Note: This essay is a rewrite of an older one that no longer works and which has been bugging me for a while. Elements and whole passages have been carried over from the original post and expanded upon in a manner that I find more satisfactory. I have declined to link the original piece because I don’t feel like it.
On the few occasions when people saw Anthony and Andrew Johnson, they were always together, whether they were doing lawn work or shopping at the grocery store. They were twins, and they shared a home in the suburbs of Chattanooga, TN. That is the most anyone ever knew about them, for they were the type of people who mostly kept to themselves and whose window blinds were always down.
But people noticed when the house had become especially quiet, and the twins were not seen for longer periods. It was hard to tell what was going on. The grass was still being cut somehow; but mail delivery was discontinued. Soon after, the house went dark. In 2011, relatives sent police to do welfare checks. There was no answer but also no apparent urgency from the police or family members to gain entry into the house. It was not until March of 2014 when the skeletal remains of the Johnson twins were discovered, each seated in their easy chairs, suspected to have died three years earlier at 63-years-old.
The details were scant but sufficiently gothic to gain national coverage. People magazine reported the story as “strange, sad and macabre.” It was later that fall when the medical examiner’s report was made public and gave some clarity to their unusual situation. Andrew Johnson was a diabetic with visual impairment. Anthony took care of him, monitoring his glucose levels and administering his insulin injections. The time between their deaths is not known, but the autopsy report showed that Anthony died of heart disease, leaving behind his twin brother, who then died of diabetes.
By that point, interest in the story of the Johnson twins had faded. Though interest in that type of story remains. There is no lack of similar incidents making it to print or screen. Overlapping with the discovery of the Johnson twins was 44-year-old Pia Farrenkopf, whose mummified body was found in the garage of her foreclosed home in Pontiac, MI, having been dead for five years. This arguably received greater national attention, with Carmen Maria Machado writing about her in The New Yorker.
Both cases tell a similar story. The Johnsons and Farrenkopf lived in near-total isolation, estranged from family, no apparent friends, and minimally acquainted with their neighbors. But any deeper meaning is what you make of it. The Johnsons appear to be a warning to people who disconnect from relatives; though that leaves aside the complexities of who is disconnecting and why. For Machado, Farrenkopf was an extreme cautionary tale of our “institutional doppelgängers” and our dependence on technology. Though Farrenkopf’s life was over, her automatic mortgage and car payments, from a healthy bank account, continued.
This appears at first to be of a piece with recent trends in media consumption. The public taste for the macabre and the unseemly knows no depth. Consumers will explore the contours of murder, conspiracy, sexual violence, robbery, long cons, unexplained disappearances, illicit confessions, scandals of all kinds, dark desires, and beastly impulses at a frequency that verges on constant. Yet the stories of shut-ins do not match up with the trend upon further scrutiny.
The fascination over shut-ins predates the current frenzy over true crime. There has always been room in the public imagination for someone who has disappeared so completely from the public that the public hardly notices. It is the image of voluntary imprisonment: in a rent-controlled apartment or a dilapidated house, surrounded by walls of newspaper and empty takeout containers, walking over cat feces, and sitting in front of a TV that is never off.
Such stories, whether they are somber, well-wrought elegies in The New York Times Magazine or the more sensational fare of television shows like Hoarders, ostensibly present a mystery and stoke voyeuristic curiosity; but mostly they engender fear. This, these articles, shows, and documentaries assert, is what happens when you disengage and disconnect. You lose your energy and self-respect; you will be forgotten. It is less about what has happened to someone like a vaguely known stranger or a distant eccentric cousin, doubtless we all have those and they cannot be helped, and more about what may happen to you if you allow yourself to slip.
Even before the pandemic made shut-ins of all of us, there seemed like an urgency to make this point. We were becoming less dependent upon face-to-face interaction by the day. Some of us were becoming lazy, and others lonely; at least proving Machado’s Farrenkopf-inspired point that technology was cutting our traditional interpersonal relations by subtle increments.
All oversized civilizations succumb to decadence. Each form of decay is tailor-made based on the materials we provide it. Our civilization has provided for an especially tragic, retiring decadence. It is, perversely, an innovation. The power of the internet was thought to bring us together; in truth it allowed us to construct our own ghosts in advance. That is a dilemma well worth a jeremiad or two from a better equipped social critic; none so far has appeared. The shut-in exposés prove that much, being not at all compatible with, let alone instructive about, what ails civilization.
It is improper to speak with any completeness or authority for the shut-in or the recluse or to arrive conclusively at their motivations. No recluse is the same, even if they are presented almost identically in their coverage. Conveniently they are never around to speak for themselves. What I have to say is probably no more rarified a venture in speculation than the other attempts it follows. Still, it helps to clarify the error in conflating loneliness and social retreat with the more demanding act of voluntary disappearance. Loneliness, even prolonged loneliness, is a temporary condition, and its abjectness is already pretty apparent to the sufferer. Through self-mastery and therapy, the lonely may be able to cure themselves. Ultimately few if any lonely people are every truly shut-ins, and to say that shut-ins choose to shut in as we would choose a brand of coffee should not be the default conclusion.
Reclusion is a stronger vintage than loneliness. It is denial, often a sweeping and total one, of so many popular ideas of how life is lived that it very nearly approaches a calling infused with moral import. Reclusion is at the same time less clear cut in how it occurs. I prefer for my purposes to look at what it is the recluse denies. What follows, then, is what I consider essential rather than complete.
