This graphic memoir helps us name and understand isolation—and take steps to loosen its grip on our lives.
Posted in , Oct 13, 2021
Loneliness was called an “epidemic” long before COVID and its draining isolation were part of the national vocabulary. In her compassionate, poignant graphic memoir, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke slices through the shame and silence around the loneliness that is a nearly universal human experience in 2021.
Radke weaves philosophical and psychological research and insights together with reflections from her personal life story. Radke came of age in the 1990s, in the days of chat rooms and other early internet innovations that many might point to as the origin of modern loneliness.
But her book illuminates that moment in time as merely the latest in a long history of cultural changes—from the television laugh track to kids learning “stranger danger” to solitary living as a mark of a wealthy country—that, intentionally or not, primed American society to normalize loneliness.
The television laugh track stands out among the fascinating and surprising examples of why so many Americans are lonely. Sound engineers in the 1950s first experimented with recording live audiences laughing and clapping during radio show comedians’ performances. They found that the laughter could then be used to bolster listeners’ reactions to less-funny performers. For generations of consumers of entertainment—including Radke—laugh tracks provided a sense of belonging, companionship and social education.
“Though I didn’t understand many of the jokes,” Radke writes of her experiences watching sitcoms like “Friends,” “the audience’s laughter taught me what I was supposed to find funny.” But laugh tracks were, of course, artificial. They worked, Radke says, “by coaxing a solitary viewer into a sense that she isn’t, in fact, alone.”
Seek You is a highly relevant book for the present moment, in which many of us are struggling with the social transitions involved with reconnecting as COVID-vaccinated friends and family members—and as we look ahead to the winter with an unsettlingly familiar anticipation of isolation.
Radke’s book is not “uplifting” in a toxically or artificially positive way, or in any way that could be construed as dismissive of the reality of loneliness in so many of our lives.
But it does take up the important topic of loneliness in an approach that will leave readers feeling seen—and able to see others in a new light. That journey is toward hope, and it is what makes Seek You an important read for those working to live with authentic positivity.
As Radke says, “I want us to use loneliness—yours and mine—to find our way back to each other.” To that, I say, “Amen.”