Variations on Crying -The Toast

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There are playlists on YouTube designed specifically to make people cry. Usually the videos are some combination of dogs dying, soldiers coming home from war, and Thai life insurance commercials, which are bizarrely harrowing. People who claim never to cry over circumstances in their own lives will confess to the minute and second when they “lost it.” A comment on an article about the 19-video “No Cry Challenge”: “I made it to like 2:50 before sobbing, by 4 min I was sobbing uncontrollably.. I needed to, I feel better.”

Challenge makes it sound like the point is to try not to cry, but I think most people watch because they do want to cry. I read a thread on Metafilter last year where the OP (Internet slang for “original poster”) was looking for books that make you cry:

I want to cry my eyes out over a book. It’s been a long time since I have and I need the catharsis.

I need something along the tearjerking lines of Old Yeller, but for adults.

Stuff surrounding the themes of love and loss is a really obvious choice. I nearly always cry over really touching and unselfish displays of loyalty and/or love. (In either a platonic or romantic sense.) Bonus points for existentialism, bittersweetness, and/or touching on the theme of freedom.

But really, if it made you sob and sob and say at some point, “Wow I can’t stand this” it’s probably golden.

Though I’ll cry during almost any movie, especially if I’m on a plane, I can count on one hand the number of times a book has made me weep. The first was Gone With the Wind; I believe I wept twice, once when Scarlett calls for Rhett all night and he doesn’t come, and again when Melanie dies. Perhaps I just wept continuously for a couple of hundred pages. Another memorable weep read, many years later, was The House of Mirth; I was about ten pages from the end when we landed at Logan Airport; I had to cut my sobbing short to deplane, then resume it again that night in bed.

I enjoy sobbing along with films and television. I love when the person you’re rooting for wins a reality show. Probably my favorite emotion to witness is tearful pride, which is why I’m addicted to vocal competition shows like The Voice, all the more so when the contestant is young and their parents or siblings can’t stop crying during the performance. Watch this little girl from Germany sing “I Will Always Love You”; look at her mother imploding backstage; look at that goddamn teddy bear in her pocket.

I have watched this video dozens of times, full of awe and something like a deep nostalgia. (Why? She’s not me and I don’t really sing, unless you count enthusiastic karaoke.) There should be a name for an emotional mix of happiness and sadness – as though you’re overjoyed to be so sad, or are witnessing your own happiness from a tragic distance.

I got interested in Master Chef Junior when I saw someone on Twitter say the finale made them sob. I watched a few episodes on Hulu. What was immediately striking about the show was the way all the children, both boys and girls, cry openly when it’s their turn to go home. There is no visible shame on the part of the crying child, and no shaming on the part of the other children; in fact they usually cry right along with them in sympathy. (Contestants also flout the first rule of reality television, declaring “I’m here to win, but I’m also here to make friends.”) Adults, of course, treat crying in public, unless you’re at the funeral of a close friend or family member, as roughly as embarrassing/disgusting as public vomiting. Most people, when they see a stranger crying, react with a kind of panicked indifference. At the Houston airport in 2002, my brother waited with me at the baggage claim until it was quite clear my bag had not made it back from Rome; as we moved to file a report he hissed at me “Don’t cry!

I’ve never seen most people I know cry. For kids, even older kids, it is not uncommon to cry in front of your friends; up until college, I saw all of my close friends cry at one point or another. There was even a period, in junior high, when having a full-on emotional breakdown at a party was rather in vogue. This was right around the same time that parties turned co-ed and often featured a DJ. Later in the night, usually shortly before or after the last dance, one of us would pick a fight with another girl over some slight, real or imagined; after enough tears, accusations, and general attention-seeking drama had been shared, we would usually make up and hug it out. Initially, the most dramatic girls seemed to be the most emotionally mature; it was something to be admired – we were impressed they could drum up that much resentment. But after a year or two, the pattern became obvious, and the more mature stance was to position yourself as above such outbursts. I seem to remember once being the target of an outburst, but never the instigator. Regardless, I enjoyed both the attention and the show, and couldn’t fully bring myself to scorn the phony drama. I’ve done a little acting, and the fact is, when you go through the motions of being upset, you genuinely start to feel upset. It’s not as hard as you think to cry on cue.

