Maureen Stanton | Longreads | January 2020 | 26 minutes (6,448 words)
In the early 1990s I joined a stream of people strolling past the AIDS quilt spread across a gymnasium floor in Lansing, Michigan, the room quiet but for our muffled sniffling. I hadn’t expected the quilt — a patchwork of many quilts — to affect me so powerfully, the clothes and artifacts and mementos stitched into tapestries, with dates of births and premature deaths, soft beautiful tombstones.
Humans are the only creatures who cry for emotional reasons. Animals do not shed tears of emotion; apes have tear ducts but only to “bathe and heal” the eyes. Crying makes us human. In the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people who’d been replaced by aliens could no longer cry, a telltale sign that they were not human. In one scene, a man carries a pod containing the alien replica of a small child. “There’ll be no more tears,” he tells the child’s mother.
Some people are super tasters or super smellers, or even super see-ers, with an uncanny ability to remember faces. I am a super crier, or maybe a super empathizer. An astrologer once said that my soul bears the karmic burden of feeling others’ pain as if it were my own. This is apparently because of the placement on my birth chart of the comet Chiron, “the wounded healer,” named after a Greek centaur who could heal everyone but himself.
Once, in Columbus, Ohio, I choked up at Taco John’s, a brand new mom and pop joint, all spiffy with shiny stainless steel, but empty of customers. I could see the work and sacrifice the family had made to realize their dream — opening a taco shop. I could feel their hope when I walked in the door, but I could calculate the meager profit from my order against the cost of utilities, salaries, supplies. I could see their dream failing.
I nearly lost it again at Karyn’s Kitchen, a food truck in someone’s yard along the road to my house in Maine. Karyn probably figured she’d snag summer traffic on the way to the beach, but who wants to eat in someone’s yard? I ate there once out of pity — her husband’s “famous” meatloaf, which she served with mashed potatoes, steamed carrots, and two slices of white bread with a pat of margarine. When I asked her to heat up the cold gravy, she microwaved it until the plastic container melted and handed it to me like that. When I drive by Karyn’s yard now, I can’t stand to look at the empty space where her dream failed.
A woman in a laundromat once yelled at her small son, “No one wants to hear you,” and I got a lump in my throat.
Several studies link excessive crying with two characteristics: neuroticism, and empathy. People with neuroticism feel guilt, envy, anger, and anxiety more frequently and more severely than others, and they report crying more easily for a variety of reasons, including “when hearing music that reminds one of the past.” The German aesthetician, Theodore Lipps, coined the term empathy in 1913 in his essay On Einfühlung (“On Empathy”), in which he suggests that we project ourselves into the lives of people we see represented in artistic works. As a character trait, empathy — the ability to comprehend and feel the momentary psychological state of another — predicts crying proneness and crying frequency.
My family called me “faucets” when I was growing up. Faucets implied that I could turn on my tears at will, that I cried to manipulate and control. But when I am crying I have the least control over myself; I’ve lost control completely. Electroencephalograms show it’s nearly impossible to consciously control the nerves that operate the mentalis muscle, which makes our chins quiver when we are on the verge of tears. My life is punctuated by embarrassing cries in inappropriate places.
Humans are the only creatures who cry for emotional reasons. Animals do not shed tears of emotion… Crying makes us human.
On the first day of first grade, I sniffled quietly while waiting to enter Fisher School, watching a girl wail and cling to her mother’s leg like one of those clip-on Koala bear trinkets. The mother yelled and swatted her daughter. Stop crying this instant! Her name was Alice McDonald: I remember because she and I were the only two kids sniveling for the first half-hour of our lives as students. My mother tells me I was the only one of her seven children who cried on the first day in every year of grade school.
My parents, too, used to demand that I stop crying this instant. It’s the faucet theory. Probably there are perpetrators of lachrymal fraud, but I swear there was no occasion when I cried on purpose to distract or persuade or gain. In fact, I am usually trying desperately not to cry. One day in fourth grade as 100 or so kids emptied into the hallway for an assembly, Robert Sylvester chased me, conking me with a ruler. I was escaping him when Mrs. Kannally’s fingernails dug into my shoulder, steering me into the hallway as she chastised Robert and me for horseplay. I began to cry and couldn’t stop. I cried walking down the hall and sniffled throughout the program. I was humiliated about being scolded, and embarrassed to cry in front of the entire fourth grade, but mostly I was frustrated at being wrongly accused. I was the victim.
