. Her thesis that the causes lie in fundamental changes in our culture which inhibit the formation of relationships as well as break up those that are formed, is repeated frequently. Support is found in the results of studies and in observations by prominent social scientists and psychologists. The rise of urban technocracy and industrialization, the breakdown of the family as the main cultural unit, and increased mobility of the population are all culprits cited again and again. These changes are common targets of many studies in recent years, but they have never before been linked so comprehensively with the problems of loneliness. The theme is stated quite succinctly: “Life in America has exploded, and loneliness is one main ingredient in the fallout.”
Definition of loneliness in a meaningful way is the first task undertaken by the author. Loneliness is subjective—an emotion that is experienced by distinct, unique, and separate individuals. While not succeeding in an actual definition that would satisfy academicians, Gordon does succeed in portraying the key operational elements of loneliness, what she calls “The Geography of Loneliness.”
Using standard dictionary definitions and a myriad of examples from personal interviews and sociological studies of modern society, she has developed a composite view of the factors of loneliness. Examples of how these factors interact give the work its real strength and validity. Primarily, Gordon says, loneliness is an empty feeling, a sense that something vitally important is lacking from one’s life. Along with this physical description, she identifies the major psychological feelings associated with it: hopelessness, fear, and a pervasive sense of failure. These components act singly and in conjunction to effect what is called the “dynamic” of loneliness. By this term, Gordon means to describe the patterned reactions of individuals as caused by powerful psychological forces: in other words, the experience of loneliness causes individuals to act in ways different from the way they would act if they did not feel lonely. For example, the pairing of individuals is normal and necessary behavior. In the case of extremely lonely people, however, the search for a mate often becomes an obsession, the result of which is failure. Either a person tries so hard that they never succeed, or the emphasis placed upon maintaining a relationship at any cost is so strong that the pressures break up the match.
Once the basic groundwork is established, Gordon’s book lapses somewhat in the central section: “Experiences of Loneliness.” Looking at the problem developmentally, ways in which societal changes can effect lifelong problems for the child are examined first. The author documents the early development of the loneliness dynamic by using Henry Stack Sullivan’s theory that children whose needs for intimate contact are frustrated early continue throughout their lives to seek fulfillment of that need. This action usually centers around a...
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