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, describing the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui.
Oh, he was a loner ? Well, that explains everything! He got sick of eating lunch by himself, so he killed 32 people. It's a script as old as "Taxi Driver" older, even. The only problem is, it's wrong.
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 rage 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," said University of Rochester psychology professor Harry Reis. "Lonely people die earlier, they have all sorts of problems. It's the No. 1 cause of suicide."
And it figures in violence, too. "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," said Rufus. 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 solitude, onlookers assume they must be sad. Or snobby. 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, beginning with Isaac Newton, who didn't even like playing with other kids as a child.
J.D. Salinger, Albert Einstein and Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," 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 the "poster child for reclusiveness," says Rufus. She 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, said Dr. Robert Archer, a psychiatry professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School. "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 on the 10 o'clock news.