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Graphic Novel 'Seek You' Illustrates The Loneliness Of Modern Life, Pre-Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If there's one thing we have become accustomed to recently in this pandemic, it's loneliness. But as author-illustrator Kristen Radtke details in her new book, loneliness is one of the most universal things one can feel, and the loneliness of modern life long predates this terrible period. Her illustrated book is called "Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness," and she joins me now. Hello.

KRISTEN RADTKE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You define loneliness as the resting in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want. Can you explain?

RADTKE: Yeah. So when we think of loneliness, we often think of someone who, you know, maybe has no family or friends or who spends great deals of time alone. But solitude and loneliness, while there often is overlap, are two very different things. I think of it as, you know, that moment maybe when you watch a movie with your partner or your best friend, and you're like, this movie has meant so much to me, it's so wonderful, I can't wait for you to see it, and they don't like the movie. Like, loneliness in the long term is kind of like that feeling writ large, where you still feel like maybe something is missing or your experience of the world is very different than how those closest to you feel it, which is a very isolating feeling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Studies show loneliness has a direct effect on life expectancy. And you write it's not about the time one spends alone but how they feel about that time alone.

RADTKE: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When it comes to the science of loneliness, how much do we know?

RADTKE: We know very little. We've only recently started to understand that there's a specific part of our brain that responds to loneliness and tries to sort of propel us back towards a group. You know, when we were living in caves and starting a fire with sticks, we needed each other in order to stay alive. So when we were alone, our brain released stress hormones to be like, hurry up. Get back to another person. You're in danger. What if a tiger comes along? What will you do? And now we live in a world in which we have maybe fewer wildlife dangers, but we spend a ton of time by ourselves. So when that stress hormone continues to build up and to build up and to build up, it creates really dangerous long-term problems. And we are unable to do things like fight infection or fight disease.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you discovered that loneliness is contagious.

RADTKE: It is, which was probably one of the most surprising and alarming things I discovered in my research. So Dr. John Cacioppo - he was sort of the pioneer for studying loneliness. He unfortunately died too young a few years ago. But he, through his studies, discovered that loneliness actually can transmit out three degrees of separation. So you can sort of be a lonely hub, and up to three degrees removed from you, you can kind of pass that along because when you're lonely, you're more likely to self-isolate, which then makes the people who are closest to you feel rejected. And then that sensation can get passed along and passed along.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's fascinating. The way you kind of draw a line between American loneliness and also gun violence...

RADTKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Is really interesting. Why did you want to bring that in?

RADTKE: I grew up in a rural community in which guns were sort of a religion. And it was so much about, like, the bootstrap pulling. We can make it on our own. Everyone who is an outsider is out to get us and is bad. If I didn't grow up with them, I don't trust them. And that's a real symptom of isolation. And so when I see the way we've had political divides arise in our country, it seems to me very much related to that sense of insider versus outsider. And what we've learned, I think, by watching the rise of gun violence and the rise of mass shooters is it's fascinating and, I think, often very incorrect the way that the media presents those who perpetrate things like mass shootings as loners or as outsiders and that the sort of disconnection becomes the cause in the sort of public consciousness for why something like this happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you also touch on this idea of how the media has also portrayed loneliness differently in men and in women. I mean...

RADTKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...You take the example of the cowboy and so many famous characters on TV, like Don Draper, that are brooding, drinking alcohol...

RADTKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...In dark rooms.

RADTKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What sets their loneliness apart?

RADTKE: Well, I think there's a kind of sexiness in a male loneliness. And I think we see male loners on TV either as sort of the handsome outsider, like the Don Draper type - and Don Draper is just a cowboy. Tony Soprano was just a cowboy. Walter White was just a cowboy. All these anti-heroes who we kind of fall in love with on TV - it's a regurgitation of an old trope. It's a compelling trope, but it's a mythic trope all the same. We either see that male character, or we see, you know, the mass shooter or the murderer. There's really not a lot of in between.

And then with women - I became fascinated with Sandra Bullock because she's always playing a lonely character. Whether she's, like, a detective or a sort of hapless assistant, you know, bumbling around New York City, she's always an outsider. And her life sort of becomes complete when she finds a man.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd never really thought of it, but I guess that is true. They even shot her...

RADTKE: (Laughter) Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Into space at a certain point...

RADTKE: Yes. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And made her be completely alone.

(LAUGHTER)

RADTKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she had to imagine George Clooney with her...

RADTKE: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...So she could sort of get back to Earth. Wow - poor Sandra Bullock.

RADTKE: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why are we so lonely?

RADTKE: I mean, that's the big question. Every time we do another study about this or another survey, we find that every decade or so have fewer people close to them that they feel like they can confide in for important matters. That number shrinks about every decade, which is really troubling and alarming.

And there's been some speculation by anthropologists that it's because the middle ring of our communities have fallen away. So we traditionally think about relationships in terms of three rings. The outward ring is maybe, you know, the person at your bodega who you chat with, and you know their name, but you don't know much beyond that. The second ring are things like, you know, maybe a bridge club or a neighborhood network or a church or a PTA group or a bowling league. And then the innermost group is our most intimate friends and family. And a lot of studies are showing that that center ring of, like, your PTA club, your bridge group, are disappearing. And with that, a real sense of belonging is going with it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the beginning of this book, you kind of write about this moment, the pandemic, and you say that you hope we take something away from what we've learned here. What is that?

RADTKE: Yeah. I hope we remember that we need each other. Like, I think the pandemic helped us talk more openly about loneliness, which is maybe a unexpected silver lining of this horrible time because loneliness had been a taboo subject. It's something - no one wants to admit that they're lonely. It makes you feel like a loser or like you've failed in some way. But a worldwide imposed sense of isolation in the pandemic is very different from the problems of systemic long-term loneliness. And so there was a kind of solidarity in the loneliness of the pandemic. And I think it also led to some community building that we haven't seen in a long time, like mutual aid organizations, for example, or the mass mobilization we saw around the election.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or just getting to know your neighbors.

RADTKE: Exactly. And - which I really did. I mean, I got to know my neighbors during the pandemic in a way I never had before. And I know all their names now, and we talk every day. But the question, to me, is if we can implement those attitudes in the long term when this emergency has passed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristen Radtke's new book is "Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness." Thank you very much.

RADTKE: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENKY'S "SWEEV") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.