Alone Together With Kristin Radtke

‘Seek You’, a brilliant new graphic memoir about “American loneliness”

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

In her new work, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, the blazingly original 33-year-old graphic memoirist Kristin Radtke’s mind wanders. But her wandering serves a narrative purpose. It allows her to reveal and conceal things intermittently; occasionally duping the reader and perhaps sometimes herself.  She doesn’t do this with any sort of malevolent intent; it seems natural to her writerly rhythms. She feels uncomfortable overburdening the reader with endless trivia about her personal life, perhaps believing it too self-indulgent to do so.

Kristin Radtke

Instead, she slowly drops tidbits of information about herself in a manner that leaves us wanting more. Radtke lived through her twenties in a continual state of frantic restlessness and non-stop loneliness which has gotten a bit better as her 30s approached. But it feels as if she is still excessively troubled by the world’s fragility and her own journey to find a place within it. Her early masterwork, “Imagine Wanting Only This,” told of her many excursions exploring ancient ruins, which left her obsessed with thinking about what it is precisely that we leave behind. It won tremendous acclaim from readers and critics alike.

Radtke grew up in rural Wisconsin and describes her childhood as amiable, but there’s a certain ambiguousness about her rememberings that speak to an injured selectivity. She describes her father as having been a stern parent, cold and distant and enraged by wastefulness of any kind. His pious religiosity disturbed her, but Radtke refrains from turning her father, or anyone else, into a devil. In her mind, we are all wounded warriors. She worries technology hasn’t fulfilled its promise to bring us closer together and instead has isolated us in our own corners. Most of us, she says, tweet or blog or post artificially-constructed pretty pictures that force us to grow more alienated from ourselves.  She remembers years spent blogging for hours after school, all to hone an image that was barely recognizable to her, and wishes she could have that time back.

Radtke “was raised with the tenets of midwestern politeness.  Be quiet.  Don’t touch.”  When she moved to New York City, it was a shocking experience. At first, she delighted in watching strangers and fantasized about their lives, saying “I didn’t expect the ease with which I’d come to project loneliness onto these moments, apply an Edward Hopper glaze over the crystalline banality of a stranger’s routine.”  But soon enough, “the inescapability of other people” overwhelmed her and she began to experience claustrophobia. She shows us how she felt in an exquisitely drawn picture of New Yorkers trampling over one another with the caption “Strangers invade the monasteries of our minds” emblazoned on the page.

Radtke doesn’t feel comfortable in Manhattan, but home always felt alien to her too. She shows us images of herself at various gatherings in New York, surrounded by acquaintances animatedly talking together on a circular couch. We see her looking like a deer caught in the headlights, distracted by the man next to her whose knee is gently touching her own. She admits she has always been overly self-conscious when someone touches her. Even the slight pressure of a person’s hand on her back unsettles her.

Her self-representations are always somewhat awkward and discombobulated. Radtke seems to be a woman who has trouble fitting in.  She repeatedly draws herself with bewildered eyes and long straggly hair, and sometimes she seems to be almost disappearing on the page. In many of her self-representations, we see her only from behind, but when she allows us to see her face, she often looks wilted, or tired, as though much stimuli were attacking her. There are many pages of dark swirling water, sometimes with a hand reaching up or some text above it, but the overall sensation of the page is one of drowning. We wonder if Radtke struggles with more serious episodes of darkness than she lets on.

Radtke is a master of diversion and digression.  It seems to be a necessary escape valve for her; allowing her to leave herself for a while.  She riffs about watching hours of television as a child, and finding out later on how the shows she watched were laden with false laugh tracks.  A sound engineer at CBS, who felt viewers needed assistance to understand what was funny, developed this concept.  It seems to annoy her that such a contraption existed, and that TV manipulated its viewers in such a sneaky way. The entire concept of being forced to behave or think or feel or believe as others do is anathema to her. Although she never declares she has revolutionary or rebellious leanings, we feel her resentment at being required to do or believe anything.

She tries to understand loneliness by studying the work of Dr. John T. Cacioppo, who was a pioneer in the field of loneliness research.  Cacioppo found that people who describe themselves as chronically lonely are susceptible to disease in much higher numbers than people who are not. Radtke remembers at times in her 20s feeling like she was “underwater fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else.”  She informs us about the discovery in 2016, through experiments with mice, how scientists were able to discover the part of the brain that feels and responds to isolation. She revels in the validity of these experiments on loneliness, hoping perhaps they will lead to further research that will help us learn how to cope with it.

It bothers her how society still glamorizes loneliness. The lone cowboy. The homesteader. Men on television like Don Draper of Mad Men, who seduced the world by sharing himself with no one.  It would pain her to watch him navigate a world he found threatening only to come home and look in the bathroom mirror and wilt before it. She explains how Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge were the first to show how social exclusion can make people more aggressive, connecting all the loneliness that has rattled so many recently with Trump’s Presidential election, believing that it was this pervasive and horrific widespread feeling of disenfranchisement from others that caused so many to vote for him.Radtke

Radkte draws pictures of lonely trailer camps, half sunken into the mud, with Trump signs in front of them.  Then she spends the next few pages drawing more of mostly the same thing, as if she herself is digesting our recent political situation. She recalls sitting with her parents at dinner during the 1990’s, and watching the evening news filled with violent footage of Los Angeles, erupting in flames from gang violence. She wonders is this was the spark to the current madness, remembering how anxious these reports made her mother.

It’s surprising when she mentions her husband almost as an afterthought. She hadn’t mentioned him before, and he seems now to be almost an interruption.  It still really bothers her that he purchased two handguns, which he now stores in his brother’s garage, before they met. She comes from a family of gun owners, but her husband’s past purchase disturbs her, and she views it as a violation of their sacred bond. It seems she can’t quite square her love for him with the knowledge that he is a man who would purchase arms. The fact that he ever could do so seems to be “a fissure snaking through the domesticity we’ve built together.”  She believes the world should be weaponless.

Personal trauma peeks through the cracks in this book, even though Radtke fills it with many fascinating digressions into the worlds of art and social science. She draws a scene of her walking in on her mother crying while watching Princess Diana’s funeral.  She asked her mother why she was upset and her mother explained that Diana was unloved, but she could sense her mother was crying for herself.  The house she lived in as a child seems to have had a lot of secrets, just like the coffee shop where she worked through high school.  She remembers how her boss would remind her to smile and make more small talk with the customers who always seemed encrusted inside some sort of melancholy.

In interviews, Radtke discusses her need to work long hours and immerse herself completely in each project.  The drawings and the prose are part of an integral process for her; neither works without the other.She grew up loving both language and drawing and found this her own form of spiritual inspiration. In ‘Seek You,’ she seems to still be trying to overcome something she can’t quite find a way to tell us, so she jumps and leaps and returns to her pain only to jump and leap again.  We sense she doesn’t fully trust us.  Or maybe she doesn’t fully trust herself.  We aren’t really sure. What is certain is that Radtke is able to mine her private grief and express it on the page with an exquisite artistry and calm intelligence that her own sorrow and sensitivity somehow enhances.

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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