“‘Where are the men?’ the little prince at last took up the conversation again. ‘It is a little lonely in the desert. . . ‘
‘It is also lonely among men,’ the snake said.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Social obliteration is what happens to monkeys who are kept alone in vertical chambers for more than 12 months. I have begun to consider what this means, this being alone. A scientist invents an experiment in hopes of creating clinical depression symptoms in young monkeys, many just over three months old, who had already formed bonds with other monkeys. They are placed in an inverted pyramid, named the Pit of Despair by the scientist who created it, and with walls so slippery they were impossible to climb so that eventually the animals just sit unmoving in the cell, rocking on their haunches, peeling off their skin, heads tucked into arms in a slow fetal death of the soul. The scientists names them “total isolates” and notes that no animal emerges from the depths of the depression chambers undamaged.
I have recently immersed myself in the story of a young girl born in the 1970s. Her father decided she was mentally ill when she was nothing but an infant, a cooing small bird wrapped in her mother’s arms. The father’s cure for this illness is to lock her in a room, caged to her bed or strapped to a toilet chair. She existed in this state for years, 13 to be exact; neither her father nor her mother ever held her, they rarely fed her so that she never grew, she stayed small and skeletal, like an ensnared beast starved of food. Her father would enter the room and spit and snarl, he would act like a dog, and she would cower in the corner of her small bed but nobody ever spoke to the girl, she never heard a word, and so she never spoke a word, alone in that room.
I live alone. In a city teeming with people running back and forth, in a town with mountains towering over buildings, I live alone. Actually, I don’t quite live alone, I live in a house on a hill with an old dog and a sassy rabbit. Sometimes I drink wine, sometimes I watch videos while I stand in the kitchen cooking, sometimes I walk for hours to stave off the loneliness. Sometimes I seek the companionship of strangers in a coffee shop or an old bar with a woman, hair immaculately beehived, mixing drinks.
Most of the time I choose to be this alone and when I am surrounded by people I yearn for the expanse of an empty unmade bed. I long for my own bathroom, for the silence in my house aside from my dog licking her small legs and the crunching noise of the rabbit gnawing away on newspaper.
In the 1950s, researchers at Montreal’s McGill University decided to place a group of men alone, each in individual rooms with nothing but a small bed inside. The point of this experiment was to administer sensory isolation and test its effect on human cognition and connection. The paid volunteers wore pillows over their ears, cardboard tubes over their arms, gloves on their hands, and clouded goggles over their eyes so that they could see or touch or hear or feel anything. They were meant to stay in this space observed by scientists for 30 days. After less than 7 days, however, they found it unbearable as their thoughts began to sour and grow strange. They grew too restless and difficult to manage within their cells and so the researchers decided to let them go free with limited data collected and yet the conclusive evidence was that isolation drives a human being to hallucinate. One man complained later in interviews that all he could see were dogs everywhere, just hundreds and hundreds of dogs.
The child in the room stayed supernaturally small, a waif-like creature barely in the shape of a girl. Her mother was cowed by the fear of the girl’s father and so did nothing. Her mother did not hold her, did not speak to her and so she did not speak to her mother, her mother did not reach to kiss her cheeks or hold her hand. Documentaries later said it was as if she had been brought up by wolves, but wolves would have sidled up to the girl, wolves would have let her touch their deep coats, would have licked her, would have grasped her by the nape of her neck and carried her away from that room. She was no wolf, she was alone in a room in a city with one small square of light pouring from a single window, with no toys and no mother and father or brother who would speak to her.
Until one day a hand unlocked the door to the child’s room, led the girl through the halls of the house where she could barely walk and so she hopped, she bowed her back and stumbled into broad daylight, she made reptile sounds and squinted at the sun. Her mother took her to a welfare office where at random she had planned to apply for food-stamps to find some semblance of a life raft to escape on. The mother had decided to leave the husband and the older son. Social workers saw the little girl and they were afraid because she did not look like a 13 year old, she looked like a toddler, she looked like she had just crawled out of a cave and in a way she had.
