Tears, Idle Tears: On Heather Christle’s “The Crying Book”
By Sophia StewartDecember 16, 2019
The Crying Book by Heather Christle
The Crying Book is a stunning work, a constellation of prose poems that plumb the depths of crying: how it feels, why it matters, and, perhaps most importantly, what it means. Tears are naturally vexing, and Christle is often unsure of the impetus for her own crying: “I do not know how to name why I am crying,” she admits one day, distantly echoing Tennyson’s “tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.” Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the meaning of one’s tears can vary greatly depending on one’s culture, gender, and race. So Christle sets out to understand the significance of crying in every possible human context, adopting social, historical, and biological lenses to conduct her inquiry.
Christle deftly balances her roles as researcher and research subject. By directing her inquiry both inward and outward, she discovers, in her own words, “what it means to be a crier and an observer of crying, sometimes simultaneously.” The Crying Book, then, is both a study and a memoir — that is, a study of the self. This duality runs throughout the book, but it is perhaps best encompassed by Christle’s 2013 poem “Aesthetics of Crying,” which reads like a preparatory study that would evolve into The Crying Book:
I have cried at times
for so long that I have moved the activity
in front of the mirror
out of curiosity
The information I gathered there remains
thus far unused
but let the record show
my horrible face
Watching her reflection cry, Christle negotiates her dual functions as observer and observed. “Let the record show / my horrible face” sees both roles collide: the removed investigator and the blubbering mess. I’m reminded of Maggie Nelson, crying in the mirror in Bluets, noticing “the lines arrive around [her] eyes like engraved sunbursts.” “We sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity,” a friend tells Nelson, “but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair.”
Is that the end to which crying is a means — to feel witnessed in our despair, to have our sadness seen? Christle discovers a possible answer in her research: emotional tears, she finds, are more viscous than those caused by physical irritation, slowing down the rate at which they fall and increasing the chance they will be “noticed and tended to.” Our tears, then, are small distress signals. They linger on our cheeks to call attention to themselves, to appeal for care.
Still, because of the stigma attached to crying, most would rather their tears go undetected. In public, criers often “hide behind a lie about allergies or a cold,” Christle writes. One study mentioned in The Crying Book found that airplane passengers devise still other methods to conceal their crying: on planes, men are likely to hide under blankets to cry, while many women admitted to pretending to have something in their eye. Roland Barthes hid his own weeping behind dark sunglasses, though he insisted there is no inherent shame in crying: “To weep,” he writes in A Lover’s Discourse, “is part of the normal activity of the amorous body.”
Crying may make our pain known, but Christle is less convinced that it can actually relieve our pain. “Crying won’t make you feel better,” she concludes. “We only think that it will, or, perhaps more important, think that at some point in the past it did.” I am reminded again of Bluets, in which Nelson experiences this very delusion, only to have her expectations of relief punctured: “I lay my head down on the desk and start to weep. — Why doesn’t this help?”
The more I think about The Crying Book and Bluets, the more I suspect they are two halves of one diptych, two parts of one whole. Reductively put, The Crying Book is to crying as Bluets is to the color blue. But the two books complement each other in much more profound ways. Christle and Nelson both follow associative patterns of thought rather than linear logic. Both conduct formal experiments in memoir and use a mosaic of prose poems to explore a chosen motif. Both authors struggle with several crises at once — for Christle: depression, a friend’s death, and a new child; for Nelson: depression, a friend’s injury, and a lost love. And both write with unconditional honesty: we are granted total access to the recesses of their minds, the infinite expanses of their wonder.
The Crying Book begins exactly where Christle’s “Aesthetics of Crying” leaves off, with a scene of crying-induced ugliness. The book’s opening vignette considers the temporary facial deformity that follows a “real cry”:
I suppose some people can weep softly and become more beautiful, but after a real cry, most people are hideous, as if they’ve grown a spare and diseased face beneath the one you know, leaving very little room for the eyes. Or they look as if they’ve been beaten. We look. I look.
