Blast | December 17, 2019

BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Just in time for the holidays, Caroline Crew reflects on her “unfeminine” and possibly British habit of NOT crying in the face of adversity. 

 

 

What I Should Consider before Weeping in Frustration at Airline Customer Service after a Six-Hour Delay on My Honeymoon

by Caroline Crew

 

 

  1. I don’t cry. No, really, I don’t. At least not identifiably—not outside, not in the world where someone might see or, worse, remember.

 

  1. Of course, there are tears of a kind. Basal tears are the fundamental lubricant of the eye; reflex tears react to irritants—I remember getting my nose pierced at sixteen in a tent in a muddy music-festival field and being so indignant that my eyes sprang tears without my feeling pain. I’ve recognized that same look on the faces of amateur boxers getting punched in the ring, not the safety of the gym, for the first time. A bodily betrayal.

 

 

  1. The third and final tear type, the most mysterious, are those we sob.

 

  1. The infamous British “stiff upper lip” is a peculiarity of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century Britain. We were a weepy nation before and would be again— but the emergence of empire in the Victorian era hardened the delicate sensibilities of Britain. The young Queen at her coronation wept. With tears of joy or fear, sorrow or bewilderment? But big empires don’t cry. As the new century dawned, Britain dried her eyes and stoically marched on.

 

 

  1. The mystery of emotional tears is a miracle to some: the act of weeping is often associated with Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. Catharsis proposes an alchemy of sorts, with Oedipus Rex or your own choice of tearjerker as the catalyst: Let art transform you. Spectating tragic art purges negative feelings— or, more plainly, “better out than in.” Such a cliché holds a quieter threat: What will happen if you don’t let it out? You’ll curdle and rot.

 

  1. The term “stiff upper lip” is actually an Americanism. The expression was treated with the suspicion of scare quotes throughout the nineteenth century.

 

 

  1. My favourite mystic, Margery Kempe, never became a saint. I like to think that even for the Catholic Church, her endless tears—a gift from God— were too much. One travelling preacher went so far as to ban the tearful Margery from his services because he could not stand the disruption. What to do with a woman who won’t shut up?

 

  1. Historian of emotion Thomas Dixon situates Britain’s suspicion of crying in a cat’s cradle of paradoxes: the actor’s paradox and the witch’s paradox. For the actor—and we are all performers when we begin to weep— the contradiction lies in conveying authenticity as a professional faker. For the witch, it’s a classic question of femininity: to weep is weak or manipulative, to remain dry-eyed is hard-hearted, unfeminine, bitchy.

 

 

  1. “Modern girls don’t cry, even if they feel like it”—actress and World War I performer Dorothy Brunton.

 

  1. I was deluged by Margery Kempe’s tears in order to avoid the cathartic extremity of tragedy. As an undergraduate, I wanted to avoid the popular Shakespeare and Tragedy class, choosing instead the poker-faced sounding Literature and Law in Early Modern England. Beyond my discomfort at the prospect of three whole months of Elizabethan tearjerkers, an entire semester of Shakespeare at my medieval, top-tier university threatened to reveal my shameful lack of learning. A first-generation student, I would require another degree or two to shake the feeling of not belonging, of intruding in someone else’s sacred space— and so I would be as silent and small as I could in seminars. I forsook catharsis, focusing instead on the melding of English common law and social norms and literature’s role in scripting both.

 

 

  1. A much-cited 2011 study in Science found that women’s tears contain chemical signals that decrease testosterone and sexual arousal in men. One of the study’s authors, Noam Sobel, lamented “I won’t pretend to be surprised that it generated all the wrong headlines.”

 

  1. One of my oldest friends, Kit, can remember almost anything. They are the keeper of our archive. Kit remembers what I’ve worn for every Halloween since college. They recall the nasty specifics of fights with boyfriends I’ve long since forgotten. They remember that one-shouldered bronze dress I donated to Goodwill five years ago, which, according to them, was a mistake. But they do not remember ever having seen me cry. In over a decade of friendship, the most Kit can recall is me sniffling on the phone and denying it.

 

 

  1. Winston Churchill, that epitome of dry-eyed, bulldog Britishness, wept publicly during his tenure as Prime Minister—in the Blitzed streets of London, in the House of Commons.

