Specific Solitudes: On Athena Dixon’s “The Loneliness Files”

By Diana RuzovaJanuary 15, 2024

Specific Solitudes: On Athena Dixon’s “The Loneliness Files”

The Loneliness Files by Athena Dixon

“I THINK ALONE IS SEXY,” writes Athena Dixon in the opening installment of her “memoir in essays,” The Loneliness Files (2023). It’s New Year’s Eve, 2021. The pandemic is at its peak, and Dixon, alone in her Philadelphia apartment, has donned a green dress and red lipstick. The poet and essayist drinks, dances, and watches the countdown with only herself for company—a solitary state she initially characterizes as “mysterious.”

Determined to protect herself from the virus, Dixon rarely leaves home. Soon, any claims isolation has to sexiness dissipate. After all, whereas being “[a]lone seems like a choice,” “[l]oneliness doesn’t.” To be lonely is to be “forgotten, passed over, discarded.” Like many of us did and continue to do, Dixon indulges in online purchases to fill “the void of depression with a brief jolt of materialistic serotonin.” All the while, she wonders if her super thinks she’s a hoarder. What if she died alone in her apartment? Would anyone notice she was gone?

As I write in December, the Northern Hemisphere has firmly entered loneliness season. Short days and long nights trigger reactions on a visceral, often chemical level; approximately 10 million people in the United States suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It isn’t just the weather. Being “extremely online,” grappling with a 24-hour media cycle, and contending, albeit helplessly, with several live-streamed wars—these all add up, compounding senses of alienation and despair.

Dixon’s memoir deftly traverses our exceedingly connected yet somehow lonelier-than-ever world. Over the course of 18 loosely linked essays, many of which focus on technology and what it means to be a body behind a screen, the writer interrogates the peculiar impacts of pandemic isolation, as well as the precise complexities of living alone as a single woman of color. Self-effacing personal narrative alternates with broader, incisive cultural observation. Stories are told about various, pervasive types of loneliness—the specific solitudes that stem, say, from being wrongfully pulled over by the police as a teenager, or from spending an afternoon in a sensory deprivation tank. Some are self-induced, some environmentally imposed. Dixon describes the diversity and complexity of loneliness, a state that often resists superficial appearances. As we know, it is possible to be surrounded by loved ones and still feel alone.

Whatever their source, different experiences can amount to similar feelings of alienation and discomfort. Of course, “discomfort” does not always do the condition justice. Loneliness might best be understood not as a passing individual ailment but as a deeply entrenched and wide-reaching threat to our collective well-being. In 2021, Japan appointed a minister of loneliness, responsible for curbing “hikikomori” (hiki means “to withdraw”; komori, “to be inside”). In May 2023, the US surgeon general declared a nationwide loneliness epidemic. And this past November, New York appointed celebrated sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer as its first-ever “loneliness ambassador.”

Such responses are warranted. Studies have shown the ways loneliness increases, among other ailments, our chances of dementia and early death. Dixon professes to be “overwhelmingly lonely” herself and writes that she “cannot believe that doesn’t matter” and that there are “scores of others like me. I know there are those who feel the world is always just a little too far away or a little too close—never comfortable in either situation.” She explores this liminal space of alienation and solitary angst to profoundly powerful effect.


Dixon’s first essay locates a fellow loner in 38-year-old Londoner Joyce Carol Vincent, whose abandoned, decomposed corpse was found on the floor in front of her TV three years after her death. Imagine—three years of absence, her body left to decay in front of “the glow of the television.” This dark, alienated image sets the tone for ensuing essays. It also raises the question: what exactly does one have to do to end up so alone?

Dixon continues her exploration of lonely women and our reliance on technology for connection in her essay on early 2010s blogger Elisa Lam, who documented her life on Tumblr, drowned tragically in a water tank at Los Angeles’s Cecil Hotel in 2013, and has since been the subject of true crime documentaries, podcasts, and online forums. As writers and perpetual outsiders, Lam and Dixon have much in common. Dixon writes: “What I see in [Lam’s] words is a push toward the hope of understanding how the pieces of her brain and the world fit together. If they do, in fact.”

As the essay’s title—“Ghosts in the Machine”—suggests, both Lam and Dixon opt to pass countless hours online, and both spend more time articulating their loneliness than finding ways to curb it. Ultimately, the women’s writings exhibit a shared, poignant yearning for human connection. Both search for common ground and a sense of belonging, and, the reader can’t help but wonder: might Dixon be less lonely simply knowing Lam existed?

Humans live in communities for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps most important among these is protection as, often, being ostracized or ousted from the pack translates to a death sentence. According to a 2021 Pew Research poll, 31 percent of American adults claim to be “almost constantly” online, and the proliferation of social media and the constantly changing nature of our technology-heavy world has fundamentally altered the concept of “community.” Dixon invokes the Japanese word “sotokomori,” which “hopes to capture those not fully isolated who perhaps do their best existing online.”

