The Loner Seeking solitude: With so many individualists out there doing terrible things these days, is it possible that an American love-affair with the strong-silent type is on the rocks?

April 24, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Solitary men, beware. One day you're pursuing the solitary life, spending hours in cafes in the company of a book, taking long walks in the company of your own thoughts, shunning parties and spending Saturday night in the company of a VCR. Next thing you know people are calling you a "loner."

Uh-oh. We know what that means. Or do we?

We certainly toss the word around. Lately the word comes up when people talk about Unabomber suspect Theodore J. Kaczynski. Seems it comes up every time someone does something horrifying.

If there's mass mayhem in the headline, chances are by the sixth paragraph the FBI will report that it has developed a profile of a male suspect and guess what? They're looking for a "loner." Or a neighbor is interviewed about the man who was just arrested in a house with nine headless corpses in the cellar, and guess what? He was a quiet guy, kept to himself, a "loner."

The U.S. Census Bureau says Americans are living alone in record numbers -- 23 million in 1990, compared with 10.8 million in 1970. Men and women who might be considered loners are everywhere. Yet the media image of the solitary man -- and it's almost always a man -- gets steadily worse.

Check the papers. When was the last time you saw a man referred to as a "happy loner," or even a "contented loner"? More likely it's "demented loner," "weird loner," or the ever-popular, "troubled loner."

In a computer search of newspaper databases, the word "loner" pops up occasionally in reference to an admirable person, but not often. Almost invariably the word is used to connote sinister deviance. The implication is that social detachment somehow explains violent behavior.

What's happening here? This is America, land of the mythic solitary hero, land of Henry David Thoreau, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper. We still embrace our individualist mythology, but the "loner" is clearly getting a bad rap in the public eye. As if the lone Western marshal rode off on horseback and returned as the lone psycho cabbie in "Taxi Driver." As if Thoreau disappeared into his shack by Walden Pond and emerged as the Unabomber.

David Letterman recently quipped that Mr. Kaczynski subscribed to Troubled Loner Magazine. Mr. Kaczynski, who lived alone in a Fotomat-sized shack in the woods of Montana, is more often and more accurately described in press reports as a "hermit" or "recluse." But he is also called a "loner," which suggests confusion about what the word means. Calling Mr. Kaczynski a loner is a bit like saying Jeffrey Dahmer had unconventional eating habits.

Mr. Kaczynski is the latest in a parade of sinister figures branded in popular media with a red "L."

Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson was described by a psychiatrist as "a loner. He had resentments."

Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh denies he fits the description, but he has variously been called a "quiet loner," a "somewhat paranoid loner," and an "abrasive loner."

John C. Salvi III, convicted of killing two people and wounding five others in shootings at two abortion clinics outside Boston, was called "a troubled loner."

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of "loner" is rather innocuous: "A person who avoids company and prefers to be alone." The dictionary says the word, derived from lone, was first used by The New Republic in 1947 in an article about United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis's decision to pull the UMW out of the American Federation of Labor: "Big John has decided to become a 'loner' for keeps." Other uses cited in the dictionary carry no menacing overtones.

William Safire's New Political Dictionary says in contemporary political context the term is not complimentary, referring to a "politician who 'goes his own way,' 'keeps his own counsel'; used pejoratively, as one who will not mix or take good advice."

People who make a living observing behavior and American culture say that if the connotation of the word has darkened, it probably says something about the media's tendency to label people. It also suggests something about our mixed feelings toward people who choose to stand apart from the crowd, even if they're not doing anything wrong.

"We like the individualist up to a point," says John Caughey, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We like him, but we also want him to be engaged" socially.

We like the individualist so much we want to look in the mirror and see him, even if it means we have to dress the part. Advertisers know this and say "Just do it." Get your Banana Republic safari attire, your leather flight jacket that makes you look like Chuck Yeager. Drive around in your Ford Explorer. Strike out in a bold new direction, you and 50-million other guys who bought all the equipment.

Just keep your frontier individualism within limits. Don't step out of what Mr. Caughey calls the "magic circle" of social connection, lest you be called a loner.

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