 

  1. I used to think this was my fascination with Margery Kempe: a woman so loud in her life that she wrote the first autobiography in English so she could echo down centuries. But now I wonder if my fascination comes down to the bafflement of opposites attracting. I’m stubbornly terrified of tears—at least tears that might be witnessed by another soul, but not Margery. Margery’s tears stopped for no one, no matter how uncomfortable her audience.

 

 

  1. News of weeping statues is a fairly frequent reported miracle. While condensation is often the culprit, there are weeping-Madonna craft tutorials for all ages available online.

 

  1. A smattering of smirking headlines stretching from 2013 to the present report the establishment of “crying clubs.” Human-interest articles from Japan, England, and India describe communal gatherings from ironic goth club nights to faceless conference-room meetings all chasing the cathartic release of crying—but without the misery of loneliness. These gatherings, such as the Minnade Nako Kai in Kyoto and the Lachrymal Gland Club in Sendai, seem particularly popular in Japan, ranked in the International Study on Adult Crying as among the most reserved nations in terms of public weeping.

 

 

  1. The Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney once described his relationship to Catholicism as less a religious practice and more tradition: “the specifically Irish Catholic blueprint that was laid down when I was growing up has been laid there forever. I think of the distrust of the world, if you like, the distrust of happiness, the deep pleasure there is in a mournful litany, the sense that there’s some kind of feminine intercession that you turn to for comfort.” I believe, too, that despite having lived in the US for almost a decade, somewhere under the layers of my twisted transatlantic accent, adoption of Southernisms such as “y’all” but refusal to drop the “u” from colour is a Church of England blueprint etched in my soul— work hard, be polite, don’t cry, and certainly don’t let that lip wobble if someone can see you. The private vault of Protestant practice.

 

  1. Why are Roy Lichtenstein’s women crying? His crying girls are the most iconic faces of Pop Art. I still see their faces most days, repurposed in Atlanta street artist Chris Veal’s murals across the city. The gesture remains static—cartoonishly beautiful women weep. In Lichtenstein’s originals blondes cry waiting for an absent man, sob out apologies, or bawl rather than ask for help, as in his famous Drowning Girl. In the Atlanta re-imaginings, the telltale speech bubbles express similarly vapid stimuli for the women’s tears: traffic, a dead iPhone battery, Instagram likes. The appeal of Pop Art is its immediacy of subject— we recognize the can of soup, the cartoon—and get to smugly nod in agreement with the ham-fisted critique of mass production, of low culture. That feeling of superiority buoys us for a brief moment. Lichtenstein’s weeping women puff us up—we would never be so insipid as to cry over unworthy subjects.

 

 

  1. My year of public crying: Oxford, 2011 to 2012. Angry at my own misery, I didn’t care who saw me. I cried after classes. I cried on the Bridge of Sighs, I cried on Turl Street while walking past undergraduates throwing water balloons for a medieval rivalry, I cried on the bus to Oxford and away from it. I cried in tourist pictures. I cried in libraries full of priceless artifacts. I cried in the famous pubs and I cried in the student dives. I cried until I unceremoniously left—no graduation day, just a diploma in the mail. And then I stopped. In that medieval city, I was, briefly, Margery Kempe’s daughter—weeping my ceaseless stream—a personal miracle of public emoting.

 

  1. Tears lurk in the liminal spaces. The dark cinema is a British favourite in-between—the shadows obscuring both our tears and the line between fact and fiction, whether we are crying for the sentimental story onscreen, or for ourselves.

 

 

  1. On why so many weeping women in his work, Roy Lichtenstein shrugs: “Crying women are just the cliché. That’s what you used to see in comics books—women who were like that, women were always in trouble.”

 

  1. Maudlin, meaning excessively sentimental or mawkish or foolishly emotional comes from Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene weeping, that most Catholic of icons.

 

 

  1. Empire and anti-weeping sentiment are a classic English pair. The dry-eyed English reserve is built on a misguided and murderous belief in the “better-than.” Better than those primitive, emotional “savages.” Better than those Catholics crying in church. Better than those crying for their dead, the dead her majesty’s men have made.

