Initially, I was skeptical about reading your memoir How to Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t. “How to be alone?” my lady brain snarked. “How to be in a relationship that lasts longer than six months is what I need.” I’ve been single for most of my adult life, and I’ve attended a lot of therapy about it. Despite the fact that there were 110 million unmarried people in the United States in 2016, it’s still hard to be a single woman. There are more financial, emotional, and social costs to living outside of a relationship than is usually discussed with any nuance, empathy, or compassion. I’m an expert on the single lady experience: I’ve read many books—and wrote one—about the subject.
I’ve ranted in the pages of Bitch about the single-lady-industrial complex, led by Steve fucking Harvey, that advises Black women on how we can become more worthy of companionship. Despite my cynicism, I got out of my own way—and let your amazing story break my heart wide open. How To Be Alone’s vulnerability, humor, and naked emotion was profoundly healing, and reading it was one of the first times I recognized myself in nonfiction. When you describe yourself as a “real-life Matilda: surrounded by biological family, who, in constantly rotating ways, couldn’t be bothered,” I was astonished that we’ve both been orphaned in the same way, “alone in a way you can never quite describe to people.” I’m the youngest child of a single mom with a history of mental illness. My brother Jose died a couple of years before I was born, so I was partially named for him.
My mother unraveled as she grieved, which left her unable to parent me or my siblings. By the time she died six years ago, I’d forgiven her, though it still hurts to have been unmothered. I parented her and myself while my siblings were cared for by others. I met my father when I was 18, but he was too inconsistent, wounded, and distant. We tried to understand each other, but too much time had already passed. He died by suicide in 2010.
When I officially became an orphan, I thought that it could be a new beginning for me. It was and it wasn’t. There aren’t many books that explore how to be alone that aren’t about waiting or preparing to become part of a couple because capitalist patriarchy normalizes and valorizes heterosexual romantic relationships. That’s partly why I wrote Single & Happy: The Party of Ones in 2013. But Sasha Cagen’s Quirkyalone, a book that centers people who’d rather be single than settle for the wrong relationship, is probably the best thing I’ve read about learning to enjoy solitude. It’s hard not to be in a relationship, especially this time of year when holiday gatherings typically involve people with families and significant others.
Like you, I have always felt a little weird about finding a soulmate, so I deeply related to your explanation for why relationships are so hard for people like us: “There’s a specific sort of obsession with love that you’re bound to find yourself having once you’ve realized, on any level, that you don’t have a family the way you’re supposed to,” you write. “There’s a need in there to be normal, to be wanted, to belong to anyone, anywhere, as soon as humanly possible, that lends itself to loving super-romantic shit of all kinds.” Your book offered me catharsis as someone who struggles with anxious attachment as a result of surviving childhood trauma.
It made me turn questions that I used to direct at potential partners toward myself. How had I not understood before that I pick unsafe people to love and attach to? Where would I have ever learned a healthier way? One of the most beautiful things about your book is that it complicates narratives around family, belonging, and loneliness. It shatters stigmas and silences with humor while naming deep, codependent patterns in all kinds of relationships. Most books about being single aren’t usually as entertaining and instructive as yours because they react to a canon of nonfiction rooted in heterosexist patriarchy.
Your book is so important because you assert that you can belong to yourself first or even always if you want to—and you can learn to view friends as family instead of becoming fixated on not having the traditional family. You write about wanting to belong to someone so badly that you let yourself become a doormat. You stopped having needs in order to become the perfect partner. Yes. Even when my parents were absent, I was still attached to the idea that their struggles were a form of love. It took a long time to write a different story for myself. But now, I think I can.
One year, I ghosted on a Thanksgiving gathering for orphans, and I was relieved to read that I’m not alone in this experience. You perfectly describe the unconscious torture our beloveds inflict on us by inviting us to these holiday soirées:
“It’s so hard to tell people, ‘Yeah, the holidays kind of bum me out because my best friend as a kid was a caterpillar I kept in a muffin-tin liner in my room.’ You end up feeling like you don’t have a place in the world because your genuine, deeply felt and often beyond-painful feelings about your nontraditional family situation get swept under the rug in favor of easier, more ‘normal’ frustrations with otherwise good families.”
I have always felt lonely at “orphan” Thanksgivings, and as an introvert, I resent being surrounded by strangers, usually in pairs or otherwise unavailable, on a day of national significance. The question I am always negotiating, even after years of therapy, is whether it’s valid to just skip these functions instead of trying to make them work. Holiday gatherings will always be hard if you haven’t had a “normal” experience, but practicing different ways to make them feel better is worth a shot. Reading How to Be Alone is like having real talk with the friend who loves you too much to lie to you. That friend will light the path back to yourself when you get seduced by your own darkness.
Your commitment to survival is more than a notion; it’s a balm, an affirmation, an eternal love note, and a sacred love manifestation that starts as a whisper and rises into the atmosphere.
The most epic, incredible, soaring parts of your story, are the places where you’re tender, and funny, but also so harrowingly sad and devastated. Your commitment to survival is more than a notion; it’s a balm, an affirmation, an eternal love note, and a sacred love manifestation that starts as a whisper and rises into the atmosphere. How to be Alone gave me closure. What a gift it is to know that there’s another person in the world who’s so brave and true to her spirit that she survived the hardest parts of being alive. Instead of sinking into despair or madness; being waylaid by bitterness or tragedy; or turning the grueling and terrifying dark of isolation against yourself, you’ve transmuted it into a fire so bright that it blazes brilliantly, with a classic, universal humanity. James Baldwin said, “You think your heartbreak is unprecedented in the world, and then you read.” How To Be Alone is like that.
Lane, you deserve every single fucking good thing that happens to you. Thank you for reminding those of us who have survived hard things that we do, too.
With gratitude, admiration, and love,