Schizoid resonances: Alice Koller

Cover of Alice Koller's book An Unknown Woman

“This is the true story of a courageous journey- a journey inward, undertaken alone, in the middle of winter, thirty miles out to sea. It is the story of Alice Koller, who went to Nantucket to find- Alice Koller. During the course of her extraordinarily brave and honest self-analysis, she found and discarded the deepest source of her profound unhappiness. Alone, she faced all that she had fled throughout the thirty-seven years of her life. Alone, she discovered the beginnings of her own vision and a reason to live. 

The intensely personal journal of one woman’s struggle to survive, from despair and near suicide to the first days of a new life, An Unknown Woman speaks with startling intimacy to the unknown person within each of us.” [book blurb]

Koller was a “solitary woman” who sought to “carve out a place for herself in the world… not tied to marriage, family, job, or place but only to her own need to find meaning in our world.”

I wouldn’t say Koller was schizoid per se, but An Unknown Woman certainly “resounds with schizoid themes”.* 

Schizoid resonances in An Unknown Woman:

“I am closed off into myself and no one but me can ever help me get out.”

“The only thing common to us is a certain surface, enough to occupy ten minutes of conversation. Each day I understand more fully how closed to me are the possibilities of human relationships. Not just the important ones: men, friends. But even the casual ones…”

“People call out greetings to one another; they laugh, they talk. The sounds and movements coalesce into an overarching roar that draws me more closely into the silence I carry within me. Unless I’m watchful, I may lose hold of my connection with it.”

“… I’m without working knowledge of a group of ideas that most human beings use without ever being puzzled by them. Like: what a feeling is, how to recognize a feeling of any sort, what it is to choose something, how I can have purposes that are my own.”

“But there isn’t a someone else to make things happen to me: I’m the only person who can do what I decide needs to be done… I don’t have to wait for someone to give me a sense of continuity: I’ll carry my continuity within myself. I’ll belong wherever I am. I’ll institute my own permanence.”

“And will I be free back amongst people again?… If I once begin to dissemble to someone else, I may end by dissembling to myself again.”

A solitary inspiration

Koller died in 2020 at the age of 94. She left behind no immediate kin, other than nieces and nephews. She never married. She never had kids. She severed ties with her family and lost many of her friends. 

If Koller’s life was to be judged against the norms and expectations of the dominant ‘extro-hetero’ (extroverted-heteronormative) world order, it would likely be deemed sad, tragic, a failure. 

But I think Koller provides an instructive and inspiring example of how a life can still be meaningful and impactful, even without personal relationships. 

She may have lived in “stark solitude”, but the work that emerged from that solitude – An Unknown Woman, and its follow-up, Stations of Solitude – has had a profound impact on many people. Koller’s search for an authentic selfhood inspired many women, including myself, to re-think the paths they were on, to quit jobs, and cut ties with people that were destroying them.

In other words, even though Koller lacked personal connections, she still connected with people- through her writing. She may not have been anyone’s partner or mother, but she still touched people – as a writer. 

This type of connection sounds ideal to me; sharing your deepest and darkest with a remote reader, rather than a laid-down-beside-you-lover. I’d deem it somewhat of a ‘schizoid sweet spot’; satisfying the human desire to express, to be heard, to be seen, without any actual fleshy intimacy.  

I also think it’s worth noting that it was precisely Koller’s separation from the world of human beings that, ironically, enabled her to leave a mark on that world. Her books could only have been born from her solitude; it was the solitude that spoke to her readers. 

I guess you could say Koller’s schizoid resonances, whilst they no doubt brought her struggle, also had a part to play in the success she did achieve in her – solitary – life.  

“I was not alone: You should understand that I was only without human beings…”

* A phrase taken from Nancy McWilliam’s paper, Some Thoughts about Schizoid Dynamics

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