Researchers report little difference in crying between boys and girls from the age of two to eleven or twelve, but then the pattern changes: boys cry less and girls more — or they say they do. Maybe it’s hormones, or maybe it’s because around that age the intellect blossoms. As an adolescent in the 1970s, I began to see that for girls, things were not equal in the world. That was reason enough to be angry, but since the expression of anger was taboo for girls, my anger bore frustration, and from frustration, tears. “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps,” William Hazlitt wrote, “for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”
Across cultures, women cry more than men. Most of the research I read attributed this to physiological, biological, or socially-conditioned explanations, but finally one New York Times writer thought that just maybe women, who still suffer economic inequality, discrimination, and greater violence, “have more to cry about.” In the 17th century Thomas Hobbes suggested that children and women cried more because they felt powerless. Three hundred years later, University of Westminster researchers affirmed Hobbes’ theory; women cry when they are afraid, angry, or feel powerless, compared to men who cry when happy, in pain, or sad.
After returning from a week away at camp, Mrs. Pinckney assembled all the sixth-grade girls to lecture us about the abominable behavior of a few girls, whom she called “witches,” though if she weren’t in school, she said, she’d choose a word that started with “B.” She named four girls, including me, even though I wasn’t present at one incident she cited. Mrs. Pinckney’s lecture was a Hawthornesque public shaming, the worst sort of discipline — I had no right to face my accuser, to rebut any charges, nor was I given the opportunity to apologize. The year before, in fifth grade, I’d received the Good Sportsmanship Award, the highest award given at the year-end assembly, because as the captain of a basketball team I’d allotted equal court time to all the players. I hadn’t sidelined the slow, un-athletic girls, as other team captains had, because it wasn’t fair, and so our team lost every game. But a year later in sixth grade, according to Mrs. Pinckney, I was a witch-bitch, a girl no one would want for a friend. In the hallway after the lecture, my friend, Lynette, who’d been named along with me, laughed, while I sobbed.
In 1586, British physician, Timothy Bright, called tears “excrementitious humidities of the brayne.” Decades later, Rene Descartes concluded that tears were formed when hot blood mingled with cool animating winds that coursed throughout our bodies — a weather system inside us. Science prevailed in 1662 when Niels Stensen of Denmark wrote Anatomical Observations of the Glands of the Eye & Their New Vessels thereby Revealing the True Source of Tears. By dissecting sheep’s heads, he accurately assessed that tears flowed from the lacrimal glands.
For the next two centuries, scientists mapped the anatomy of crying, leaving their names, like tiny explorer’s flags, on the topography of the lachrymal system. There are the Glands of Krause, an archipelago of twenty or so glands, the glands of Wolfring, the glands of Manz, the glands of Zeis, which are sebum producing glands at the ends of the eyelids. There are the glands of Moll at the base of the eyelashes, and my favorite, the “crypts of Henle,” minute craters that secrete mucin, a protein that allows tears to glide across the eyeball.
We know the mechanics of crying, but dozens of studies I read warned that crying is still “poorly understood.” This is because self-reported data about crying is unreliable, and lab-induced states of crying — by showing subjects sad movies — cannot authentically replicate real crying, which happens spontaneously, and most often, alone.
In keeping with my embarrassing history of crying in school, my most humiliating sob was as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I’d enrolled in a creative writing class at Hampshire College, taught by the Jamaican poet, Andrew Salkey. The class was part of an exchange program between UMass and four elite private colleges nearby — Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Hampshire. After the first class, Professor Salkey took attendance, and when my name was not on the list, he said, in an incredulous tone, “You can’t just come into this class. You have to submit your work and be accepted.” I started to cry, one of those snot-producing, chest-heaving cries. The students from Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire looked aghast, with expressions best described as disgust. I was the sole representative of public education, the working class, and I was bawling like a baby.
Professor Salkey ushered me into his office, and as I blubbered he decried UMass. “It’s that bureaucracy, that system, that machine. It creates people like you. With their grades and red tape and rules, they produce frightened creatures. I despise that system. See what they’ve done to you?” I was too discombobulated to ask how it was that UMass made people cry, and Smith or Hampshire didn’t. I couldn’t tell if he felt pity or revulsion toward me (probably both), but he handed me a tissue, and then, perhaps as a strategy to rid me from his office, he asked if I’d brought any stories. I had! I tried to stanch my sniffling as he read, and after a while, he said, “These are good,” and allowed me to enroll. I was elated — but only for a moment, because I realized that the following week I’d have to face all those psychologically well-adjusted and less lachrymose private college students, none of whom spoke to me the entire term.