When I was a child I was often alone because my father was deep into addiction and my mother was lost in depression. When I was 11 years old I made up a friend to tell my family about, and though they were uninterested and did not care, I still wanted to impress upon them that I was not alone and that I had friends. In titters and tatters of momentary family communion I would tell them stories, that she was considered a bad influence by other children’s parents, she always carried a book filled with the names of kids who had signed away their souls to her in exchange for snacks, and pencils or pens, and she would write me letters, letters I penned in a secret handwriting, where she made sometimes desperate confessions to me. I named her August, the 8th month of the year, the month of the poppy.
My mother was always somehow gone even when she was physically present. I never felt I knew her, never felt it was appropriate to touch her, but I always yearned to fulfill her. I told my mother about this friend as if she were real and produced the letters she had written me as evidence, and my mother nodded, she took a drag of her cigarette, I like her name, she said.
Years later my mother named a dog after my made-up friend, but she did not remember where she had gotten the inspiration for this name. I am going to name her August, she said, as her lips pursed around the edges of a burning cigarette, Gus for short. My mother loved that dog, she would hold in her lap and stroke her head. She would hold that dog in ways I had always yearned for her to hold me.
Inmates in solitary confinement develop crippling obsessions, like a profound desire to empty one’s bladder completely. Not a drop left, not a drop, standing in front of the cell toilet focused on this act, this expelling what is inside oneself. Do not let there be a drop left. The impulse to eat and breathe diminish, the inmate grows white in the room, the skin turns ashy, the limbs go hard, the bones unbendable. What is this body in one room alone?
Can the body alone in a room dream of touch if it has never truly been touched or held? Is the dream of touch enough?
After years in segregation, a human begins to prefer death. A monkey begins to mutilate its own body. A girl never learns to speak.
A prisoner in solitary confinement begins to lose the sense of alertness, the world is no longer constant, things move that shouldn’t, whispers and odd songs fill the cell. Some inmates experience the return of memories such as being locked in a closet as a girl, the whorl of wood, the sweep of jackets over her small head create a further sense of containment. There is an impenetrable wall of thought in the air that lingers like dust or fog, it seeps through the walls of the room, it lays its many hands all over the body, but it is not like being touched but held down with so much weight the air inside your lungs begins to vacate the safety of the body, it trails into the air ducts, it abandons the soul.
Sometimes to shirk off the essence of loneliness I touch myself, I stroke my hair, I trail the tips of fingers over the skin. Sometimes when I have not kissed in too long I kiss my arm and the tickle of soft hairs on the wrinkles of cupid bow lips feel like the white fuzz on my house cactus. My rabbit tests his tongue on my leg—something rabbits never do unless they love you so much they want to groom you—his black eyes gazing so hard into my own that I can feel the room begin to peel off in layers until there is nothing but space all around us and his gaze spinning me forever outwards.
When I am with him the world feels impossibly but joyously large.
When I am with many I can feel myself step outside my self, I smile but look past the heads returning that smile, I curve my smile into the empty space around their floating forms.
Christopher Knight walked into the wilderness of Maine when he was 20 years old. He had always favored being alone, he did not have any friends. He slowly drove his car past his parents’ house, to say goodbye, he said, but he did not stop, he did not roll down the window and wave. He did not say, Dad I am going up into the wilderness alone, please do not try and find me. He simply kept driving down one small rural road to an even more remote one until the lanes narrowed more and more and he was deep into the forest above Maine’s largest lake. It was how he chose to abandon the public world and the shared reality of cities and towns and bustling communities. He left his car to be swallowed by the forest for 27 years as he trekked deeper and deeper into the woods. He was hungry but not enough to rejoin the world of people.
