The Lonely City (book review)

I finished the book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing today, and I’m here to write a review.

Laing talks in this nonfictional social study book, predictably by the title, about loneliness, the kind that comes from being alone amid a city of millions of people.  Her particular interest is on people who are lonely because of structural prejudice or traumatizing experiences, and she explores those people and spaces through the artworks and lives of famous historical artists who she believes personify such loneliness and prejudice.

It’s an interesting read, trailing through countless pieces of artwork, countless lives.  There is a particular focus on prejudice against homosexuality as well as the AIDS epidemic.  What I thought the book was a little short on was Laing’s conclusions based on this research.  She essentially claims in the book summary that she has potential remedies to heal loneliness, but the book is very short on that particular element.  Instead, she spends most of the book talking about the loneliness of artists, or about being lonely in New York City herself.

From what I could gather, her conclusions about the cure to loneliness were threefold: First and foremost, we have to realize we are not alone in being lonely, by her recommendation through looking at the lonely works of famous artists.  Second, we have to learn how to befriend ourselves first and other people second.  Third, we have to recognize and face the fact that some loneliness is structural and situational – not all of it can be solved with a pill.  She also had an interesting chapter on technology, the Internet, and social media as both a cure for and a way to intensify loneliness, all wrapped up in one experience.

Let me say that I agree with all these conclusions.  I just wish they’d taken up a larger part of the book.  I wanted her to elaborate on them, when really they did not take up very much of her 281 pages of writing.  I even wanted more elaboration on her own lonely experiences in New York City and her own struggles with gender identity – those, too, took up a very small section of the book.

I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but I am saying that the summary is deceptive.  I picked up the book because I remember being lonely myself in a city I used to live in.  I picked up the book because I’m going to move to another city and I want to try and avoid feeling the same way again.  But that’s not the point of this read.  The point of this read is to look deeply into the lonelier lives and works of artists and the historical and structural prejudices they faced.  Laing wants us to avoid making the same historical mistakes again.  Her own loneliness, or a potential therapy for loneliness, is more of a brief aside, a way to make a larger point.

If you’re interested in that, read the book for those reasons.  I am interested in those issues, and she handles them well with some pretty thorough and interesting research, but I wish I’d picked up the book knowing that was what I was going to get.

My other criticism would be this: out of all the artists Olivia Laing profiled, do you know how many were female?  Two.  One was extremely disturbed, obsessively stalking Andy Warhol, and both were portrayed more as consequences of and connections to male artists, rather than as artists in their own right.  You’re honestly telling me no interesting female artists accurately portrayed loneliness without the catalyst of a man?

Still, it was overall an interesting read into historical and structural issues and famous works of art, doubling as a mini biography concerning the loneliness of the lives of several famous artists.  My one main warning would be that this book contains triggers.  I had to put the book down at some points.  Child abuse and depictions of child mutilation, possible pedophilia, and severe mental illness eventually spiralling into stalking and homelessness are all portrayed in this book – with compassion and reflection instead of cruelty, but honestly and bluntly nonetheless.

If you are easily triggered by any of the above issues, and do not feel you could work past seeing them in a text the way I did, this may not be the book for you.


Standing Rock Militarized Zone and Arrests

A militarized zone has been placed around Standing Rock, and protesters who refused to leave the protest site have been arrested.  Why does this matter?

Well, let’s start with the obvious one.  You shouldn’t be able to arrest someone for peacefully protesting on their own land in the United States of America.  Great reason, right there.  President Trump and many in his cabinet have stakes in this oil pipeline.  Another spectacular reason to be sickened by the arrests.

But let’s move beyond that a little bit, and talk about what Standing Rock is all about.  The reason why the Dakota Pipeline is being protested is not actually because the pipeline would go through sacred ground.  Technically, it wouldn’t.

But do you know what it would go right through?  The Standing Rock Indian Reservation’s only supply of water.  So here’s the argument of the people at Standing Rock…

What the hell are they supposed to do if the oil pipeline leaks?  “It won’t leak.”  I’ve actually heard people use this as an argument!  First, it’s a lot easier to say that when it’s not YOUR water they could be sullying.  And second, how the hell would you know?!

Let’s add another fact the mix.  The Dakota Pipeline protest camp is on private land.  That’s what I mean when I say someone should be able to protest on their own land.  The person who organized the protests… it’s literally her own land they’re protesting on.  It’s also technically considered a cultural preservation site.

And we just put a militarized zone around it and arrested people protesting on it.  If that doesn’t frighten you, it should.

The Rescinding of Bathroom Rights for Transgender Students

President Trump has rescinded governmental protection of bathroom rights for transgender students.  First, let’s take a step back and define what a transgender person is.

A transgender person is NOT someone who has randomly decided they want to be the sex that they are not today.  A transgender person is a person who does not have what is called “transgender congruence.”  This is a psychological term meaning how well aligned a person feels their outside is with their inside.  Another way to think of this is that many transgender people have what is called “gender dysphoria.”  To give you a little perspective?  Anorexic and bulimic people have “body dysphoria.”  What they feel and what other people see are two entirely different things.

Think Mulan singing to her reflection, except on a sexual level.  Get it, got it, good?  Okay, done.

Now, this means that – drumroll please – according to actual real goddamn psychologists, transgender people cannot help being the way that they are.  When they say they can’t help it, they mean it.  THEY REALLY CAN’T.  A boy can feel like a girl, a girl can feel like a boy.  It’s a legitimate psychological thing.

This means that by forcing transgender people to go to the bathroom assigned to their original sex, you are essentially forcing a little girl to walk into the boy’s bathroom and take a piss.  Far from attacking other people in their bathroom of choice, transgender kids fear BEING attacked.  They are one of the most victimized groups on the face of the planet.  No matter what other groups they are a part of, they are never accepted.

Don’t like the touchy feely crap?  How about this statistic?  In all the states where transgender bathroom laws are a thing, there has never once been a documented case of these mythical “transgender bathroom attacks.”

Let’s add in another lovely little tidbit.  Transgender is what’s called an umbrella term.  This means that transgender can refer to anyone who is not cisgender (their original sex and their internal gender align).  This means that transgender can, in addition to referring to people who are simply gender dysmorphic, also refer to people who have had gender reassignment surgeries done – especially as the students get older.  

This means that we could be forcing someone who was originally a man to pee in a men’s restroom even though she (SHE!!!) no longer has a penis.

So why does this transgender bathroom shit matter?  That’s why.