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REVIEW: SINGLED OUT, by Bella DePaulo–Exploring the myth, “You will die in a room by yourself where no one will find you for weeks” August 11, 2008

Posted by Onely in book review, Reviews, Singled Out.
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DePaulo, Bella. Singled Out, How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006

(This is an ongoing, serial review, continued from an earlier post)

 In Singled Out, DePaulo explores the myth of singlehood, “You Will Grow Old Alone and You Will Die in a Room By Yourself Where No One Will Find Your For Weeks”. 

“How could marriage possibly provide insurance against dying alone? Unless both partners to the marriage die at the same instant, one is guaranteed to die without the other. And even the spouse who is first to die cannot rest assured that his or her partner will be there when the time has come. In fact, even if the couple had children with whom they maintained a warm connection, there would still be no certainty that any of them would be there, either.” (201)  

Well, duh, you say? Not according to many people. DePaulo cites a series of newspaper stories and fictional TV episodes that spin the single deceased (especially women) as pitiable and alone. She focuses on Margaret, an elderly woman who lived alone and died when her house was engulfed in flames. The headline of the news article reads, “Woman Apparently Had No Family, Visitors”, but the text beneath includes several testimonials from friends and neighbors who knew Margaret and had regular interaction with her. But the headline “Woman Apparently Had Family and Visitors” just doesn’t generate eye-catching pity pangs. 

DePaulo says,

“Is it sad that Margaret lived alone? Only if she wished she hadn’t. . . Well, then, is it sad that Margaret had no children? Again, only if she wished she had. . . If we cannot drown Margaret in our pity because she was old and living alone, and we cannot pity her just because she had no children, either, then can we at least assume she was lonely and pity her for that? Well, no.” (206)

DePaulo cites studies indicating an “amazing low level of loneliness among older women who have always been single” (and older single people in general). (207)

I was curious to see how DePaulo would address the “no one will find you for weeks!” part of the myth. However, she never really tackles that issue, which is the most viscerally frightening part of the “dying alone” myth. She cites significant stories and studies indicating that most elderly people do have a network of contacts and regular interaction with the world–so I guess it’s understood that one of those contact would find a body before it becomes food for the pet cats. 

And as she says in the first quote in this post, marriage doesn’t provide any inherent insurance against dying alone–and by extension also not against rotting alone. 

Also, let’s think about this–what’s the difference, REALLY, between someone finding your two-days-dead body and someone finding your two-weeks-dead body? Sure, it sucks for them, smell-wise, and sight-wise. But that’s just nature doing its thing. I guess people’s fear is not that someone will see them in their decomposition suit, but that someone will see that they didn’t have anyone come look in on them for two weeks.  

And is THAT so bad? What if the dead person preferred to only socialize with people every 2.5 weeks; what if that were just his pace?  What if no one expected him anywhere for two weeks, and he liked it that way? What if between times he liked to concentrate on his painting? 

Just saying. 



1. Being Eaten By Cats: thoughts on the myth of dying single « Onely. - August 11, 2008

[…] their fears of dying alone? (We addressed the fearful  ”rotting alone” issue in this earlier post about DePaulo’s book Singled […]

2. Bella DePaulo - August 20, 2008

Yes, I think your last line is exactly right. So often, people judge others in terms of their own preferences, not recognizing that for others, their preferences are different.

Thanks for your continuing commentary on Singled Out. I really appreciate it!


3. Rachel - December 1, 2008

There’s an interesting “This American Life” show about living and dying alone: Home Alone. It talks a bit about the reality of that happening – after all someone has to get rid of the stuff the onley person accumulated… One interesting exchange is with the woman from the city who was looking for the dead person’s kin and the journalist revealed that the investigator simply assumed that the person who died alone wanted to live that way. That they were happy with their lives. The journalist doubts that. I suppose he could be right. But so could be the investigator.

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