Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto
Da Capo Press
This book is for all the non-social-butterflies out there. If you are reading this blog, you are probably one of them. Bookish types are the quintessential loners, though as Anneli Rufus (or anneli rufus) points out, loners defy description almost by definition. Rufus defines loners as people who simply like being alone, and a side effect of spending time alone following our own internal promptings is that we tend to develop very individual personalities and habits. Unlike most people we have no desire to fit in with the crowd and so we quite naturally veer off in our own directions, that is, in all directions.
The book celebrates many of the lonerish manifestations—artists, writers, heroes, adventurers, geeks—and does a good job of defending the loner by showing how much society benefits from all the creative projects we give birth to in our secret lairs. Rufus also spends some time taking down the most negative and unjustified loner stereotypes, the serial killer and the crazy person. She points out that while the media robotically portray every psychopath as a loner, it turns out that most of them had plenty of friends and family, at least before they got caught. There is a hardly a loner in the bunch. A few kept visitors away for the obvious reason that they had something (bodies, bombs, etc.) to hide. Some desperately craved human companionship but ended up alone because of an offensive personality. Social rejection prompts them to kill, not some inborn misanthropy that supposedly led them to shun society in the first place. Real loners don’t much care whether people accept us, so we don’t kill them when they don’t. It seems logical, but criminologists persist in profiling suspects as loners and so the friendly, smiling psychopaths get away.
The mentally ill are another class of what Rufus calls “pseudoloners.” Very often, like most people, they crave friendship and love but their distorted personalities turn people off and they end up alone against their will. The unfortunate consequence is that people tend to see solitude as a symptom of mental illness and this causes no end of trouble for the happy loner, especially for children. No parent wants their child to end up a maladjusted freak, or worse, and so they fling their little daydreamers into group activities, not realizing they may be torturing their own children and perhaps even stunting their internal growth. Rufus speaks from experience here, and relates how her mother kept trying to make her play with other children, basically at random. Research on how hard-wired our personalities are shows how futile this sort of remediation is. Making a loner social is as possible as making gay straight. You can make people miserable, but you can’t make them something they’re not.
My least favourite chapter was on religion. The basic premise is that religion, being inherently collective, is not of any interest to a true loner. This is then followed by some garden-variety Christianity-bashing (Crusades, check; Inquisition, check; witch-burning, check), as well as a freak-show tour of the ancient desert ascetics and medieval anchorites. Apparently bias against Christianity trumps the defense of loners because these spiritual seekers are portrayed as crazy people living completely useless lives. A few pages on and hermits of other traditions are treated with great respect. It’s an all too typical double-standard and shows a lack of research because there is a great tradition in Christianity of appreciating solitude and valuing solitary seekers. Rufus does bring up Thomas Merton, America’s famous hermit-monk, but then questions his loner cred by pointing to his fame and wide circle of correspondents. It seems the only good hermit is a non-Christian hermit.
I think the strongest part of the book is the emphasis on the creativity of the loner. Using time alone constructively is what separates the true loner from the outcast and the mentally ill. The arts and popular culture are dominated by the products of loners. We entertain the masses, even if we do not wish to be with them at the time. Loners are also responsible for a great deal of our scientific and technical achievements. It cannot be otherwise—creativity and invention come from within and cannot happen if there is distraction from without, therefore solitude is required. It’s an affirming realization, and one that I wish all young loners in today’s hyper-connected world could hear to counter all the voices telling them to join the crowd and stop being “anti-social.” It’s possible that nonloners will never be able to understand loners, but at least loners can come to understand themselves and let themselves be who they are.