Women, on average, cry five times a month or so, and men about once a month, according to a University of Minnesota study, with the typical cry lasting about five minutes. At the far end of the bell curve are the “emotionally labile.” To be labile is to be unstable; in chemistry, a labile substance is easily broken down. Labile derives both from the Late Middle English word, liable, as in liable to sin or err, and from Latin, labi, which means to fall. The linguistic architecture of the word for weepiness contains shame. The connotation persists. Emotional lability is also called emotional incontinence, a word first used in the 14th century to mean lack of restraint over sexual appetites. By the 19th century, incontinence shifted to indicate the inability to restrain “natural discharges from the body.”
Probably there are perpetrators of lachrymal fraud, but I swear there was no occasion when I cried on purpose to distract or persuade or gain.
Sometimes I feel pressure building inside me, like an emotional bloating. My ex-partner used to poke me in the belly to create a metaphorical release, like lancing a boil. I’d laugh and then feverish tears would pour forth. In the 1970s, Dr. Ida Rolf, a biochemist, used painful massage, called “Rolfing,” to force intense emotion. “Psychological hang-ups are recorded and perpetuated in the body, in flesh, and in bones,” she said, according to Tom Lutz in his book, Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears. Rolf’s contemporary, psychotherapist Alexander Lowen, believed that fear and anger got stuck in the body if they weren’t expressed, and could lead to depression. He developed “bioenergetic analysis,” in which patients screamed and beat pillows to stimulate deep crying.
When I was 27, my boyfriend, Steve, died after a fitful night in August 1987, succumbing to the cancer he’d fought for 18 months. He was 31. It was 5:02 a.m. by the digital clock in the bedroom when I noticed a strange stillness about him. I pressed my fingers to his wrist, then to his jugular vein, but felt no pulse. I held a mirror beneath his nose, and when no fog appeared, I dropped to my knees and wept. As I waited for the undertaker, I stared out the picture window in Steve’s parents’ house, where he and I had moved two weeks earlier, at the mist swarming the lawn. The grass was silvered with dew, the tears of Aurora, in Roman mythology, the goddess of dawn who wept each sunrise for her dead son, Memnon.
All the other cries of my life seemed like warm-up for my epic crying after Steve died, my childhood bouts mere practice scales for future arias of grief. I cried every night for months as I wrote to Steve in a journal, telling him how much I loved and missed him. Tears! Tears! Tears! / In the night, in solitude, tears, Whitman wrote.
I moved in with my sister Sally the day after Steve died, and commuted an hour from Ann Arbor to my new job in Lansing, Michigan. Each day, for eight hours I focused on work, repressing thoughts of Steve, grief clotting my throat. I held it in. At five o’clock, I’d barely turn out of the parking lot before I began sobbing. I’d weep for 50 miles, my car a capsule containing my anguish. Often when my reverie broke I failed to recognize where I was; I had to wait for a billboard or exit sign to place myself.
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In Michigan it seemed fitting to grieve in my car. If I were in Colorado, I’d go to the mountains. In Massachusetts, to the ocean. In Michigan — that flat land of six lane highways, a five-story-tall Uniroyal tire replica along I-94 toward the Motor City, and monolithic auto factories like the Ford plant in Saline, where Steve and I had lived — grieving in my car seemed regionally appropriate.
My grief waned over time, but it snuck up on me occasionally with surprising intensity, like a quick summer storm. In those moments, I’d call my mother in Massachusetts, but when she said hello, I couldn’t speak. I was sucking in air, choking on oxygen. It’s alright now, it’s okay, my mother would say, and upon this incantation, great sobs let loose from my body like chunks of ice calving off an iceberg: not words or intelligible sounds, but something primordial, unrecognizable noises from the umbilical center of my gut, the diaphragm, the solar plexus, like someone had kicked me hard in the stomach. The sound of air expanding the cavity in my chest and then being forced out past the catgut of my vocal chords — that was the sound my mother heard.
