Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children

Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children

Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children

Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children


Some children seem different, detached, disinterested in the games of other children. They prefer their hobbies to friends of their own age and if forced into community activities, as they often are at school, can become aggressive and difficult. In Loners, Sula Wolff describes a childhood personality syndrome that has frequently been neglected. Often using children's own words, their lives and problems become real as she unwraps their stories from first referral to adulthood. Some have become talented and successful adults, whilst others are less fortunate in later years. Carefully documented and meticulously researched, this study makes compelling reading.


Loners is destined to be a clinical classic. Sula Wolff has described a group of youngsters with socially isolated personalities and unusual interest patterns who do not fit criteria for other established clinical entities. Her analysis is based on remarkably broad personal experience, not only with the initial evaluation of such youngsters, but with the course of their development into young adulthood. The syndrome she has described is important because the clinical management of youngsters with this personality pattern is distinctly different from that appropriate for others. Customary approaches based on psychodynamic investigations and therapies aimed at altering intrafamilial relationships are contraindicated. Parents need to be helped to understand that the prognosis, for the most part, is relatively good; that these youngsters need support at school and at home to cultivate the assets they have; and that pressure for socialization by joining clubs and groups is likely to be counterproductive.

The last chapter of this book is no less fascinating than the rest. In particular, Dr Wolff suggests that Ludwig Wittgenstein may well have been such a loner. I, for one, am persuaded by the evidence she presents, though, of course, it suffers from being limited to a retrospective search for data. Not many loners will grow up to be Wittgensteins, though I would not be surprised to find his counterparts among mathematicians, philosophers, lighthouse keepers and forest rangers—individuals who have chosen careers which usually limit their social interactions. Let me at once confess that I do not know, either socially or professionally, any lighthouse keepers or forest rangers; I do know academics who fit the pattern!

In the Preface to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein (1922) wrote that the whole meaning of his book could be summed up in the following words:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Wittgenstein does not seem to me to have lived by his aphorism; the Tractatus is not always clear and it was not always persuasive even to Bertrand Russell, his mentor. Sula Wolff, on the other hand has observed his injunction with great fidelity. What she says, she says clearly. Her style is simple and direct. And whereof she cannot speak, such as the causes of the syndrome, she is silent as all must be until these are uncovered.

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