The minute she heard about the massacre in Virginia, author Anneli Rufus knew what was coming next. "It was almost a countdown," she said. "Five, four, three, two, one — here comes the L word!"
And so it did.
"He was a loner," school spokesman Larry Hincker said of the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, "and we're having difficulty finding information about him."
Oh, so the homicidal maniac responsible for the deadliest shooting rampage in American history was a loner? That explains it. He got sick of eating lunch alone, so he killed 32 people. Happens all the time. It's a script as old as "Taxi Driver" — older, even. The only problem is, it's wrong.
Ms. Rufus, author of the loner manifesto "Party of One," would like to set the record straight: Loners don't kill people. Lonely people kill people. There's a big difference.
"The loner is a person who feels very comfortable alone," she said. "Loneliness doesn't even occur to them. A whole weekend could go by and it's 6 on a Sunday and they say, ‘Oh! I haven't talked to anyone,' and that's cool."
Loners harbor no hard feelings toward the world that didn't stop by for tea. They didn't want to chat anyway.
Lonely folks, on the other hand, feel frantic when they can't connect. "Loneliness is associated with just about everything bad," a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, Harry Reis, said. "Lonely people die earlier, they have all sorts of problems. It's the no. 1 cause of suicide."
Unlike the loner, "a lonely person craves others and feels bad when they aren't there," Ms. Rufus said. "I've done a lot of reading about criminals, and often I find that these are people who could not get accepted into a clique, a club, a relationship. They're hurt and they want revenge." In other words, people who need people are (potentially) the most violent people in the world.
People who don't need people, however, are the ones nobody trusts.
Happy-go-lucky loners get lumped together with needy nuts because, to the outside world, these very different groups look the same: They're the ones sitting out the picnic. And since it's hard for most people to imagine anyone choosing this solitude, onlookers assume they must be sad or snooty — or packing heat.
Then, too, there's the self-fulfilling headline writing (we) the press are guilty of.
Google "loner" and "gunman" and you will find a slew of slayers, some of whom held very social jobs, like hairdresser and doctor. Was there ever a loner hairdresser? But Google "gossipy" and "gunman" and — forget it.
Though we automatically think of our criminals as loners and vice versa, the fact is some of the most admired people in history have preferred solitude to speed dating. Ms. Rufus has compiled a whole list of them, beginning with Isaac Newton, who didn't even like playing with other boys as a child.
J.D. Salinger, Albert Einstein, and the author of "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson, all enjoyed spending more time with their thoughts (or at least fish) than with other people, as did John Lennon, Franz Kafka, and Stanley Kubrick. Emily Dickinson spoke to people through a partly closed door for a good part of her life, "a veritable poster girl for reclusiveness," Ms. Rufus said. Dickinson was a loner, yes, but her poems don't sound lonely. They sound full of life.
In fact, the desire to be alone has zero correlation with any kind of psychopathology, a psychiatry professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Robert Archer, said. "The preference to spend a quiet evening reading a book rather than being at a party has no [correlation to] mental illness at all," he said. "The world is quite full of introverted people who are quite safe to live next door."
And if by some chance the one next door to you isn't — well, at least we know how you'll describe him to the 1010 News team.