First are relationships. This is not to declaim unilaterally against platonic or romantic intimacy. The problem lies rather in the relationship as a lifestyle. To get on in the world it is important to have a group and to be seen with it; just as it is important to have a significant other and to be seen with them. Such arrangements confer upon the person a sense of cohesion with the social family. The recluse may not be malcontented by this in spirit, but it is not willingly entered into for some reasons that may be valid. The modern social life is vast and active at the expense of depth. Someone in the midst of it will feel connected and integral but will hardly remember it after the fact. At worst, there is a struggle to distinguish one friend from another, or to parse over the commonality one shares with a loved one only to come up slight or empty. The line between friendship and busywork dissolves in such situations.
Family, or lack thereof, is a recurring theme in shut-in stories, but addressed in the most general terms as to expose the type’s unhelpfulness outright. As each recluse is different so is the family from which they detach or are detached. Without concise data there is no way of understanding the dynamics each family bears upon the recluse. It is rather that we should not take for granted the indissolubility of the familial bond or that dissolution can or should always be mended. To withdraw from an intimate social connection, let alone a family, is not taken lightly by the withdrawer. Doubtless they know what they are losing; they’ve lived with it for long enough, have assessed it carefully, and assigned it a value that departs from the norm. There is no one conclusion for that valuation, and the burden of inquiry should not lean one way while the moral weight attached to it should lean another way.
Second is work. As with relationships, this is not a wholesale criticism of the work ethic. The work ethic suffers greatly in the new society, dominated as it is by the pure pursuit of money—or to use the politically correct understanding, a “career.” Such a pursuit may require one to work 10 jobs over the course of 15 years. One job may have no clear responsibilities while the next job might have numerous and conflicting responsibilities. Yet in each case there is demanded from the employee, whether overtly or subtly, a fealty to the employer and to the employee’s tasks that in all likelihood far exceeds that which was demanded from a vassal by his lord. The employee must go so far as to identify with the work even if the work is menial; not so much because the employer believes that is true—though in a startup-heavy environment that is a distinct possibility—but so as to assure the completion of the work. In the pursuit of accomplishment-driven endorphins, the employee is never hostile to meeting this demand at whatever expense and regardless of how low or high the pay rate.
Whether an abnegation or a demand of one’s energy and skill, this might not strike the recluse as a workable arrangement. They have no one way of earning income. True, some have the advantage of inherited funds that, when apportioned with extreme care, can prove sufficient for a long existence and require minimal supplementation. But others venture out from time to time to do odd jobs around their immediate community. Indeed, despite their self-imposed isolation, the spartan tendency of the recluse makes them more reliable to the community compared to the single striver of the wider world.
Third is civilization. Civilizations are not by their nature reflective. Had they been, no civilization would extend farther than a few square miles. It is left to the recluse to reflect, and the conclusion, as you might expect, departs from the norm.
To use the recluse as a counterexample against civilizational decay would probably be more baffling than offensive. The recluse sees the decay as clearly as the cultural hysterics do. That the hysterics have not found reason in the recluse’s actions is of not great important; it is a lost opportunity if anything.
The recluse gets nowhere without being significantly at odds with the culture into which they are placed. It will have dawned on them that not only is the state of culture vacuous and debased, but totally antagonistic. It is not exactly an evil culture, but it is hard-hearted and lacks empathy. It rejects compassion and tolerance in favor of convenience and uniformity. There are two ways to live comfortably within it: to be infected by its ethos or to be devoured by those who already are. It occurs to the would-be recluse that there is a feeling of disdain from the culture toward them, that that feeling is mutual, and there is no possibility of compromise or closure. How long it takes to see those revelations depends upon the person, though it is almost always seen in that order.
Yet civilization does not take that rejection well. Pretty soon it loses patience with pathos and reverts very quickly to invective. The recluse is no longer a tragic figure, but an abscess: a fat, unkempt, sedentary, burdensome, vaguely humanoid organism. It bitterly shuns the entreaties of the mainstream way of life deep within the bowels of its parents’ basement. It subsists on a diet of Cheetos dust, much of it caked into its facial hair, while leaving the actual Cheetos for the spiders, centipedes, and crickets that make up its social circle.
The crisis of civilization: not a reflection, and not quite a point of decay. More accurately a signal, or a rallying cry against an encroaching threat of disintegration, whether real or perceived. If the recluse is in crisis, we cannot know it. How would we if we can’t see them and they won’t let us?
Consider that the recluse is not the one in crisis. Where does the true crisis lie? Habit leads us to a crisis of character or of values. Virtue has been made subservient to an especially domineering vice. We can, and we often do, play an endless game assigning roles in these particular thought-stories with a lot of amusement but illusive conclusion. Maybe these are true. But maybe these are comparably smaller residents under a larger, dome-like crisis: the crisis of perception.
“Dome” is an appropriate point of reference. Civilizations have a dome-like quality themselves. Constrictive but not uncomfortable; containing a co-citizenry of reliable familiarity. They are clutter to you and you are clutter to them. All well and good. Clutter is better than citizenry. It’s steady. It coheres. It is impartial, neither pleasant nor offensive. Gathering in increasing quantities but not overwhelming. It becomes an inseparable part of your world, an extension of who you are. To part with it, to be independent of it, is unthinkable. Clutter, like civilization, never has to justify itself or apologize. And few will miss it, whether in absence or abundance.