Since reading and writing about Anne Boyer’s The Undying, I keep returning to the chapter where she mentions how, before she got sick, she was planning to create a public place for weeping, “an almost religious monument where anyone who needed it could get together to cry in good company and with the proper equipment.”
This idea of a public place, a monument standing holy in a city for people to gather together for no other reason than to feel sad, be sad, seems like it would be a place where people are reminded of humanity at a time when it appears there is no room for kindness. I imagine standing in such a place and hearing the echoes of others crying, what it might be like to join them. It would be a public weeping. It would be the public weeping.
I had always thought of crying as something done alone, had never thought to give tears a space to exist without shame, to have tears validated instead.
In Heather Christle’s latest work, The Crying Book, she writes of her own crying, but also of tears in general—of the art, science, and history of weeping, and the language of poetry. So, in many ways, her book is a monument to crying.
Not only is it a place to consider tears, but it considers the places we shed our tears.
“The kitchen is the best—I mean the saddest—room for tears. A bedroom is too easy, a bathroom too private, a living room too formal.”
These are private spaces where people cry, perhaps, because if we are lucky we think of our homes as safe places. Maybe crying likes enclosure.
Christle also writes that if someone is standing outside of the car and crying it is okay to console them, and if they are inside the car they are already being held. This makes sense to me, since yesterday I cried inside my station wagon while sitting in the parking lot of Walgreens. I leaned my seat back so no one could see me.
Because the thing about public weeping is that it impacts others.
As I read Christle’s recounting of how a white woman’s tears led to the shooting death of John Crawford III in a Walmart (and also the death of the white woman she thought she was “saving”), Felicity Huffman is crying as she apologizes to a judge, to parents, colleges, and her family for cheating in order to get her daughter into college. I think about Tanya McDowell, the Black woman who lived just twenty minutes from me and was sent to jail for trying to send her son to a better public school. How different their headshots are on the news, how different their punishments.
White women and their tears hold unwieldy amounts of power.
As I write about Christle’s poetic considerations on crying, Amber Guyton cries at her trial, and I can’t help but think she is crying not for Botham Jean, the man she shot and killed in his own apartment, but for herself and for the small prison sentence she was given. Jean’s lawyer said this verdict is for Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown.
My own white lady tears are falling for the dead and also for the mothers living without their children.
In her book, Christle writes of motherhood’s tears and the tears that follow the death of a friend. I feel like she is exposing me, for I, too, have motherhood tears. And because this summer, a season when the sunlight usually demands celebration, I mourned the death of a former student who died in a car accident in July, and then again for the unexpected death of an old friend in August. The summer usually feels light with promise, but this summer felt thick.
The grief of motherhood and the grief of death are different because the tears that fall after someone dies are understood, are universal, and therefore publicly acknowledged. When mothers cry about being mothers or about their children, it is a grief of their bodies; and bodies, of course, are private.
Midway through The Crying Book, Christle writes of reading and speaking with William H. Frey, who, in 1985, wrote the book Crying: The Mystery of Tears, a book that went “as viral as it could be in the pre-Internet era.”
She writes, “In his book, Frey speculates that ‘higher levels [of the hormone prolactin] may account in part for the fact that women shed tears more often and more readily than men’” and then notices the problems of his binary thinking, his misconstruction of sex and gender as interchangeable, and “that in his conceptual framework men are the default figure, to which women are compared.”
And then, in her own research, Christle finds that differences in prolactin levels emerge after childhood. Those categorized as female have an increase, males a decrease. She questions the language Frey uses: “What would happen if Frey were to flip his model, ask why males suffer from a prolactin deficit, and a corresponding inability to cry? Or better still, what if researchers were to treat sex and gender as the varied sets they are? What would the science of tears look like then?”
I tell this to my husband and to my eleven-year-old son. “See?” I say to them, “See how important language is?’
For days I rolled this thought around in my head, thought about the times I have cried, where I cried, and what brought on the tears:
I climbed into the shower the day I heard my father died, where it echoed and where there was a lock and a drain.