The girl in the room was discovered and people took her and they pushed her and prodded her and they found that she had two sets of teeth, her baby incisors had never been encouraged to fall out because she never ate real food and the adult ones grew around them, they discovered a body ravaged by lack of nutrition, a mouth unable to form coherent words, small spidery hands that still did not know how to hold another hand. They named her Genie, a little-wisp-of-smoke-girl who curled out of a bottle who had not acquired language, and they studied her like a specimen. She was declared feral because she hopped like a bunny, because she spit and snarled; still she was far from wild, in fact she had never seen the wild just the four walls of the room, just the frightening face of her father as he mimicked dogs when he leaned over her small bed, growling and rearing up like a massive hound.
When you live in a family of five siblings it is difficult to be alone. I have always been surrounded by other boys and girls who looked like me. We shared meals and holidays, we shared fear and sometimes blame and yet I often found myself staring into the face of massive wildernesses. What is up there, I’d ask my father. Exactly what you see, he’d say. I often dreamt of running off alone, trailing up into deep unknown places and making a home there. In these dreams I never included my family, my brothers or sisters, it was simply me alone in the thick of a deep and impenetrable hidden place, a vacuum of forest, and a sky barely visible above the umbrella of trees. I would live there stirring soup in a giant deep stone with a long branch cooing to the creatures all around me.
I have recently immersed myself in the story of a young girl born in the 1970s. Her father decided she was mentally ill when she was nothing but an infant, a cooing small bird wrapped in her mother’s arms. The father’s cure for this illness is to lock her in a room, caged to her bed or strapped to a toilet chair. She existed in this state for years, 13 to be exact; neither her father nor her mother ever held her, they rarely fed her so that she never grew, she stayed small and skeletal, like an ensnared beast starved of food.
American prisons have general populations which are overcrowded and this leads to fighting and general chaos and disorder which is why so many are kept in isolation, locked into small bare rooms alone and rarely checked on. Human beings can easily kill themselves in these conditions as the room begins to peel away in layers and all the person can see is the wealth of their own hallucinations, death calls out like a mermaid to a lonely sailor stranded at sea, come into these dark waters, and join me? Let go of living. The prisoner stands over the toilet for 24 hours trying to empty an empty bladder, I must get it all out of me, I must.
The purpose of this kind of segregation is to keep those that would do harm separate from others, but it is also used to protect the vulnerable from the larger population, and yet the single cell can do even more harm than the armies of other inmates because the cell sneaks into the mind, the cell etches its way into the soul and blows the person apart from the inside out.
Sometimes even when the door is finally opened and the prisoner is invited to make their way back into general population they shrink back into the walls of the room, they huddle in the corner and beg for the door to be slammed shut once again.
Christopher Knight relied on people but he looked for patterns to avoid their presence. He wandered into their small cabins when they were away and raided the cupboards as his stomach flipped and growled inside his body. He needed food if he was going to be able to keep up this being alone and the forests of Maine were not generous, there was little to forage and he had no rod to fish with nor gun to hunt with nor was adept with those items if he had them. He crawled through the windows of empty homes and took rations with him back to his camp among ancient lumbering boulders jacketed with deep green moss. He had previously worked with security systems so he knew how to disarm them. He mapped the movements of nearby people so that he could avoid them and in this way he lived for many years always leaving a trace but never seen.
The girl inside the room became the girl inside the institution and her new captors, the scientists, tried to teach her language. She learned single words and would use them to describe her father and to describe the essence of the room but she never learned to speak in full sentences. So many years had gone by with her not speaking that that part of her brain had muted and closed and it had never been awakened and it could not now be developed. The neural cortex of her brain, the one that holds speech and thought, was never stimulated because she was never spoken to and she never spoke.
The girl inside the room became the girl inside the system and she was fought over and exchanged between doctors and her mother and institutions. She never belonged to a family but at 18 she went back with her mother and back to the room. And then she quickly became a ward of California State, swallowed up into paperwork, her identity erased.