I saw Steve cry only three times in the year-and-a-half he was sick. He cried briefly in the hospital when the doctors told him he had two weeks to live. “Two months at the outside,” the oncologist said. He cried a year-and-a-half later when a doctor made a home visit because Steve’s medications — morphine and dilaudid — failed to blunt the excruciating pain from tumors along his vertebrae. “It hurts so much,” Steve said to the doctor, a few tears trickling down his face. I asked the doctor if he could prescribe a Brompton’s cocktail, a mixture of cocaine and morphine (or heroin), used in cases of terminal cancer. The doctor turned angry, snapped closed his medical bag, and rushed out of our apartment, the screen door slamming behind him. He sent a letter saying that he could not furnish Steve with pain medicine because Steve was addicted. “Of course I’m addicted,” Steve said, “but I’m not an addict.”
The third time I saw Steve cry was when he told his two youngest children, Brian, 6 and Laura, 4, that he wouldn’t “be around any longer.” Laura patted her father’s head. “Poor Dad,” she said.
I saw my own father shed tears just twice, though perhaps he also cried alone, as do most women and men. He cried the night in 1972 that he and my mother sat their seven children down in the living room to tell us they were separating. And in 2014, at 80, my father cried — ever-so-briefly — when an oncologist told him he had just a couple months to live. “I just feel bad for the kids,” he said, wiping his eyes. He’d lost both his parents, so he knew what I didn’t know yet — how much I’d miss him being in the world.
Only two passages in the Bible record Jesus shedding tears, once out of empathy for grief-stricken friends of Lazarus, the brother of Mary: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35). And he cried for Jerusalem, filled with sinners: “He beheld the city and wept over it.” (Luke 19:41). Other Bible passages suggest that Jesus wept in the garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified (Luke 22: 37-39), but surely Jesus cried more often than scripture records. He was, after all, said the prophet Isaiah, a “man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief.”
A year after Steve died, I saw an old boyfriend, Charlie, in my hometown; it had been 10 years since we’d graduated high school. Charlie had been my boyfriend for parts of eighth, ninth, tenth, and twelfth grades, and again during parts of my freshman and sophomore years of college. When I saw him in our late 20s, his wife had recently left him, just six months after their wedding. He cried for three days straight, he said, and never again. I envied the economy of his grief, while also considering him an amateur, or possibly shallow. In ninth grade, when Charlie broke up with me before the semi-formal dance so that he could take the new girl with long blonde hair, I cried for three days in the cafeteria during lunch, while Charlie sat at the couples’ table with the blonde girl.
After Steve died in August 1987, I grieved for nearly three years. In 1990, the year I turned 30, something changed, like a cold front finally lifting. In January of that year, I thought, This is going to be a good year. That summer I fell in love again. I’d thought I never would.
Historically, men have wept freely and openly. In the 18th century, Europe’s elite considered crying a sign of morality and “exceptional sensitivity.” Rousseau, in Confessions, called tears an eloquent testimony of love. He cried for happiness, or was moved by beauty:
“Walking along these beautiful banks, on my way to Vevay, I gave myself up to the soft melancholy; my heart rushed with ardor into a thousand innocent felicities; melting to tenderness, I sighed and wept like a child.”
Throughout the 19th century, boys and men cried shamelessly. Then male stoicism emerged around the mid-twentieth century, followed by the admonition delivered to my own brothers: “Boys don’t cry.” Slowly the prohibition against men crying is receding, at least under certain conditions. Harvard Medical School researchers found that younger doctors, medical students, and interns cried more than seasoned ones, though still twice as many women cried as did men. I wonder how this gendered crying among medical professionals jibes with the Harvard School of Public Health study that found more elderly Medicare patients died under the care of male doctors. According to that study in 2016, about 32,000 fewer patients would die each year if seen by the more-weepy female physicians.
When I was 35, I had my first mid-life crisis. I needed to change the direction of my life, to follow my dream of writing. For a year I saved money, and then I quit my job — the first time in 20 years I had no formal employment. I planned to live cheaply off-season on Cape Cod and write until my money ran out. In the months before I left Portland, Maine for the Cape, I was visited by waves of fear. In my journal I wrote:
June 29, 1995 – I feel raw, my emotions just under the surface of my skin. I am ready to burst into tears. The balmy night air, the city sounds of Munjoy Hill make me dizzy, as if I can feel the earth spinning, like I’m on a long slow roller-coaster ride on this planet.
Even a month into my self-funded writing sabbatical, I was still weepy.
November 11, 1995. Last night I cried watching Wonders of Weather, the episode on tsunamis. I feel sorry about all those tiny bodies on television, wiped out like insects. When I cry, I write. When I don’t cry for days, I realize I’m not writing either.
