Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Courtney Maum. Credit: Colin Lane
Courtney Maum is the author of the acclaimed novels, COSTALEGRE, TOUCH and I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN HERE WITHOUT YOU, which were both selected by such outlets as O Magazine, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Glamour, Marie Claire and others as one of the best books of summer. (TOUCH was a New York Times editor's choice and an NPR Best Books of 2017 pick.) Her short fiction, book reviews, and essays on the writing life have been widely published in outlets such as The New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers, and she has co-written films that have debuted at Sundance and won awards at Cannes. At various points in her life, she has been a trend forecaster, a fashion publicist, and a party promoter for Corona Extra.
Courtney currently works as a product namer for M·A·C cosmetics and other companies from her home in Connecticut, where she founded the learning collaborative, The Cabins which will take place again in the summer of 2020. Courtney also has a new book forthcoming this winter: BEFORE AND AFTER THE BOOK DEAL: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting and surviving your first book.
In July, Courtney published a piece in the New York Times entitled, ‘Please Touch Me’, where she drew on her experience as a trend forecaster to predict we’ll begin to see a return to touch in society. It’s our pleasure to interview Courtney about her article and predictions.
1) Your article in the New York Times was fascinating. How did you come to think about touch as a topic?
The first thing that registered was the changing role of instinct in decision-making. At some point in 2014, I looked around and realised that my friends weren’t using instinct any more to make decisions. They were using their phones. Whether it was something small, such as where to order carry-out in a foreign city, or something large, like dating, it felt (and still feels!) like people were relying on their phones to make decisions that they previously would have trusted their intuition for.
At the same time that I was noticing the endangerment of instinct, I was also going through some touch deprivation myself. My toddler was growing up and wasn’t hanging on me all the time any more—so I didn’t have as much skin-to-skin contact as I did during her infancy, and my husband and I were wearied after raising this small child, so—same thing—not a lot of contact there. Plus, we live in a rural area and we both work from home: the subways and dance halls and crowded elevators of our youth were a thing of the past. So I wasn’t getting informal physical contact any more in the way you do if you live in an urban area and commute to work. All this made me wonder: if we are using our telephones to do most of our socialising, isn’t it conceivable that after many years of prioritising digital communication over the physical, we could lose our muscle memory and quite literally forget how to touch another human in a consensual way?
In my second novel, TOUCH, I tried to answer this question by exploring the struggles of a 40 year-old female trend forecaster who is tasked to predict trends in technology for a worldwide conglomerate called Mammoth, at the very moment when she is starting to think that the next big trend is a return to intimacy and human contact.
2) A very interesting point you made is that “you prove there is a desire for something by pointing to its lack”. Why do you think we’ve lost touch as a society?
Touch is a language just like any other. If we don’t practice it, it erodes. I’m as thankful as any other modern person for the efficiency that texting and emojis afford us, and I’ve definitely seen the benefits and usefulness of social media in my professional career. This being said, it’s naïve to think that we can communicate–at a distance—with loved ones and acquaintances only through text and images and not have our physical relationships be changed. Because of my profession, I’m often in contact with twenty somethings in the social media domain. They’re a whiz on the Internet, but so many young professionals are unable to hold a natural conversation in person, and they can’t handle eye contact. That level of intimacy is something they aren’t comfortable with any more. It’s foreign to them. They’ve unlearned it. I do think that this is one of the contributing factors to the rash of violence and hateful acts that we are seeing in my country and around the world—people don’t think of people as people anymore. They think of them as avatars.
3) Science has shown that touch can tackle issues including loneliness as well as mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and stress. Does it surprise you that we’re living through a loneliness epidemic as well as a mental health crisis, while simultaneously seeing touch deprivation on the rise in western countries?
I’m not surprised at all. One thing I explore in both my novel, TOUCH, and the New York Times article is that the current “self care” movement is capitalistic and isolationist at its core. Don’t get me wrong—it’s important to take care of yourself and to monitor your emotional well-being and to treat yourself from time to time. But you’re not going to heal your mind by donning moisturising socks all by your lonesome in your tiny flat. For everything people are spending on fancy bath salts and sound machines and exfoliation scrubs, they’d probably see more benefits from going over to a friend’s house and saying, “Hey, I miss you. I’d love more of you in my life,” and giving that person a hug.
4) You made a brilliant prediction (we hope governments see it as more of a suggestion!) that, “I think we’ll see touch-deprivation check-in spots in public wellness centres where patients can go to be embraced.” Could you tell us a bit more about why you think this may happen and why it could be a solution to the touch deprivation crisis we find ourselves in?
We have a culture that is obsessed with performance: how many steps did we take in a day, how many followers do we have, how much protein have we consumed in a given day. So why not track our levels of physical engagement? When was the last time that we embraced someone? When was the last time we were kissed? When was the last time that we took somebody’s hand? I bet we’d be pretty surprised—unpleasantly surprised—about how low our numbers are. Touch should be consensual, there’s no doubt about that, but we can be respectful of other people’s bodies and values and still acknowledge that there isn’t enough touch in our own lives. These things—respect for other people’s personal space and prioritising physical contact—can co-exist. This is where professional cuddlers come in: if we don’t, for whatever reason, have people we can turn to in our own lives for enhanced physical contact, we can turn to them.
5) You speak about cuddle therapy and its remarkable growth over a short period of time. At Nordic Cuddle, we’ve seen a 253% increase in bookings for the month of July in 2019, compared to 2018. Why do you think people are turning to cuddle therapy as opposed to other forms of touch, and do you see this trend continuing?
We’re living through a moment where contact—consensual, non-consensual—is fraught. A lot of people have lost the physical access they once had to the bodies of their friends and loved ones. They meet in person with them less, so it begins to feel more and more awkward to take that person’s hand or to give them a hug. This is how we got to this point where affection is outsourced. People are too scared or too out-of-emotional-shape to say, “Hey, I could really use some human kindness right now, I could really use a hug,” so they turn to the professionals. Professionals who won’t judge them, who won’t ask them to explain anything or justify or apologise, who will only hear that they need warmth and comfort, and will respond in kind.
I went through a really rough patch while I was writing TOUCH—it was hard to explore the effects of touch deprivation while simultaneously realising that I was suffering them myself. Personally, I found solace in equine therapy, which honestly isn’t that different from the wonderful services that a professional cuddler offers. Horses don’t question you, they don’t judge you, they respond to what your soul is needing if you approach them with an open heart. I think professional touch practitioners are so important right now. Hopefully, they can put us back on the path towards compassion and empathy, and restore our courage so that we can eventually seek solace from our own relationships, again.