REVIEW & INTERVIEW: The Loneliness Files by Athena Dixon

By Anri Wheeler

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[This double-feature is a collaboration between our reviews and interviews teams.]

cover of the loneliness files by athena dixon - series of row of black rectangles with purple circle in middle, except the circle is falling out on the last three and missing from the lastAthena Dixon’s memoir in essays, The Loneliness Files (Tin House Books, October 2023), cracks open some of life’s most fundamental questions through the lens of loneliness. The essays, written during the Covid-19 pandemic, explore themes including haunting, connection, and visibility. Dixon writes her way through what it means to seek wholeness while navigating the impacts of forces both internal and external.

A powerful musing, one that guides the arc of the book, is posed at the end of the opening essay, Say You Will Remember Me: “It takes time for us to realize in which direction life is pulling us and whether that is further away or closer to those we love.” In a world where disconnect, isolation, and invisibility prevail, and visibility is not always a panacea, readers get to grapple alongside Dixon as she considers many such unanswerable questions.

Another crucial pondering centers how we can see each other’s humanity in the face of increasing barriers to genuine human connection. To do so, she delves into heavily researched sections on topics including Japanese hikikomori, humpback whales, the Jordan Peele film Us, and women—Joyce Carol Vincent, Elisa Lam—who have become known solely based on the circumstances of their unexplained deaths, their bodies undiscovered for days, even years. Dixon offers, “Connection is the crux of it. I’m always seeking it even if it frightens me to think that one day someone may actually want to touch me and see if I am solid.”

From a craft lens, this reader was struck by the strength of Dixon’s endings. Few things she writes about can be tied up in a neat bow, but at the end of each piece readers are left with a sense of having been brought along on an exploration—left with more to think about and ask, while also grounded in Dixon’s moving learnings, made all the more tangible due to her deep vulnerability on the page.

Some of the most poignant and prescient moments of the book occur during the two instances where Dixon weaves in writing that she did prior to the pandemic (in The Daily Journal and Upon My Return); putting her past selves in direct conversation with the one narrating essays written years later. We see the seeds of her thinking about the larger themes of the book and how they have come to bear the ripe fruits of her current conclusions. “It’s what we do with the empty that defines us. It’s what we fill those spaces with that either rebuilds us or destroys us. I’ve been rebuilt by home”; one of many lines that beautifully illuminate the ways we are all evolving while navigating what parts of our past selves to carry into the future.

I was honored to have the chance to meet and interview Athena Dixon and delve deeper into many of these topics. (The interview that follows has been edited for clarity).

Author Athena Dixon

Anri Wheeler:  How are you feeling two weeks pre-pub date?

Athena Dixon: I’m excited, but a little nervous. I think I’m a little nervous because this is a lot more eyes than the first book, and so there’s a little bit of fear that I can’t control what people think of the book, and I know that you can’t ever do that. It’s just a little bit of fear, but I’m super excited to see what my family and my friends think about it. Especially because a lot of the things that I write about in the book will be the first time they’ve heard about it, or I wrote the vast majority of the book during the time that we were separated. So they’ll get an inside view of what it was like for me alone during COVID.

AW: I’ve been thinking about the word loneliness, and how you explain at the beginning of the book it’s not as sexy as the word alone. Has your relationship to the word loneliness changed? How do you think about it?

AD: My thoughts about loneliness and what it means for me morphed from the beginning of the book to the end of the book, especially now that I’ve been talking about it more in interviews and things of that nature. I think it really is now, for me, an internal versus an external thought process.

Going into the book, one of the reasons I said that alone seems so much more powerful and sexy—something that you want—is because there’s an internal choice you’ve made to be alone, and there’s a power in that. For me, going into the book, loneliness was something that was very much external, because it felt like I’m not connected, and I’m not connected for some external reason—whether or not I’ve not been invited somewhere, or I feel like I have to be separate because of distance—and it felt like things that were out of my control for some parts of it.

But as I got deeper into reading and writing and researching the book, I started to think that it’s much more of an internal thing, and I was able to not control all the factors that make me feel lonely, but it’s a little bit more powerful when I got to the end, because I realized that I had these choices I could make to make myself feel alone and not lonely. I made it much more of a decision process: yes, some of what led me to this point in my life was out of my control. But now it’s my determination: am I going to stay on this path, or am I going to move from this path? And I think that’s where the shift happened in the book.

AW: Were most of the essays written during the pandemic? AD: Yes. The only essays that were written prior to March of 2020 were the [excerpt at] very end of Upon My Return—which was written several years ago, it just happened that it fit, and it circled back to the same themes—and The Daily Journal. The reason those journal entries are included is because I wanted to show that it wasn’t just that three year span, that this feeling I’ve had has existed a very long time. Everything else in the book was written between March of 2020 and April of 2022.

