Living Single, Dying Alone

‘The Loneliness Files’ By Athena Dixon

Tin House, October 2023, 192 pp.

In 2012, responding to reports of a foul odor, a New York landlord discovered the groundbreaking feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone dead in her apartment. It was estimated her body had been there for a month. Firestone, who lived reclusively, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1980s. Still, it’s hard to ignore the implications: the author of The Dialectic of Sex, that scorching takedown of romantic love, met a tragic spinster’s end. “Do you ever worry about choking to death alone in your apartment? . . . And they’d show a picture of you on New York One,” asks Liz Lemon in an episode of 30 Rock in which she considers becoming a lesbian. But if loneliness is the cost of female success, it is also, in our post-touch world, recognized as a near-universal social problem. Earlier this year, the US Surgeon General released an advisory detailing “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The report warned of an “underappreciated public health crisis” with “profound” consequences for individual and community survival.

In her new memoir-in-essays, The Loneliness Files, Athena Dixon approaches loneliness not just as a trend or trope but as an identity. “I am someone in the background of a picture. A blur in the street. A voice in the din of the world,” she writes. Dixon is aware of her unimportance, and the book is about how much that awareness stings. It’s an interesting counterpoint to “main character syndrome,” the informal diagnosis popularized on TikTok to describe social media-enabled self-centeredness. But main character syndrome—the desire for high-resolution recognition—may itself be a response to the blur of loneliness. Dixon habitually Instagrams herself walking in the airport while traveling and feels comforted that, when she forgets, “people remind me to do it.”


Dixon contributed to the poetry anthology The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (2018) and published her debut essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, in 2020. She is divorced and childless and a member of Gen X, the so-called Forgotten Generation. She lives alone in Philadelphia behind a triple-locked door and writes about loneliness as if it were a palpable presence. She begins sentences with “my loneliness” as a way to both address and take ownership of her alienation: “My loneliness is not groundbreaking . . . and it is not tragic. It just is.”

As did Liz Lemon (and Bridget Jones, and non-fictional single women, too), Dixon reveals a preoccupation with what she calls “lonely ends,” or dying alone with no guarantee of being missed right away. She ruminates on many real-life examples gleaned from news stories. There’s Joyce Carol Vincent, an English woman who, by all accounts, was pretty and lively and desired. And yet when Vincent died in 2003 at age 38, no one noticed until her skeleton was discovered in her apartment three years later. Dixon is also transfixed by a Croatian woman she doesn’t name but who is identifiable as Hedviga Golik. Golik’s remains were reportedly found in front of her TV in 2008—she had been dead for 42 years.

Dixon is most fascinated by the deaths of modern everywomen like herself: not celebrities or feminist authors but lone citizens who meet lone ends. Public interest in the Joyce Carol Vincent case is periodically renewed by think pieces. Earlier this year it was covered in a viral essay by journalist Hanna Phifer titled “Why Did Joyce Carol Vincent Die Alone?” Phifer, like Dixon, became fixated on Vincent’s story because she could see herself in it. She was looking “for ways to avoid the same fate.” “I know how history remembers the lonely,” Dixon writes. “Some of us are footnotes and asterisks. Oddities to dissect against the scale of the social. A tally of friends and followers and digital impact. What is the legacy we leave behind if not some lingering performance of how we lived? This is the loneliness of another kind.”

Dixon’s focus is more personal than sociological, although she notes, for example, that Japan has a minister of loneliness, a formal governmental position created to curb climbing suicide rates. She describes how her life, like so many of ours, “moved from the macro to the micro” in 2020. In isolation, and in response to the hell-loop of death, protests, and fascism, she stopped paying attention to the news. “I lost my ability to juggle the daily need to survive this current life and remain informed.” She buys things online to feel “a brief jolt of materialistic serotonin.” Her neighbor assesses her as someone who takes “too many packages in and too few trips out.”