“I weep without interruption,” Samuel Beckett wrote in Stories and Texts for Nothing. “It’s an unbroken flow of words and tears…I confuse them, the words and tears, my words are my tears, my eyes my mouth.”
Men are judged favorably if they “tear up” but not if they sob uncontrollably, or cry over something insignificant. One study in 2015 found male crying socially acceptable if men wept about sports. Lou Gehrig cried at his farewell speech in 1939, and Babe Ruth cried in 1948 at Yankee Stadium when it was announced he had cancer. Mickey Mantle cried in the locker room when injuries kept him from playing in a 1951 World Series game, and Floyd Patterson cried when he lost to Muhammad Ali in 1965. Michael Jordan wept when Chicago won the NBA title in 1996; the game had been played on Fathers’ Day, and Jordan’s father had been murdered 18 months earlier. In 2018, a reporter wrote that Oakland quarterback Derek Carr cried after he injured his arm, which Carr vehemently denied. But Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger defended Carr: “There’s a misconception that as men we shouldn’t show emotion, and I think that’s wrong. I don’t think it’s less manly to show emotion.”
When I was 40 and finishing my graduate degree at Ohio State, I had some weird joint pains so I went to the university clinic. Based on blood tests, the doctor suggested I might have Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which your body’s immune system attacks the tear ducts. Sufferers of Sjögren’s cannot cry. They must artificially lubricate their dry eyes daily for the rest of their lives. Up to four million Americans — 90% of whom are women — suffer from Sjogren’s, including Venus Williams, who was diagnosed in 2011.
All the other cries of my life seemed like warm-up for my epic crying after Steve died, my childhood bouts mere practice scales for future arias of grief.
I moved to Maine shortly after I graduated from Ohio State, but because of the scarcity of specialists in rural Maine, I had to wait two months before I could see a rheumatologist to confirm the Sjögren’s diagnosis. During those two months I obsessively monitored the moisture level of my eyes. I cried frequently about the possibility of not being able to cry, until finally the floods of tears I produced convinced me that I couldn’t possibly have that dry-eye disease. The rheumatologist confirmed what was obvious — I did not have Sjögren’s. Probably I should have guessed that the Ohio State doctor was a quack when, in front of me, she consulted her Physician’s Desk Reference to diagnose Sjögren’s.
One study found that men who cried at work were held in lower regard than women who cried, but only because they were seen to be like women, who were already expected to be weak, emotional, and less competent. A different study at Penn State found that both women and men reacted more favorably to scenarios in which men teared up than those in which women did. Men’s tears are viewed more positively precisely because they cry less often, so their tears are seen as genuine, compared to how people viewed women’s tears, which indicated a lack of control and hysteria.
A study conducted by Marianne La France, Yale Professor of Psychology, found that women who cry at work are discriminated against in ways that men who cry are not. When a man cries, he’s “a sensitive, caring individual,” said La France, but for women, crying is a sign of “weakness, irrationality, and emotional instability.” The Society of Women Engineers advised women not to cry at work because crying “reinforces the negative stereotype of women being ruled by emotions.” And Lori Majewski, former editor of Teen People, said even when women cry at work for good reasons, it still counts against them. “Be vigilant,” she advised. “Hold it in.”
Martha Stewart held it in during her 2004 trial for obstruction of justice, even as her personal assistant, Ann Armstrong sobbed “uncontrollably” on the stand. Douglas Faneul, the junior broker who’d handled Stewart’s stock sale, “broke down in tears” while testifying, and John Cuti, one of Stewart’s attorneys, “wiped tears from his eyes” in court. But Stewart “showed little emotion” as she listened to the verdict — guilty, guilty, guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and giving false statements.
Six months after Stewart got out of jail, she warned a female contestant on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, whose lip was trembling, “Cry and you are out of here. Women in business don’t cry, my dear.” According to a profile in Forbes, Stewart was a “control freak” who often drove her employees to tears. A former employee told New York magazine, “There are women in [the bathroom] crying literally all day long.”
I cried at work one day in front the Assistant Chair of the English department, one of those put-together women who can do five things at once, competently and with good cheer, in fashionable clothing and no make-up. Riley, a morose student I advised, wasn’t going to graduate on time. His mother sent me an angry email in which she blamed me, his advisor, instead of her son, who’d neglected to tell her that he’d dropped several courses along the way, against my advice. I was not allowed to tell his mother what had actually happened, so I looked incompetent and guilty. Overwrought at the end of a busy term, resentful of the time-consuming, thankless task of advising undergraduates, I broke down. The Assistant Chair looked at me blankly, stunned perhaps at seeing a 55-year-old woman weeping near the copy machine for seemingly no good reason.
