Experience and the Reader in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

When I picked up Claudia Rankine’s book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely from the University Bookstore, I read the title and gulped. I remembered hearing those words from my grandmother before she died and I remembered saying words like them to a boyfriend who threatened to leave me during a bad spell of depression. Most vividly though, I remembered whispering similar words to my sleeping and hospital ridden sister, Liz, begging her not to die when she was considered terminally ill. I was begging her not to leave me in a world where she didn’t physically exist anymore. Furthermore, I was begging her to let me in, to help me to understand her pain and her lonliness as if somehow I could access it if only she gave me permission.

The words “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” are imperative; they suggest a begging command, a helpless inquiry, a fear of abandonment. These emotions are echoed throughout Rankine’s novel and for awhile we are led to believe that the root of her loneliness is in feeling that nobody could possibly understand her feelings of abandonment, which is true, however, the roots extend beyond that. Because she understands her own sense of loneliness and knows that no one will ever know exactly what it feels like, she in turn, understands that she will never know how the people she loves the most experience their pain from being alone. Textual examples include her sister who loses her husband and children, and her friend who loses her mother and continues to wear her coat in order to feel some sort of lingering connection to the woman she has lost. Rankine reminds herself that it is not her responsibility to feel grief for these people because no grief that she feels will give her access to the grief of her loved ones.

While at times her prose, poetry, prose poetry and images may seem unnecessarily cynical and weighted down in darkness, she is conveying her experience from the bottom of a pit that I’m sure we’ve all crept in and around within our lives already. Perhaps we have an issue with her cynicism because we are fortunate enough to be able to take the position of the spectator that she addresses with the quote that precedes the novel. We don’t have to feel her pain, but we do have to touch it and poke at it just to try to understand it. In doing so, we gain small spurts of access to her loneliness, a realm of abandonment that we can all relate to as we stare at the images of static television sets begging to be turned off. We flip the page to avoid it, full well knowing it’s still there frozen in black and white pixels and causing a low hum to echo in our ears. It’s a reminder to keep turning the pages; the faster and farther you go, the sooner you get away from it until suddenly you turn the page, and there’s another one staring at you.

I ask those in the class who felt drowned in the aforementioned darkness to consider the Latin phrase “lux in tenebrism.” It means “light in darkness.” The phrase  is usually used in regards to paintings, especially those of Caravaggio, but I think it applies here. The darkness is the overwhelming sense of loneliness. The light comes from Rankine’s decision to document it and our subsequent willingness to read it. In doing so, we understand her point exactly. She is giving us permission to try to understand her loneliness and at the end of the novel we realize that we can’t holistically understand it or feel it because it is uniquely hers, despite the open and intimate portrayal of it. In the same regard, this conclusion confirms the title. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. We can not completely understand her pain, and thus, we are forced to continue to let her be lonely despite a world of anonymous eyes who read and relate to her words. As she explains on page sixty-one, loneliness is what we can’t do for each other.


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