The relationship between loneliness and blackness is perhaps implicit in these pages, though not systematically addressed. In the essay “The Ruin of Rom-Coms,” Dixon cites the book The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance to contextualize her unluckiness on dating apps, where she has had the polarized but equally alienating experiences of being ignored and fetishized. She notes that black women are statistically the least chosen demographic on dating apps. She describes herself as “far flung from the center of desire.” She ruminates on past relationships and dreams up ideal ones.

For Dixon, loneliness is a daily presence, almost a partner in itself. “When I am taking the clothes from the dryer—their warmth softening my fingertips until they feel numb and buzzing like static,” she writes, “[romantic daydreams] come because I remember that the clothes are only mine.” She inventories a household designed around one: “A bed/a couch/a dresser/a rocking chair . . . one blue colander/one sheet set/one comforter.” “I can look to my right and see the detritus of life at my hip—holding the space where a person should be.”

For Dixon, as for many others, being single doesn’t feel like a choice.

The admission of loneliness is inherently embarrassing. And then there is the fear that, by making such admissions, we might appear un-feminist. Reading the book, I thought often of Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. “I’d rather be a spinster and paddle my own canoe,” Jo declares early in the film. But later, after rejecting a marriage proposal, she wavers. “Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty . . . I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for,” she tells her mother. “But . . . I am so lonely.”

A piece in Vanity Fair argued that Jo March’s 32-second speech (now a viral social media artifact) “speaks for generations of women,” spanning from nineteenth-century feminists to the present day. Has so little changed in a century and a half? In All the Single Ladies (2016), Rebecca Traister finds that the rise of single women as a demographic has been largely empowering. Women are more educated and more represented in political office than ever before. More women put off marriage or eschew it altogether to satisfy their professional and personal ambitions. On the other hand, according to a 2020 report on American dating habits from Pew Research Center, “women are much more likely than men to say dating has gotten harder” in the last ten years. These women cite increased physical and emotional risk, the isolating effects of technology, and the difficulty of finding someone who shares their relationship goals and meets their expectations. For Dixon, as for many others, being single doesn’t feel like a choice.

It is hard to measure loneliness. Some studies suggest that women are more likely to report it but men are more likely to experience it. Perhaps women who can write frankly about the subject, who can claim and refashion it in fresh ways, are forming a contemporary loneliness canon. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (2016) comes to mind, and, in the realm of fiction, Ottessa Moshfegh’s cultishly beloved hits about secluded women: My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) and Death in Her Hands (2020).

In 2021, Kristen Radtke released the acclaimed graphic memoir Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. The title is a play on the old amateur radio code “CQ,” which was used to call anyone listening on a given frequency. Radtke’s research revealed the ways isolation has been slowly but firmly normalized in American life, from the invention of the laugh track to the mass touch-starvation we endured during the pandemic. Both Dixon and Radtke address the unnaturalness of this isolation. Radtke reflects on the controversial work of psychologist Harry Harlow, who separated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers to study the effects of social deprivation. By contrast, Dixon turns inward to explore her natural inclination toward connection, parsing the pain of its absence. Both books succeed because they treat loneliness not as a literary curio or a personal failure, but as a social and existential problem. Loneliness “has a way of wrapping itself around me until it hides what’s actually true,” Dixon writes.

The intimacy of Dixon’s book is vulnerable. At times it reads almost like a private journal. But the effect is tender rather than voyeuristic. She invites us into a kind of kinship. The book is segmented into three parts (“Life as It Is,” “Out in the World,” and “Coming Home”) and each of those is paired with a set of three songs intended as “recommended listening.” The song recommendations are like a mixtape or a playlist from a friend, a gesture of connection. I empathized with Dixon, but also felt she empathized with me. “I am overwhelmingly lonely,” she writes. “And I cannot believe that doesn’t matter and I will not believe there are not scores of others like me.” This belief motivates her to offer connection to others, too. She recounts a trip to the very white Pacific Northwest, where she makes a point to give “the nod” to the only other person of color she sees. It’s important to her to acknowledge him, and equally important that he feels acknowledged.


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