 

  1. Weeping can be a weapon. The tears of white women, especially, are wont to be weaponized and brandished in defence of white supremacy. The tears of white women have summoned the cops, have made false accusations, have murdered people of colour and all the while maintained the sympathetic subject position.

 

 

  1. The question of who gets to cry, rather than who wants to cry, weights our tears with the gravity the world affords us.

 

  1. Letty Eisenhauer, Roy Lichtenstein’s ex-lover with whom he lived when he first developed his mature style, after separating from his first wife, Isabel: “The crying girls are what he wanted women to be. He wanted to make you cry, and he did—he made me cry.”

 

 

  1. In his 2008 study on gender and affective behaviors, psychologist Jacob M. Vigil expressed surprise at the result that only 2 percent of American men reportedly believed they were likely to cry out of anger, as opposed to 51 percent of women. Vigil postulated this difference was linked to the social permissibility of men’s, but not women’s, aggression.

 

 

 

  1. For all the reasons Margery Kempe and her spiritual advisors ever assigned her holy tears—experiencing the suffering of Christ on the cross, seeing a wedding that reminded her of Mary and Joseph, seeing children and so imagining Christ as a child, recalling all of these spiritual insights for a scribe—anger was not one of them. She was mocked, accused of demonic possession, and endured the birth of fourteen children (not counting stillbirths) without modern pain medicine. Perhaps Margery wailed because it was her only outlet for rage.

 

 

  1. After the Trump administration’s brutal policy of family separation that saw infants incarcerated in an old Walmart building, protesters gathered outside the home of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson. Instead of protest chants, those gathered played audio recordings of the weeping migrant children.

 

  1. My father repeatedly told me, “Don’t marry a man you haven’t seen cry.”

 

 

  1. Less than a year after I first met my husband in Atlanta, my visa expired and I moved back to England, so we broke up. It was not a surprising end; we weren’t to know we had a decent shot at a sequel. What was surprising was the intensity of our bodies in our final week together, so much that paths came together and blurred, and my tears prompted his erections. The joke that the reason I don’t cry is because it arouses him has never died.

 

  1. “Emotional incontinence” was and is the charge levelled at public outpourings of tears in Britain. This indictment leaks into the opinion pages whether the tears come after the death of Princess Diana or following an underdog victory in the Premier League.

 

 

  1. Scottish crime-fiction writer Ian Rankin positions his famous Detective John Rebus, mourning the death of his mentor, as paragon of national paradox: “Typical Scot, he couldn’t cry about it. Crying was for football defeats, animal bravery stories, ‘Flower of Scotland’ after closing time.”

 

  1. In 2016, a farmer in rural China took to the media to complain that the medical system refused to believe his wife’s condition: she had been crying stones for seven years.

 

  1. Many of the more contemporary weeping miracles have been quickly demystified. Case in point: in 1996 a twelve-year-old Lebanese girl wept crystal tears. The sparkling tears were, in fact, quartz—as many as seven stones a day, for several months. With their sharpness, these tears brought blood, too—and with the media attention, scepticism. It was quickly revealed the crystalline tears were a scam, not a sacrament—a scheme of this poor girl’s mother.

 

 

  1. It is only after I turn thirty that I tell anyone my most embarrassing secret: My mother has never said, “I love you.” I have seen her cry, though, just once, when her dog was stuck underneath a hay bale.

 

  1. Crying, like laughter, is one of the curious behaviours that separates us from animals— but does it elevate us?

 

 

  1. The same year I start letting slip my secret, I finally get fitted for contact lenses—as if I can avoid charges of vanity now that my twenties are behind me. Secreting until my eyes are red with the practice of scooping the circle of plastic in and out, I ask my optometrist if he thinks it is beneficial to cry. “You aren’t crying,” he says, “your body is just protecting you from yourself.”

*********

Caroline Crew is the author of Pink Museum (Big Lucks), as well as several chapbooks. Her poetry and essays appear in the Kenyon Review, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Currently she is pursuing a PhD at Georgia State University, after earning an MA at the University of Oxford and an MFA at UMass–Amherst. She’s online here: caroline-crew.com.

 

 

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