AW: Can you talk about the grouping of the essays and how you thought about the three parts? Is that something you were conscious of as you were writing them, since they were written in a tighter window, versus some collections written across much longer timelines? How conscious of the order were you as you were writing?

AD: I wasn’t really conscious of the order as I was writing the essays. That was much more of a back end decision. I had originally ordered the book chronologically, thinking it would be a little bit closer to a memoir. Originally, it was set up from the very beginning of my loneliness exploration to the very end. But that didn’t make sense for me in terms of theme, so I played around with the order, and how it came to be in three sections was, I make a point in the final essay, Auld Lang Syne, about how my life had moved from the macro to the micro. And so that’s how I decided I wanted to go. I wanted this bigger idea—what loneliness was in society—to start the book, so people had an easy entry point. And then the middle section being how we’ve gotten to that larger idea. And the last section being how does it look, individually, to have this isolation in this loneliness.

I wanted to scale down from a larger idea to a smaller idea by the time I got to the end, I thought it would be a little bit more intimate. I didn’t think about it going in. But it really did start off as chronological order. It just really didn’t make sense once I kind of got into the meat of it.

AW:  I feel like part one had a lot more fear, and then part two transitions into bringing in community before we get to this full circle moment in part three, but I don’t know if that at all resonates with your thinking.

AD: In some ways. I think the first part is very much a lot of fear, and the reason why there’s a lot of fear in that first section is because for the first time while writing the book and writing the individual essays, I started to really have to look at “What is my life?” Right? I’m by myself in this apartment, so far away from my family and friends. If something really does happen to me it could be a few days, a week, before somebody really says, “Hey, Athena’s kind of disappeared.” So the fear was recognizing, for the first time my life, decisions have led me here, that I could disappear from the world and no one would know for a while.

Then the second section is a balance between being able to be lost in the world we have, in the communities we have, but also the ways that we hold on to each other within those communities. So that’s why I’m talking about social media and algorithms and fan fiction, because those things you can get lost in very easily, but they are very strong communities. And then the last section was really more, again, that intimate spot where I’m like, okay, now that I know how I got here, what are my choices now? Do I want to continue on this path that causes me this great fear or do I now want to go somewhere a little bit safer, emotionally? And that’s where I wanted to end. There’s no real resolution, but I have the questions now to move me forward.

AW: Reading the first part, what I would call the more researched parts—whether you’re talking about humpback whales or these women who’ve died alone in various ways—I was wondering how did you happen upon these stories and were they connected to things you were already thinking about?

AD: So during the first six months or so of Covid lockdowns—I live by my myself, no pets, no children, no partner—it was just me in this apartment and I started playing video game walkthroughs on YouTube to hear somebody else talking in the background. I was watching horror games on walkthroughs so a lot of the recommended videos were true crime and mysterious disappearances and stuff like that. I came across a video about people who had mysteriously disappeared and/or died and were found years later, and that’s why I first stumbled across the idea of Joyce Carol Vincent, the woman in the opening essay. And then that led me to researching and trying to find out stuff about her, and then six or so months later, Netflix released a documentary on Elisa Lam, it was a docuseries, and so I binge watched that. As I started to watch more and more videos and research, the algorithm did it for me—that’s how I came across most of them. But really it was because I started watching those horror podcasts and I was already feeling very lonely and isolated. And because I was feeling that fear and isolation, it led me to want to know more about other people who I thought I had some kind of kinship with.

AW: You have several essays that talk about movies. How do you think about your readers with respect to how much they know? For example, whether they’ve seen the movie Us or not, and how they might have a richer understanding of Double Exposure. How do you think about how much to tell and not tell?

AD: I always go into whatever I’m writing with a large amount of curiosity, and hope the people who come across my work lead with curiosity too. I don’t want to hand hold. But I want to leave enough information and enough curiosity in the work that they want to go out and seek other information.

My thought is, I’m gonna give you the name of the movie or the whatever it might be, and the general idea. If that moves you and you want to see it, or you want to learn more, then as a reader, and possibly a writer, that curiosity should lead you down your own path, but I don’t want to put you exactly in another place.

I also am a big proponent of the idea of not hand holding—and I say this as a writer of color—because I went through an MFA program and one of my biggest memories of being in that program was using a particular cultural phrase, and I was the only writer of color in that particular class, and a lot of my feedback was: I don’t understand this. And my response to that, and still my response to that, is: if there are certain cultural touchstones that everyone is expected to know because they are the popular thing, and I have to research it, you should have the same due diligence on my work. I always lead with the idea of curiosity, but I also want to give my readers enough credit for their intelligence to seek out other information.