In other words, it is not uncommon for a person to find everything they need—including community and protection—on the internet. Again and again, Dixon finds “love and lust and friendships and enemies all from within the confines of [her] home.” Crucially, the writer notes that, in “the vast majority of those interactions [she has] been safe.” This sense of safety is a pillar of the extremely online, particularly during the germ-ridden days of the pandemic.

Of course, cybercriminals can lurk behind our clicks, but the pros of connection still outweigh the cons. According to Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), “[t]his is a new nonnegotiable: to feel safe, you have to be connected.” Online, such safety is twofold: physical safety from the dangers of the outside world, and emotional safety, or an antidote to loneliness.


It is in the realm of love and romance where The Loneliness Files truly finds its legs—and, likely, the self-awareness a memoir about loneliness needs in order to keep readers engaged. Without a deep examination of the self—in which the writer simultaneously acknowledges and comes to terms with how much of her loneliness stems from a lack of luck in relationships—Dixon’s memoir might have drowned in its own despair. Instead, in “The Ruin of Rom-Coms,” the writer directly describes her struggles with romance and dating as a Black woman in her forties. The essay begins by praising the gift represented by the author’s Black female therapist; it goes on to describe her lackluster dating experiences, high expectations due to romance movies, and the loneliness of singlehood. “It seemed only natural I’d find a relationship just like the one[s] in the movie[s],” writes Dixon, but “[i]t never happened. Instead, I’ve tripped and fallen into relationships out of desperation, fleeting sparks, or by cause of years not affection.”

Following her therapist’s advice, Dixon downloads dating apps again only to find them lackluster. She references a deleted blog post by the co-founder of OkCupid, who reported the deeply problematic data that “most men on the site rated black women as less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities,” and further relates her encounters with profiles where men “starkly remind potential partners that Black women are not their preference.” Even so, Dixon arrives at the apt and relatable (even optimistic) observation that she has “somehow been tricked into believing, and ha[s] allowed [her]self to also believe, [she is] not worthy.” She comes to a conclusion: “Instead of waiting for someone to rescue me, I should remember I do not need to be saved. I just need a solid place to rest.”

At the end of the day, Dixon does not need a relationship to rescue her from loneliness; she knows she is worthy of love. In fact, she grows exhausted from the search for it and chooses instead to rest, relishing her solitude. Yet Dixon’s fear of being left behind lingers. Can readers blame her? Joyce Carol Vincent was reported to have had beauty, talent, and charisma, but was still, sadly—almost unbelievably—forgotten for three years.

By contrast, Geneva Chambers, a 65-year-old woman and the focus of Dixon’s essay “Said the Spider to the Fly,” “was, by all accounts, mean”—not to mention disliked intensely by her neighbors. Considering Chambers’s intentional isolation, her untimely death in her own bed, and the eventual discovery of her body, like Vincent’s, three years later, Dixon expresses a desire “to understand how Geneva locked herself away.” She writes: “I give humanity to her decision [to retreat inward] because I understand that all of this ‘witch of the neighborhood’ nonsense is likely the result of shyness or trauma or fear.”

Dixon, like Chambers, goes to great lengths to shut out the world, pushing away those who love her and those who don’t in equal measure. She spends her days cataloging objects in her apartment—material sources of joy amid her depression. Still, unlike Chambers, Dixon has persistent family and friends to pull her out of her loneliness. When the writer finds herself living in her small bedroom and barely eating, her father comes to her rescue.

For many, though, no number of loved ones can assuage the greatest and loneliest fear of all: that of death itself. At the close of the collection, Dixon spends another New Year’s Eve on her own. This is shortly after her aunt has died from COVID-19—on the heels of a string of other relatives. In light of these irretrievable losses, it is unsurprising that the writer finds herself pondering endings. Perhaps she was thinking about death all along. Ruminating on Vincent’s rotting body in her opening essay, Dixon writes: “There must be some fear. Some understanding that when the time comes no one will know. […] I wonder openly about what will happen to me, without a spouse or children and hours from my family.” The collection’s concluding piece confronts the inevitability of death, the fear of the unknown, and her lack of control. “I think, in some ways, my book has become about death. Death of ideas and dreams and plans and all the minutiae used to build a life,” she reflects. “Each morning is the grief of the night before.” Yet the writer concludes on a hopeful note, emphasizing that “[i]t’s what’s in front of us—new life—where we should focus.”

LARB Contributor

Diana Ruzova is a writer based in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in literature and creative nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine’s The Cut, Oprah Daily, Hyperallergic, LAist, and elsewhere.


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