I cried in the witness stand at my divorce hearing, so much so that the judge asked me if I was sure I was making the right decision. “I am,” I sobbed, because it was my suredness that made me cry. In hindsight, I think the tears also came because I was exposed, made public, judged in the purest sense of the word.
Every time I watch my son swim, I cry because he is so beautiful, although these tears most often stay heavy on the rims of my eyes. I keep them to myself because I don’t want him to see, to be embarrassed, or feel as though he is causing me pain.
I also cry at that Subaru commercial—where the boy and his dog named Duck grow up together—and know that I am being manipulated by marketing but don’t care.
When I tried to make a list made of facts and not anecdotes, I got stuck. I couldn’t think of anything that always makes me cry, except to say “sadness,” and I find sadness everywhere.
So I asked my husband and my son to write down for me things that make them cry. I wanted to know what might be the difference between them and me. Here is what my husband wrote:
1. When Harry toasts his brother George at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. Gets me every time.
2. When I think about how lucky I am.
3. Loss of a loved one.
4. Genuine moments of human kindness.
5. Father’s Day cards from my wife and kid.
6. BONUS: pulling out nose hairs. (He is very funny, my husband.)
Here is what my son wrote:
1. When I’m angry.
2. When I feel like no one understands me.
4. When I get hurt.
I can add that he cries when he feels he has disappointed us, and also when he feels he has caused someone else to hurt. I worry that his heart is too big for the world, and when I think about that, I cry.
Are there differences to be found in this very small sample? My anecdotes of crying are all moments in which I was contained: a bathroom, a witness stand, a YMCA pool, my living room couch. My husband’s list is not unlike mine; it just has fewer words. My son lists things that pertain directly to him, which makes sense because he is a child. If we all cried into jars to measure prolactin levels, my jar would fill first, and if that was the way to match math to emotions, I guess we could say I’d “win.”
Boyer and Christle both write of unstoppable tears, of being a crybaby, and I think perhaps that my list contained only the word “sadness” because I bend toward the melancholy. One of my most frequently listened-to playlists is “The Saddest Songs from Les Miserables,” and I often listen to it when washing the dishes.
Christle writes that there is a chemical difference between emotional tears and the tears that happen when we agitate our eyes. She notes, “People cry in response to art, most frequently to music. Poetry gets claimed second.”
Of course poetry gets second—it is language tied inextricably to affect. (Music “wins” because it is poetry merged with instruments, so it attacks our emotions from two angles.) Every semester, when I teach politics and poetry, I give my students Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” and then Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” and when we read them aloud, despite my best efforts, I cry, and then worry about how my public weeping affects them.
When Christle meditates on language and poetry, she also includes Ross Gay. His poem “Weeping” traces the etymology of the word in these lines:
I’m thinking here of the proto-Indo-European root
which means the precise sound of a flower bud
unwrapping, and the tiny racket a seed makes
cracking open in the dark…
And then later she writes of discussing Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” in a class taught by Deborah Digge. One of the things Christle remembers is Digge asking about whether Plath may have been overreacting to the flowers.
It seems perhaps the root of understanding emotional crying might have everything to do with how very small we are in a wide world, how the things that happen to us are even smaller than we are, and so to react to them, to cry, is to acknowledge their significance.
Shortly after we moved into our house, my husband gave me a blue ceramic vase. The vase itself is typically vase-shaped, but it is attached to a creature that looks like a baby harpy. It has the head of a Victorian child and the body of a spread-winged eagle. We call it “the creepy baby vase” and once I filled it with the kind of purple flowers that line the stem like ants. I forgot to water them and after a few days I heard a rustle and saw the thick stick stem release a dried-up flower onto the table. I wrote in a melodramatic note on my phone, “It gave up under the weight of the living room air.”
In her author’s note, Christle writes, “This book began five years ago with an idle idea about what it might look like to make a map of every place I’d ever cried,” and I think about how maps mark places, root us in space, help us to find our way. Maps mark where we can find monuments and buildings that hold art and corporations and books and, of course, people. Like Boyer’s marble tower, The Crying Book adds a gravity to crying, a validation.
Christle notes that after music and poetry, “People can even cry about architecture.” At first I could not think of a building that made me weep, and then I remembered how hard I cried the first time we stepped foot into our home.