“…if there are certain cultural touchstones that everyone is expected to know because they are the popular thing, and I have to research it, you should have the same due diligence on my work.” –Athena Dixon

AW: That makes so much sense. I also wonder how you think about your readers’ relationship to whether or not they have read your previous work? I know it’s referenced here, but is this book in conversation with your previous book? Do you not think about it in that way?

AD: I don’t necessarily think about the books being in conversation with each other. I think of them more in a series. I’ve come across the idea that my first book, this current book, and the book that I’m currently writing, all speak to parts of my personality, and eventually they’ll create a body that is like a larger memoir of me. But I jokingly started referring to my first book as “the selfish book,” because I didn’t give much thought when writing that book about the audience, and how they would relate to it. I just felt like I had to say these things. These things happen to me, and if people relate to it, they relate to it.

This time, I was much more conscious of trying to find research to include in the book, finding entry points for readers, and leaving spaces for them to rest and think. And so I think the books are on two different ends of the spectrum, I was much more concerned in this book than I was in the first one. I think the first one was like when you haven’t talked in a long time, so when you get the opportunity you just rush all the words out and then let it go. This time, I measured my words a lot more, so I don’t think [the two books] are really in conversation with each other, but I think they exist in a larger picture together.


“This time, I was much more conscious of trying to find research to include in the book, finding entry points for readers, and leaving spaces for them to rest and think.”—Athena Dixon

AW:  Can you talk a little bit about the songs listed at the start of each section? I listened to them before I started each section, and I was just wondering if you wanted to say anything about them.

AD: I joke that Spotify is the best nonessential money I spend each month. I use music as an entry point and a way to set the table for whatever I write, whatever I create. I have a 4-hour playlist for the book, actually, and originally each section was gonna have a particular lyric, and then each essay had an individual lyric. But that got to be a lot with rights issues, which is a thing writers have to really think about: do you have the rights to include these lyrics? And, it broke up the flow of the book by having too many stops between the essays.

So I decided I wanted to find music that didn’t necessarily lyrically speak to the individual essays in that particular section, but create a mood. I like the idea of including things that create a sonic flair. And so something like Raveena’s “Hypnosis,” which shows up in the second section, has no lyrics, but if you listen to that and then read Deprivation, which is about the float tank experience, that sound and the sonic way the music hits your ear sets the pace for what you’re gonna read.

That was my goal: to find things that would let people sonically sink into the work before they actually got into it. Hopefully it works. But that was my idea. I think that there needs to be another layer on top of the actual individual words.

AW: Yes, that makes me think about ballet or live theater where you hear music before the curtain rises, setting the scene. I was really drawn to the theme of haunting which appears across multiple essays, definitely Double Exposure—you are haunting yourself in those photos—but also One Great Thing and Ghosts in the Machine. Do you have thoughts about the concept of haunting or your relationship to it as it manifests in the book or in your life?

AD: It was important for me to include some elements of haunting, not for any real fear reasons, but the idea of decisions and life choices and possibilities always being in the shadows and lurking around. You’re haunted by the decisions you didn’t make. You’re haunted by the decisions you did make. You’re haunted by the opportunity for connection you let go. I wanted there always to be a thread of “what if,” and for me that was haunting.

It was the emptiness you’re afraid to walk into because you don’t know what lies in the dark, or you’re afraid of going too deep into a conversation because you’re afraid that that person’s gonna go and now they’re a ghost, and that relationship’s dead. I wanted there to be themes of what could be, or what was, always floating around. That ends up tying towards the last third of the book when a lot of death comes in, so there’s haunting and there’s death, but I think all of it is ever-present in life.

AW: There’s also this theme of visibility and invisibility which is connected to wholeness and connection. And I don’t think it’s fair to ask if visibility or wholeness are the antidote to loneliness, but I do think it is all connected. How do you see the relationship between the visibility or wholeness that you write about and loneliness?

AD: Yeah, I agree. There’s really no real answer, but I think at some fundamental level, both externally and internally, some of the loneliness comes from the idea of not seeing yourself fully and not being honest with the parts of yourself that aren’t necessarily neat or pretty, or put together. And then, by proxy, hiding those things from the outside world which heightens the disconnection, heightens the isolation, heightens the loneliness. And that internal invisibility can never be fixed by external visibility. That’s why people say you can feel lonely in a room full of people, because there’s an internal disconnection that it’s up to you to fix. I think visibility internally, however that manifests for an individual person, is what could be a possible remedy for disconnection. But that takes a lot of inner work, and you can never get to that point if you’re not willing to be fully honest with why you feel the way you feel, or what steps you need to take personally to get out of that darkness.


