First off, let me start by saying that I am under no illusion that I had written a New York Times bestseller or a masterful literary piece. As I said, I fully expected PsychCentral to provide some constructive feedback about the book and suggestions about how it can be improved. What really disappointed me was PsychCentral’s Recommendation that the book is “Not Worth Your Time.” I find that recommendation to be, quite frankly, insulting. And it is not that it is insulting to me personally, but more than half of the book consists of contributions by visitors to the Web of Loneliness, visitors who took the time, the emotional energy, and the courage to write down their life stories in the hopes that it can serve as a source of strength and support to others who suffer from loneliness. To say that the book is “Not Worth Your Time” essentially sends a very loud and clear message that those 18 individuals stories are not worth anyone’s time. That is one of my huge disappointments about PsychCentral’s recommendation – the belittling of the stories of these courageous people.
Second, I wanted to say quite emphatically that I am not a clinical psychologist. The reviewer of the book wrongly labeled me as a clinical psychologist although nowhere in the book or anywhere else for that matter where I have contributed, have I said that I am a clinical psychologist or even therapist. Anyone who has asked me for advice or guidance would usually hear me say that one of the best things you could do is to go and see a therapist and that I am not one. I correct people who mistakenly think I am one because I do not want to give the wrong impression of myself or my training. That fact in the review is plain wrong and PsychCentral should, for the very least, correct that error in the review.
One of the things that struck me about this review is what appears to be the underlying assumption that the reviewer is apparently basing her analysis. Although it was not said explicitly, the assumption appears to be that this book is a self-help book designed to help lonely individuals, through a series of revelations or practical steps reduce their feelings of loneliness. For example, the reviewer uses the word, “solutions” and that I am giving “advice.” Anyone who has interviewed me will have heard me say that I think that self-help books are a waste of time trying to help chronically lonely people feel less lonely. If chronically lonely people could read a book and feel less lonely, they would have done it a long time ago. The fact of the matter is that real, meaningful change is going to require a much more deliberate, therapeutic effort. So while my “solutions” and “advice” may seem superficial because in the self-help framework they would be, these were much more my musings and thoughts about loneliness. They are meant to be a starting point for discussion, hence the format of the book offering links to continue the conversations online. They are not meant as a step-by-step guide for effectively reducing your loneliness because I know that is a futile effort to try to do through a book.
Another critique in the review was that the book was not focused enough on loneliness. The reviewer stated that contributors of some of the stories seemed to be exhibiting “profound clinical depression” and “suicidality”. I think the reviewer is even suggesting that I had chosen the wrong stories because apparently some of them were about things than other than loneliness. All of these stories were from people who self-identified as lonely, and might I infer, for whom loneliness is a core, central problem in their life. It is not just that loneliness and depression are “sorrowful bedfellows” but rather that loneliness is a core problem out from which flows these other clinical issues. Often the mental health field has not paid enough attention to the impact of loneliness as a causal, central problem, which if addressed can has a cascading effect on these others issues as well. Check out Emily White’s book, Lonely – A Memoir for a detailed discussion, or just check out my dissertation and see the effect reducing loneliness can have on other clinical issues.
Even if loneliness is a central issue, why not just focus on that in the stories and cut out the other “stuff?” The reason is that there have been ample books in the past that have done exactly that, dissected the issue of loneliness, cutting up people’s stories of loneliness, and distilling the problem of loneliness in an isolated vacuum. For me, something is lost in this process, a holistic picture of who that person is, where they come from, what they had to endure, what they are thinking and feeling, the whole messy picture that is that person’s life. I deliberately chose to include almost word-for-word autobiographical stories because I wanted readers to really enter into a lonely person’s world. That, to me, is the complexity of the lonely, and addressing it through a variety of different lenses is important to get a whole picture. If you want to call that a lack of focus, so be it, but to me, I call it seeing the whole picture.
Coming back to the issue of the reviewer’s comments that my commentary was “shallow” and that my advice “glib.” The reviewer thought I could have spent more time analyzing each person’s story and commenting on the exact origins of each contributor’s loneliness. In my preface, I discussed that my commentary is nothing more than an educated guess. I have no way of knowing for certain if I am necessarily interpreting these stories correctly. My analyses were based off of one story from each person. I am sure that any clinical psychologist or therapist will tell you that one story is hardly enough to make any sound basis of diagnosis or to do any more than speculate about what is going on with that person. It would have been futile for me to start constructing elaborate cause-and-effect models about what is going on in a person’s life based off of a story. Again, that was not the point. The point was to inspire introspection and discussion. At some point people want the story to be relatable to them, and that is where I was trying to take it in my commentary, not necessarily to answer the contributor’s questions. I’m not even sure some of the contributors will ever read the book because they gave me their story years ago, and the emails I have for them are no longer valid. So I am speaking to the current readers and trying to connect with them through the story of someone else. Getting down to the nitty-gritty of someone’s life and making elaborate assumptions about them seemed like a waste of time to me.
The reviewer also suggested that some of my thoughts about the origins were “often” contradictory. The word “often” was qualified with one, very shaky example given between two chapters. I cannot be sure exactly which two stories the reviewer was talking about, since she failed to mention the chapter names or numbers but I am assuming they were about Louise (Chapter 5) and Justin (Chapter 12). She said I “wondered” why Louise sought relationships even though she was afraid of intimacy and then I talked about the basic human need to belong with Justin. First off, the “wondering” was asking a question the reader might have been asking himself/herself. I went on to answer the “wondering” with a discussion about trust issues and how having a sense of mistrust can be a barrier to forming relationships a person may be longing for (because, you might say, of their basic need to belong). How these two thoughts are contradictory, is beyond me.
The reviewer concludes that in the end, it felt little more than reading a public website. Well, in the preface I said this book is an extension to the Web of Loneliness, a chance to voice some stories of loneliness and to put some thoughts down I usually cannot do on the website. And it is also a chance to do a bit of fundraising. See, every single penny of royalty I have received from the sale of this book has been reinvested back into the Web of Loneliness. I have been running the website (for a decade) mostly through my own financial resources. I thought this might be a good idea to raise some money for the Web of Loneliness and bring the issue of loneliness to a larger audience.
While I can accept critical feedback as an author, I think the "not worth your time" comment only reinforces the notion that lonely people are somehow victims of their own actions and could simply choose to engage if they so wished. Nothing can be farther from the truth and all the people I wrote about are bright and intelligent people, often with excellent social skills, who, none the less, have difficulty forming and maintaining intimate connections. While my writing skills may, indeed, be less than stellar, this topic deserves a deeper understanding and examination and PsychCentral's review does nothing to move this problem forward.