They look. We look. I look. Again, the lines between Christle and the subjects of her inquiry blur. By the middle of the book, Christle has become a crucial case study. One day, while digging up weeds in her garden, she listens to a lecture about emotion elicitation techniques, in which researchers play a clip to trigger tearful responses in their subjects. A few minutes into the clip, Christle is “crying all over the soil.” “I mistook myself for a researcher,” she admits, “when I am a weeping subject.”
It is Christle, our own weeping subject, that makes The Crying Book so affecting. She studies tears tenderly, even intimately, motivated by a heartfelt desire to understand. What could have easily been a dry but informative volume on crying and its many meanings becomes a more holistic portrait of crying, of its many meanings, and of a woman who does it a lot. She examines her own crying habits with careful attention: “The length of the cry matters,” she concludes, presumably having compared the effects of various cries of varying lengths. At one point, she feels grateful for the nasal runoff that accompanies a particularly intense cry: “Hard to feel you are too tragic a figure when the tears mix with snot.”
As she expands her investigation beyond herself, Christle remains relentlessly curious, but she sometimes feels overwhelmed by her vast, complicated topic. “Tears are a sea in which I can set myself adrift, unsure of the subject where I’ll land,” Christle once said to describe the process of writing The Crying Book. Still, she proves to be a graceful navigator across that sea of tears, charting a path full of discoveries and arresting observations.
To help guide and inform her investigation, Christle assembles a large personal “crybrary” of books like James Elkins’s Pictures & Tears and Tom Lutz’s Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. Though The Crying Book is only 208 pages long, it boasts 198 endnotes, many of which are plucked straight from the crybrary. Christle worries her extensive research could wreak personal havoc: “All this reading could prove a mistake,” she writes. “What if […] months of tearful research alter the way I weep at my life?”
Christle is constantly expanding and contracting her aperture, studying the tear from every possible angle. There are historical tears: medieval mystic Margery Kempe crying en route to Jerusalem; students crying at the Kent State massacre; Alan Shepard crying on the moon. Cultural tears: what it means when white people cry; what it means when women cry; what it means when white women cry. Social tears: crying alone versus with a friend; crying in public versus in private; crying as a child versus as a parent. And then, of course, there are Christle’s tears: she cries in the bathroom; in the car; in the garden. She often writes bleary-eyed, fresh from a cry or even in the midst of one.
Indeed, as all her weeping might suggest, The Crying Book is as much about depression as it is about crying. Christle refers to her own depression simply as “the despair.” Any other word, she says, feels too cold, too clinical. She personifies the condition as ignorant and myopic: “The despair is not reasonable. It has no sense of proportion. It knows the material conditions of my life are not under threat, but it does not care.” The despair is also clever; when psychological torment is insufficient, it manifests itself physically — through tears — to take further control of Christle’s life: “When I am in the fog of despair I fear I cry too much to be a good partner or parent or person.” At its worst, the yoke of depression feels suffocating and inevitable.
Yet some of Christle’s most difficult and vulnerable moments yield her most lucid writing. She deploys precise imagery to animate her pain: “I sometimes imagine a metaphysical strainer I could rinse my body through, until I am whole and clean in the sink,” she writes on a particularly challenging day, “and all the despair is held separate and dripping above.” It is the despair’s agenda that scares her most, its desire for total fusion: “Despair wants me not to know the difference between itself and me.”
But there is life beyond despair; one need only learn how to access it. “Something that I ended up learning over the course of writing [The Crying Book],” Christle told Old Pal Magazine, “is that despair might know the truth about how bad things can be, but it lies when it says there can be no other way.” As I read those words for the first time, I start to cry.
Sophia Stewart is a writer, editor, and cultural critic from Los Angeles. You can find her writing here and follow her on Twitter @smswrites.
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