 “That’s why people say you can feel lonely in a room full of people, because there’s an internal disconnection that it’s up to you to fix.”—Athena Dixon

AW: And I think that that’s, again, really connected as we get to the end of the collection, to this concept of home and homecoming and grappling with moving home; how, even if home is a place, it’s not the same place as when we were children there, or when we were adolescents there. I really felt that Upon My Return was a full circle culmination of so many of the themes in the book. It made me think of Sankofa—looking back to move forward. I think it also answered the question you pose at the end of the first essay around whether you’re being pulled further away from those you love. Where in the timeline was Upon My Return written, and did you feel like it was answering a lot of the questions, or purposely bringing things together?

Athena Dixon: It’s so funny you bring up Sankofa, because I actually have a Sankofa tattoo on my back. I have three symbols across my back, and the middle one is the Sankofa bird. Upon My Return was actually the last essay I wrote, and I wrote it because I knew I needed to cap off what I was writing, and it made the most sense to me to end on this longing to go home. And for me, home very much is where my family is physically. My mom, my dad, my sister, everyone I know is in Ohio, and there’s me here in Pennsylvania.

I wrote that essay last, in April 2022, when my grandmother, who was my last living grandparent, passed. It was very much written as the last piece, as a capper, and once I got to the end of the original part of the essay, I started thinking: this reminds me of this essay from 2015, and I think there’s a conversation there, and I included it, and then I took it out and I put it back. But I was like, it makes sense because it is full circle. It’s me in 2015, starting to recognize this yearning and this recognition of home. Now that little spark of feeling, that recognition of home, is this full blown thing where I’m like, I probably should have thought a little bit deeper about leaving. I will say, the reason why the essay is not the last essay in the book is because, while the book is not chronological, I wanted there to be defined book ends. That’s why the book opens on New Year’s Eve and ends on New Year’s Eve. But Upon My Return was the last essay written specifically to cap off the entirety of the book.

AW: And what are you anticipating when your family reads the book, or are you not anticipating anything?

AD: I’m not necessarily afraid or worried about them reading it because, like I mentioned, my first book was the selfish book and there was a lot of stuff in that book that my family didn’t know about. It has instances of suicide and sexual assault, and I was going through a divorce at the time. A lot of that stuff they didn’t know what was going on because, ironically, I was isolated during that time.

This book, while they didn’t physically live the stuff with me, the death that occurs in the book they were very much a part of. They know that I’m physically distant. They know that sometimes they have to check on me because I might be a little bit emotionally distant sometimes. I’m more concerned about one essay, Distillation. That essay was published in 2021, and to my knowledge, nobody in my family has read it.

The reason why I’m a little worried is because it deals with alcoholism. Though there’s nobody named in the essay, for me it skirts the line of including another person in my book in a way I hope they don’t feel judged. Overall, I think that they’ll like it. They might think I’m a little sad all the time, but outside of that I think that’s the only thing I’m worried about.

AW: I feel like readers often conflate the narrator with the writer, and feel empowered to ask really personal questions about your life.

AD: I taught a class on revision, and the very first thing I told them was: if you’re gonna put a book in the world, whatever you put in that book, you better be prepared to talk about it for several years, because it’s gonna come up. So if you are not comfortable talking about it, do not put it in the book, because it’s fair game. It’s fair game for them to ask questions, and it’s fair game for people to interpret whatever you say in any way they want to. And if that’s gonna be something that’s too tender for you, just write it and put it away.

I keep a whole folder called “Good morning, Heartache,” where I write stuff I’m not ready to put into the world and most of it has never come out, and probably never will, because I’m not prepared to talk about it. I tell people if it’s a little tender, it might be okay, but if it hurts absolutely, don’t write it. And also, what is the intent behind the work? There’s some stuff in my folder where it’s just nothing but mean. And there’s no reason to put that into the world. There’s no real creative or intellectually stimulating reason to put that into the world. It’s just me. It had to be.

AW: Yes. Thank you for sharing that. What are you reading and watching these days?

AD: I am on a binge of every season of Unsolved Mysteries. I’ve been binge watching them forever, even repeating seasons, that’s my thing. Right now I am going between that and finishing Heavy by Kiese Laymon, I’m devouring the book, but slowly. I’ve been stopping and taking notes, and that’s where I’ve been focusing my energy. Outside of Unsolved Mysteries, and Heavy not too much. I listen to music more than anything, I really spend the vast majority of my day listening to music.

Anri Wheeler

Anri Wheeler


Anri Wheeler is a multiracial writer, antiracist educator, and mother to three strong daughters. Her memoir-in-progress is about race, class, motherhood, and tearing open the boxes into which we’re asked to reduce ourselves. More at

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