I enjoy being in the dark, says Knight, as he describes in brief sentences his years of solitude to reporters after his capture after years of being hunted by local cops, years of crossing that large body of water lashed by rain in a canoe filled with stones or the goods from nearby cabins, small mattresses, stolen propane, cans of beans, new tarps; he said he made home with the captured items inside a hidden rock enclosure, a place supernaturally invisible to any passerby for all those years. He methodically watched people so that he could descend upon their stuff, their food that they hadn’t bothered to lock up, their flannel shirts they left behind for half days at a time but he only ever took the things he needed to stay alive. Knight watched in the dark as they sat by campfire he knew the number of steps from his hidden ridge to their front doors. Knight described the effect of this vast solitude in the wild.
I lost my identity, he said, there was no one to perform it for.
We differentiate between being alone and being lonely, the two are not the same. A person may choose to be alone, may actually enjoy solitude like Christopher Knight, like monks who live in caves to practice their devotion to God, Thoreau who fell in love with Walden pond.
It is the kind of solitude that is romanticized. There are also those peoples and animals whose aloneness is something imposed upon them, like the girl in the room, inmates in solitary confinement, people lost at sea, animals in the state zoo. The overwhelming feeling of loneliness is separate and distinct from the pleasure of solitude and choice makes up so much of the mental landscape / the emotional reactions to these varying different degrees of being on one’s own.
I so much wanted to please my mother that there were times as a child that I tried to kill myself because I believed there was a solution to her unhappiness and it was my absence. If I was gone from this world my mother would become happy, she would find joy. When my father would come to pick me up for weekends I would sob as I left my mother. I always felt there was an air of indifference around my sadness, my yearning to be with her and for her. Extreme loneliness is felt even when the lonely person is inside a crowded room. My mother felt wholly and completely alone even with an army of children by her side, even as I first grew in her small belly. To her, a child crying for her company was an empty gesture.
The girl in the room couldn’t be saved by language, not by her mother and not by the state and yet she is no longer in that original room. The solitude imposed on her from her infancy to the beginnings of her teenage-hood took its toll. She never learned to speak about who she was but her identity slowly came through in bursts and waves like sunlight filtering through a window. Her name was not Genie. Her real name was never made public.
Early stylites were Christian devotees who sat atop pillars for upwards of fifty years because they thought it brought them closer to God. People would provide these monks with spare rations but otherwise they spent their days alone perched on a pillar praying to a God they felt was more present in the silence of solitude, in the extreme conditions of the pillar. There is just enough room for the monk to sleep and waste is carried away by volunteers with bucket and hoist.
This practice has largely been abandoned except for one man by the name of Maxime who lives in one of these pillars above a Georgian monastery where he has resided for some thirty years. The pillar summit can only be reached by climbing a 130ft ladder that sways and bangs against the rock in ascent or descent. Maxime was inspired to become a monk and to position himself alone on the pillar after he was released from prison. He denounced a life of petty crime to spend his days alone on the pillar in silence. For the first few years there was no where for Maxime to sleep that was safe from the elements, he slept out in the open perched on the pillar as rain and snow barreled against him and as sun whipped the stone with light.
In my childhood I was free to wander and I did. I left home and shoplifted, broke into an old orphanage down the street from my grandfather’s apartment and wandered the halls of the dusty cafeteria to the auditorium where one lone chair still sat in the middle of the space, I broke down the basement door and went into the pitch dark boiler room. I was at peace in the darkness. I freely went about the cities, towns, and open wilds in the landscapes of my childhood. I was never technically alone for long because I almost always went home to a rather large family but the feeling of being devastatingly one is something I still carry with me. The places I went as a child, the little beaten paths around Maumee River, the Toledo Public Library, the aisles of Woolworths downtown with its many overflowing bins of socks, so many dirt roads in New Mexico that were wound and rutted by daily passage, all of the homes we lived in, none of them ever felt like what books and movies said home should feel like. I felt my heart always adrift in my chest like a strange and solitary walker in a blinding snowstorm upended completely by the sway of the world.
