Sue Halpern
New York: Vintage Books, 1992
ISBN # 0-679-74241-7
212 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2005

I was both unfair to this book, but rather unfairly misled by the subtitle as well. I knew within 50 pages it wasn’t the book I was looking for, nor what the title led me to expect. But it was short and at times interesting, so I finished it. I didn’t like it much at all. I found it to be superficial and was surprised since the author had such impressive academic credentials (PHD from Oxford, Rhodes Scholar) that I expected more.

The main title is Migrations to Solitude. I mistakenly assumed it would be about people’s quest for more solitude in their lives. That’s not what much of the book is about, and my coming to the book with false expectation based merely on the title is certainly not the author’s fault. However, the subtitle did sink the hook deeper for me – The Quest for Privacy in a Crowded World. I think the book clearly did not live up to that promise. There are 12 chapters or tales, each the story of a different person or group. Only 4 of those chapters concern people who voluntarily chose to seek solitude in their lives. The first concerns a short visit the author and her husband made to a wooded area, and the last chapter is about a single day she spent on a familiar lake near enough to major civilization that fishermen interrupted her mild flirtation with solitude in a quite predictable manner. Perhaps that touches more on the theme of our crowded world and its relationship to solitude, but the author doesn’t take that tack.

The other two chapters of people voluntarily and consciously choosing solitude were my favorite two chapters. One concerned a man and woman who left society and had spent 40 years in almost total isolation in the deep back woods of the Adirondacks. The other, an interesting but rather superficial look at the monks of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky with some snide glance at Thomas Merton’s career there.

Those two chapters seems to meet my understanding of a “quest for privacy….” The rest of the book really didn’t.

The other 8 chapters concerned people who do not choose solitude but who either have solitude somewhat forced on them by the effects of our social systems or who are out to destroy the solitude or privacy of others. Those chapters concern:

  1. Homelessness in America.
  2. A fellow on death row.
  3. The mother of an AIDS patient.
  4. A girl who died of a self-inflicted abortion rather than face her parents.
  5. A fellow dying of AIDS who doesn’t tell others.
  6. Two chapters on spying and violations of privacy in the U.S.
  7. Patients in IC wards of hospitals.

The author’s claim in the introduction is that this will not be a book of theorizing about privacy, but a book about experiences of people “touched” by it. Fair enough, and mainly author Sue Halpern sticks to this. However, several of the chapters – those on homelessness, AIDS, abortion and especially spying – are significantly not as much about personal cases as about the social problems presented to the anonymous public by these issues.

Even though I wasn’t getting what I was looking for, and again I know I have no right to that, I not only felt strongly I wasn’t given what was promised by the subtitle, but that the treatments themselves were rather superficial rather than emotionally moving (as I would have expected of personal stories) or profound (as I would have expected with the social issues tales).

Of the 212 pages of the book, 50 are devoted to issues concerning people voluntarily seeking privacy or solitude and 162 pages on descriptions of people dealing with privacy taken from them by the social system or doing that taking of privacy away from others themselves.

It just wasn’t satisfying or challenging for me.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu