The Right to Disappear Completely
The recluse, whether as scapegoat or hero, is little understood.
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 sixty-three 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 forty-four-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 more substantive 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.
If this was even close to a reality on the level of social cataclysm, bringing the recluse as a type closer to our understanding, it would have to be considered as being less alien and less exceptional but still special in its way, like a priesthood. This means approaching the recluse outside of the gothic diorama in which we’ve placed them. This means breaking long clung-to habits.
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. Or rather, the contemporary problem of 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 ten jobs over the course of fifteen 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.
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.
To some, that any of what I described above is accurate or representative is less important than how widely it is felt in society. Even before the pandemic, social critics were eager to give evidence that a cultural shift was causing the widening; and social fantasists like myself were just as eager to show how that shift might make itself known. The stigmatization of the recluse was born out of a consensus, the endurance of which was taken for granted, that sociability was desired and healthy. Gradually that consensus did break as opportunities to be relieved of once-unavoidable personal interaction began to bleed out into the more voluntary forms. Isolation and retreat were now, at the very least, not as debilitating as previously assumed.
But what appeared like a shift was in truth an inversion. The new, less sociable situation was the photo-negative of the situation it replaced. Instead of normalization, scapegoating of the recluse swung to the extreme of hero-worship. A canon of solitude had been assembled in which the ruinous zest of Little Edie Beale stood on an equal plane with the lyrical quietism of Henry David Thoreau, the spectral adventurism of B. Traven, the principled mania of Ted Kaczynski, and the backwoods decadence of Ed Gein. A change in sentiment from fear to aspiration had all the impact of moving a couch from one end of your apartment living room to another. It did not dispel or even weaken the impulse to make the disappeared appear, to be used at the conjurer’s whims.
It is easy, even natural, to invoke someone who is not there to fill an empty space that cannot be filled by someone present. But that only proves one thing: you are also still present. And because you cannot, for whatever reason, disappear yourself into that place where neither stigma nor heroics can penetrate, you settle on debasing those who have in absentia.
It is a common mistake to think that because something is a right that it is easy and that it is yours for the taking. But the right to disappear completely is a right for the few. If you can hear me right now, then it is not yours.
Editor’s Note: This essay was adapted from the writer’s blog.