In 1989 an array of hydrophones built by the US Navy to detect enemy submarines accidentally made a recording of a whale song, one unlike any ever heard. A typical whale of any species sings between 10 and 40 hertz which made this song, measuring in at a frequency of 52 hertz, significantly lower. It meant that this song was most likely inaudible to other whale species and researchers believe the whale doesn’t travel in a pod but swims the depth of the ocean alone; while the song has been recorded there has never been a reply to it from another whale. Scientists have monitored whale calls year round since this discovery and the song has been heard only a few other times. Blue 52 is his full name, given for research purposes, but his nickname is The World’s Loneliest Whale. Perhaps, like Christopher Knight, Blue enjoys the darkness, the evasion and avoidance of others, the silence, the ability to exist on one’s own moving like a ghost through spaces shared by others not quite wholly undetectable and yet nearly traceless.
Christopher Knight walked into the wilderness of Maine when he was 20 years old. He had always favored being alone, he did not have any friends. He slowly drove his car past his parents’ house, to say goodbye, he said, but he did not stop, he did not roll down the window and wave. He did not say, Dad I am going up into the wilderness alone, please do not try and find me.
Loneliness is indeed a public human health issue even with global overpopulation and the ability to immediately communicate on a moment to moment basis we still struggle as people to find togetherness. We have less privacy than ever before and more extreme examples of people living in close proximity to each other like high rise apartment buildings in bustling major cities with hundreds of people completely unaware who their neighbors are. I may be able to hear your muffled voice through a wall, your toilet flush at night, the prosthetic sounds on the tv, but still not know your name or be able to pick your face out in a crowd. This is how some humans live these days, yearning for connection but sometimes unable to make those wires come together. Loneliness is not just a weight on the mind but it stresses the physical self so much so that those who report feeling lonely to their doctors are found to be at higher risk of death from disease or self-destruction.
The door is open now but the prisoner won’t come out of the cell.
Extreme loneliness is a pre-death and even those who pursue loneliness must be strong enough not to disappear completely. Knight was eventually captured by police 27 years after his initial withdrawal, a reality he must have presumed would happen at some point, and Maxime, the monk on the pillar, makes the treacherous climb down the ladder twice weekly to pray with his followers. Even though I often prefer being alone to the company of others I admit it takes its toll and I will sometimes grow heavy with it, moving from errand to errand with a kind of sluggishness. If I trace this back to my childhood I see it is because I never felt safe and at least, by being alone, I could control certain aspects of my life, I could cut away the parts of existing among others that deepened my fear. When Knight was asked if he had any revelations to share from his time in the Maine wilderness he simply said, get enough sleep. He never said whether he had or had not gotten enough sleep himself and he never shared the source of his initial restlessness with society.
I know I am struggling with loneliness when I spend too much time in bed. Lying there so long I know that I am not getting much needed rest rather I am wasting the hours and the sleep doesn’t always comfort, sometimes it erodes. If I was like Knight, an expert lock picker surviving in a brutal east coast winter, perhaps the sleep would feel like hibernation but instead it feels like an escape and my body becomes like the blankets, unmoving and unmoved.
A temporary withdrawal from the world is described as a retreat like a cabin a writer might go to in order to focus on nothing other than getting words onto a page. Sometimes this is just what the writer needed, they blossom books in this solitary space and the odd dominion of woods all around them enlivens rather than dampens the spirit. There are also those who go a bit mad as they may write but nothing seems good and the open space beckons all around them as it seeps like battery acid into the thoughts.
Some writers prefer the echo chamber of coffeeshops, diners, the quiet suspension of libraries in all their musty glory still other writers sit at home at desks or in personalized writing spaces, in bed with books piled all around them. I imagine Blue 52 as a kind of writer of songs, of calls that ring out into the space around them like bursts of thunder spreading and moving over the blighted expanse of underwater cities, not asking to be answered or even heard.
Everyday I walk up a hill I live near and go to a ridge that looks out over the city. I look down on the streets, the small houses, the little sidewalks and I look forward towards the mountains. I look up and see nothing but the sharp blue New Mexico sky. I am never alone on this ridge as there is always a dog walker, a jogger with headphones, an odd creature stumbling from the bushes. I collect debris, small abandoned earrings and beads, chunks of petrified wood, odd bits of glass polished by the desert sand, spears of smoothed-over bone and it pleases me to imagine who left them behind. This is a place where being alone feels like a super- power.
