There's a scene from Sex and the City where Miranda chokes on some Chinese food in her (super huge) bachelorette pad.  This gives rise to her fear of living, and dying, alone.  Of course, everything turns out just fine for Miranda, arguably the most independent of all the gals.  And by "fine" I mean she gets a man and a baby and a house in Brooklyn so, yay, nuclear family ending!  There was always ambivalence about the whole situation in her character though, and I get that.  I live alone too, and I don't think about it much.  I'm still young enough to feel like being frail is a long way away.  I like my space, I don't want kids, etc etc. 

Going Solo seemed like one of those books I'd read to shore myself up, have someone preach to my choir.  The sunny sounding subtitle: "The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone" makes it sound like the kind of book where I'd find stories like mine, get some interesting statistics, learn about why people my age(ish) choose singledom.  That's all there, but it's in short supply.  Author Eric Klinenberg interviews the creator of Quirkyalone, talks to some divorcees, and is — thankfully — aware that the experience of, and the journey to, living alone can be very different depending on one's gender. There is also a thoughtful analysis of how and why the nuclear family structure common in the mid-20th century has changed (mothers got to work outside the house, and this move is treated as the radical change it was) and interesting thoughts about community planning for the future.  A lot of the singles in these sections are happy, having chosen to live alone. "Most people who live alone are financially secure, not poor, and those who purposely use their domestic space as an oasis from their busy, stressful work lives report that it is a regenerative, not an isolating experience."

However, more of the book talks about the elderly, and the challenges they face as they age.  Most of those profiled are widowed, so they are alone not by choice. Several are poor, or finding it difficult to get by, while not wanting to go into a nursing home where care is often substandard (and getting worse, as corporations increasingly look to the bottom line and nothing else). Klinenberg also talks to the indigent, mostly men, who populate New York's Single Room Occupancy buildings.  The main thrust of the book is more that
[t]he extraordinary rise of living alone is not in itself a social problem.  But it is a dramatic social change that's already exacerbating serious problems for which there are no easy solutions: Social isolation for the elderly and frail. Reclusiveness for the poor and vulnerable.  Self-doubt for those who worry that going solo will leave them childless, or unhappy, or alone.
There's not a lot of feel-good going on here. And what was worse for me, the only person in the book who resembles me shows up only as a corpse.  "Mary Ann" dies at 79 without any family, and Klinenberg accompanies the state worker who is charged with trying to find someone to lay claim to Mary Ann's meagre estate.  There's some weird language used about the older people in Going Solo: for example, an older woman who bemoans her lack of companionship is described as being sad that she had no one to complain to.  That felt pretty unfair.  Another profiled senior is noted as making racist jokes, though this has nothing to do with the topic at hand (unless the implication is that his racist jokes made him an outcast?).  Klinenberg also talks about his grandmother, who lost her second husband as Parkinson's Disease began to take hold of her.  Fortunately, she had children who would chip in for the very best of care.  This is not to say the experience in an assisted living home is perfect, but she's lucky she had help. Perhaps "lucky" is the wrong word, since most of the elderly alones in the book have some sort of family support system.  (The same can't be said for the men of the SROs though.)

I often read motherhood narratives because they reinforce my choice to be child-free.  Perhaps parents will want to read this book and be glad they had those kids.  I will never have children, I will not marry* and I have no siblings.  When it goes wrong for me, in my old — or possibly not so old — age, it's going to go very, very wrong.  The old joke about dying and being eaten by one's cats before anyone notices?  This guy.  Before I read Going Solo I honestly didn't mind my lack of family too much, but thanks to this dreary and scary book, I'm terrified.
*"I will live my life as I, will undoubtedly die: alone."


Steph said...

I'm married and with a dog, so I don't live alone, but I often wonder about it, what it would be like, and it always appeals to me.

I too don't want kids, and people keep asking me what about when I'm old, or telling me, rather, that I'm going to regret it when I'm older.

The way I see it, I can always get a pet.

I'm kind of disappointed after reading your review. It sounds like a book I would have liked to have tried, but now I'm not really convinced I'd like it. I wanted more positive, too. It's a big deal for me to read non-fic in the first place, so it has to be really appealing, like The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.

Panic said...

I LOVED Chimps of Fauna. Love. This is not engaging like that at all. Mostly statistics and interviews. Narrative non-fiction is always more fun, but the sociological stuff can be interesting for me.

Steph said...

I have to add that just because one lives alone and doesn't have kids doesn't mean they have no one at all in their lives and will die the scary death of Mary Ann. There may be other family or at the very least friends, if we allow it.

Steph said...

Well, that's it then. I'm buying Chimps. I started it at work one day but never bought it for money reasons at the time.

Panic said...

Ah, but no! Klinenberg has thought of that. You see, when you get old, your friends are also old and have their own shit to deal with. So they can't help you. When I'm old enough for that to be an issue, my family won't be around anymore. Trust me, I'm fucked.

Bret said...

The thing to remember is that dying is an all-by-yourself process no matter what. All sorts of married people get discovered, rigor mortis setting in, half-slumped off a toilet. All sorts of married people get sick or demented and have to go into care homes where nobody visits.

Point being: old age and dying are scary. But they're not any less scary if you're in a couple.

Panic said...

True. The book notes that it's often women who are left alone after a partner dies, so it's not like getting married is going to help. Oy.

Anonymous said...

I was never more alone than the years I was married. I'm happy to be divorced, and I eagerly await the day my 20-year-old leaves home for good.

BTW, I think your decision to not have children was a great one. I never wanted children, and having one did not change my mind: do not believe people who tell you otherwise. I do my very best, but parenting is far from fulfilling, and never has been. Being a parent does not define me: I have other roles in my life that are equally important. Biological reproduction is not the epitome of existence. So, yay you! I'm jealous.

Panic said...

I'm happy to be divorced too. :)