I like to ask people if they remember the last time they cried. Since I rarely go a week without crying at least a little, I always remember. The last time I cried was during the finale of the most recent season of Top Chef. I was happy (proud?) that a woman won. Can you be proud of a stranger? My eyes filled with tears, they ran down my cheeks, I wiped them away. It was quick, silent crying. The last time I cried before that was after getting off the phone with my gynecologist’s receptionist and learning that I could not, at my approaching appointment, get my IUD replaced. The approaching appointment would be a LEEP procedure to electrosurgically remove several layers of potentially precancerous cells from my cervix. During the cervical biopsy I’d undergone a couple of weeks before, the nurse practitioner had accidentally yanked my IUD out with her comically huge biopsy scissors; she left the device sitting in the sink, in a small pool of blood, then left the room so I could get dressed again. I hadn’t cried then, or when she told me I needed the LEEP, but I cried knowing I’d have to go back once again to get a new IUD, and be subjected for the third time in a month to the humiliation of lying flat on my back, naked from the waist down, with my legs in stirrups. (I’ve often wished gynecological exam tables were as well-designed as dentists’ chairs.) This was a noisier, more intense cry, but equally brief; had my husband, John, been awake, I might have drawn it out a little longer, but I was alone, so I sobbed with efficiency.

I have noticed that there’s something about speech that can trigger tears. I’ll hear a story, and know intellectually that the story is sad, but I won’t actually cry until I tell it to someone else. Is it the speech act itself, or the presence of an audience? In college, I learned that a girl from my high school, someone I knew but hadn’t kept in touch with, had been in a bad car accident; her right arm was severed off. I was shocked when I heard it, but not sad, exactly. Later, I repeated the story to my mother; I remember we were driving at the time, and I was in the passenger seat, as the girl would have been. I started crying when I said the word “severed,” which had not seemed quite so brutal in my head as it did it my mouth. It’s not often we have cause to say the word “severed.” Several years ago, my friend Kevin’s wife Katie was almost crushed when a gallery wall fell on top of her; her pelvis was shattered. She has said she didn’t recognize the animal scream that came out of her. When Kevin called their families to tell them what had happened, he couldn’t get it out; he’d try to speak and start sobbing. More than once, mentioning this story offhand to someone else, I’ve gotten unexpectedly choked up, like I can only realize how close she came to being killed or paralyzed when I’m vocalizing it.

The writer Leigh Stein once told me that she cried when she learned what Timothy McVeigh’s last meal was: two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “That’s exactly what I would eat!” she said. This would be her trigger if she needed to cry for a scene. I find the details of last meals almost unbearably poignant. Karla Faye Tucker’s last meal request was a peach, a banana, and a garden salad with ranch dressing. Ranch dressing! She was executed in Texas, which no longer honors last meal requests. This infuriates me.

When I questionnaire myself, in the style of Proust, the answer to “What would you think about if you needed to cry on cue?” changes every few years. Once, on a Sunday night in Boston, I had to take John to the ER with food poisoning. While we were waiting in the triage area, a man and a woman, an old couple, were rolled in on gurneys; they’d clearly been in an accident. The woman was wordlessly moaning, and the man kept saying, “Where’s my wife? I want to talk to my wife.” Someone finally responded “She’s right over there, she can hear you,” and he called out, “I’m sorry!” Then they rolled the woman off into surgery, presumably, while the man continued to say, “Where’s my wife? I want to be near my wife.” He couldn’t turn his head because of a brace around his neck. They finally rolled him away too. It felt like a hospital scene in a movie, a horrific, if scripted, glimpse into the lives of strangers. In a movie, however, it wouldn’t have been sad, merely horrific, since you’d have no attachment to these minor characters. As it is, it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. John was lying on one of those shitty hospital beds, nauseated and dehydrated beyond belief, but I’d started crying, and he was comforting me.

I have always hated Sundays. Everything seems worse on Sunday nights, just like everything seems worse when you wake up at 3 a.m., each obligation and annoyance in your life a heavier burden. The worst kind of tears are frustration tears, when you cross the can’t-take-it-anymore threshold for some usually trivial reason, an inaccurate medical bill or horrible customer service agent. I’d rather cry from physical pain than frustration, though I can’t remember the last time I was injured badly enough to cry. I cried a little when I sprained my ankle doing long jump in high school, but I’ve never broken a bone. When I was 26, I got 13 stitches in my chin after fainting toward a French door and breaking a pane of glass with my face. Amazingly, this did not hurt at all. Not at the time, when I was unconscious, and not later, at any point during the stitching up or removal of stitches. The lack of pain, and the fact that I didn’t actually experience the fall, makes the “memory” cinematic; I picture it happening from the vantage point of the bed in the room; I see me stumble from the bathroom to the French door and down to the hardwood floor, where I later woke up, or was shaken awake.

Men can’t stand to see women cry, in the same way that parents can’t stand to see their children cry. We learn the value of performative crying at a very young age. I suspect all women, if not all men, have snuck a look in the mirror while crying. Rearview mirrors, restaurant bathroom mirrors. “A woman must continually watch herself,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing. “Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping.” I’ve found that looking in the mirror is a very good way to stop crying. So, just as you can never see yourself in the mirror with your eyes closed, you can never watch yourself weeping in the mirror; instead you see how you look just after.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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