I oscillate between the extremes of being in a crowd and that tug of isolation at the heart to being content in the mostly empty contents of a house where my books and my creatures sustain me to sometimes feeling as I walk through the city that I’d rather not be alive at all, I’d rather not go through another day. I know that I am not alone in this feeling and that is one way I remedy it, one way I push myself to the next moment and then to the next after that.
Christopher Knight’s parent’s never reported him missing to police and he survived for 27 years as a hermit in the wilderness, burglarizing nearby cabins and remote vacation homes at the rate of 40 per year. In those 27 years the only word he exchanged with anyone was with a hiker he hadn’t expected to encounter on a rarely traveled path. Hi, he said. A greeting, an acknowledgement, I see you and know you are alive, hello. Otherwise he lived in silence.
There are others who have no doubt done the same, those who have left society and whose absence went unmarked.
The Rover on Mars was presumed to be the universe’s loneliest robot, programmed to sing itself Happy Birthday once a year, it wandered the red surface snapping pictures of the landscape and transmitting the evidence back to earth. The robot is believed to be completely alone on the planet but it cannot feel “lonely” because it is a machine. It is a wonder, a great question if the creations endowed with artificial life can share our emotions, our same tender and tortured feelings. Does the machine feel comfort, does it feel desire or grief? In the movie, Wall-e, about a robot alone on a planet filled with trash tasked to clean it up, is depicted as being so lonely, it attempts to comfort itself by holding its own distorted metal hand. The truth is that the Rover on Mars only hummed Happy Birthday to itself once on its first year on the red planet in 2013 and ever after that it shuffled on in relative silence since it was decided that there was no scientific gain to the robot’s song.
I kiss my arm, I sing softly as I stand on the ridge overlooking the city, I sit in a home on a hill and write these words with a snoring dog beside me, and a rabbit across the room, head turned, eyeing me with one unblinking black eye.
Baraniuk, Chris. “Earth – The World’s Loneliest Whale May Not Be Alone after All.” BBC, BBC, 15 Apr. 2015, www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150415-the-loneliest-whale-in-the-world.
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Dewey, Caitlin. “Lonely Curiosity Rover Sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to Itself on Mars.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/ wp/2013/08/06/lonely-curiosity-rover-sings-happy-birthday-to-itself-on-mars/.
Finkel, Michael. “Into the Woods: How One Man Survived Alone in the Wilderness for 27 Years | Michael Finkel.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Mar. 2017, www.theguardian.com/news/2017/mar/15/stranger-in-the-woods-christopher-knight-hermit- maine.
Mechanic, Michael. “What Extreme Isolation Does to Your Mind.” Mother Jones, 25 June 2017, www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/10/donald-o-hebb-effects-extreme-isolation/.
Mulvaney, Kieran. “The Loneliest Whale in the World?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Jan. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2017/01/26/the-loneliest-whale-in-the-world/.
Nolan, Steve. “Maxime: Meet the Monk Who Lives a Life of Virtual Solitude on Top of a 131ft Pillar.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 6 Sept. 2013, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/ article-2384040/Maxime-Meet-monk-lives-life-virtual-solitude-131ft-pillar.html.
“Pit of Despair.” Psychology Wiki, psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Pit_of_despair.
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Ravindran, Shruti. “This Is What Solitary Confinement Does to the Brain – Shruti Ravindran: Aeon Essays.” Aeon, Aeon, 27 Nov. 2019, aeon.co/essays/this-is-what-solitary-confinement- does-to-the-brain.
Wiley, Susan M. “Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children.” YouTube, TLC, 13 Jan. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjZolHCrC8E.
Georgianna J Van Gunten is a writer based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has an MFA with Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is currently teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She/her or they/them pronouns are preferred. A 2015 recipient of the Margaret Randall Poetry prize, publications include Gesture Literary Magazine, Le Petit Press, Semi-Colon Press, Bombay Gin Literary Journal, et al.