Lucy Mangan

“If you need me, I’ll be in the woods”: Lucy Mangan on the joy of being alone

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Lucy Mangan
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Not all heroes wear capes. My latest one is a man called Christopher Knight whose story about how he lived a life of complete solitude in the Maine woods for 27 years has just been published. One day he simply abandoned his job installing alarm systems and took off. After wandering around for a few months he found a good place to shelter and stayed there for nearly three decades, completely alone, completely happy – a silent idol for anyone who has felt the urge to just sack it all off and live the life of a hermit.

These people – myself included – are called ‘introverts’. If you found tears of longing welling in your eyes by the time you were halfway through the above paragraph, you are one too. Those of you who boggled in horror – you’re what’s known as extroverts.

Introversion is different from shyness. The clinical definition of an introvert is someone who finds their inner resources depleted by interaction, unless under very well-controlled, specific circumstances with (very well-controlled, specific) others. (The non-clinical definition is someone who can watch the film Papillon and not understand it because they don’t realise that solitary confinement is generally considered to be A Bad Thing). Whereas an extrovert finds themselves replenished by interaction. It’s hard to be an introvert, because the world is organised round the noisy, extrovert majority.

But it’s even harder to be a female introvert because you’re meant to want to be sociable – lighthearted! Laughing! Oiling the wheels of friendship and communication wherever you go! – all the time. To do the small talk thing and find out how everyone’s careers, ageing parents, house moves, career plans, kitchen redecorations are going. To smile and mingle and introduce people and ensure no-one feels left out. Men aren’t expected to do this. And their need to retreat – whether they’re introverts or not – has always been acknowledged. That’s why they’ve always had sheds to retreat to. Or clubs, if they’re posh. All that sociable extrovert shizz, disproportionately loaded onto women in the first place, even gets on extroverts’ tits now and again, but it’s a ceaseless torment to those of us who have no natural urge to talk even under the best circumstances.

Introverts want to be alone (we are gazing upon a story of 27 years alone in a forest with unmitigated envy, remember – this is the scale I need you to keep in mind), and this too is harder for women, on whom the bulk of domestic, caring and child-rearing duties still fall. Though we are finding individual ways round it. One friend, a teacher, periodically flat-out lies to her husband and children and says she has to catch up on work at school all Saturday. In fact she books herself into a hotel and lies on the bed in silence for hours. Another is still claiming to be going to physiotherapy appointments six months after her vertebrae have been fully realigned. She sits in a pub and reads for two hours. “My Superbitchy Resting Face protects me from unwanted advances. By which I mean, all advances,” she explains.

You do what you’ve got to do, but it’s a pity that we have to lie about it just to carve out what men have been granted as a matter of course for generations. In the meantime, we’ll just have to think of Maine’s endless forests and keep hoping.

Correction: in a previous column (issue 357, 8 March) I referred to a journalist having asked Oprah Winfrey if she regretted not having children. The journalist did not ask this question – Oprah spoke about it after having been asked a question about what made her happy.

Image: iStock