In 1968, crying helped snatch victory from Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee for president, who ran against Richard Nixon. Lyndon Johnson, who’d declined to seek re-election, undermined Humphrey by telling the press that Humphrey “cries too much.” Humphrey had cried while visiting wounded soldiers in Vietnam, and he cried sometimes while delivering impassioned speeches.
Crying also sunk Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie in 1972. Muskie shed tears in New Hampshire after the Manchester Union Leader wrote that his wife was “emotionally unstable,” and had been “drinking heavily” (a story supplied by Nixon’s smear-mongers). Bob Dole, then-Chairman of the RNC, said Muskie’s tears proved he “lacked stability.” Muskie blamed melting snow for the wetness on his cheeks, but also said his emotions showed him to be “more human.” Americans, though, did not want a more human president. Muskie was drummed out of the race and in 1972 Nixon was re-elected by a landslide.
Two years later, it was Nixon who “fought back” tears at his ignominious departure from the White House.
Female politicians cannot cry without being called weak, or accused of fakery. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, Democratic from Colorado, was famously ridiculed for crying in 1987 as she told supporters — holding “Run Pat Run” signs — that she would not run for president. Schroeder became the emblem of women as “weepy wimps who don’t belong in the business of serious affairs,” according to the New York Post. In an August 23, 1991 article in The Washington Post Lloyd Grove wrote that Schroeder — a Harvard Law graduate who’d served 15 years in Congress — wasn’t a suitable “role model.” Vermont’s Brattleboro Reformer called Schroeder’s crying, “a devastating indictment of this girl’s character.” Schroeder, the “girl” at 47, received hate mail after her public weeping.
After she was crying-shamed, Schroeder began to collect a “Tears File” of male politicians who’d cried in public. Among those in Schroeder’s file: Bob Michel, House Minority Leader, who in 1988 cried while apologizing to black ministers after he imitated Amos and Andy on a t.v. show; New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, who “literally bawled” in 1989 during his farewell speech to the state legislature; and slimy Newt Gingrich, who “sobbed” after learning he’d be investigated for ethics violations.
I cried at work one day in front the Assistant Chair of the English department, one of those put-together women who can do five things at once, competently and with good cheer, in fashionable clothing and no make-up.
Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-president, was moved to tears in 1984 while commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and also when leaving the White House in 1989. George H. Bush cried in 1994 when Paula Coughlin, a victim of the Navy’s Tailhook sexual assault scandal, described her ordeal. He cried after the birth of his dog, Millie’s, first litter, and when he heard Dixie Carter sing the national anthem. According to Barbara Bush, her husband cried regularly over “touching, poignant things.”
A British reporter called Bill Clinton a “master weeper,” who “raised public blubbing to an art form.” Clinton cried in 1992 after a woman told him she had no money for food after buying prescription drugs. He cried in 1993 when he introduced his Supreme Court Nominee, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an Arkansas church while singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and while listening to hymns at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal church in D.C.
Bill Clinton could feel your pain, but Hillary Clinton was criticized during her first presidential run in 2008 for being too masculine, to un-emotional, unable to connect with the public, until she shed perhaps a single tear in a New Hampshire diner, the tear seen around the world, a droplet that inspired endless criticism and debate over whether her “breakdown” was authentic or cravenly calculated. Clinton lost to Obama in the Iowa primary, but after shedding that tear she won New Hampshire, prompting New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, to write, “Can Hillary cry her way back to the White house?” The Toronto Star asked, “Did New Hampshire turn on Hillary Clinton’s quavering voice and moist eyes, the now legendary moment when the Ice Queen melted?” William Kristol was pithy: “Clinton pretended to cry, the women felt sorry for her, and she won.” Exit polls after Clinton’s New Hampshire victory showed that she received 40% of voters who rated empathy as the most important trait in a candidate, which was nearly double her 22% rate in Iowa. Obama’s share of the “empathy” voters fell from Iowa to New Hampshire.
But Clinton was Schroeder-ized for that tear. Fellow presidential contender, John Edwards, said the tears proved Clinton too weak for the “tough business” of being president. Dick Morris, former campaign manager for Bill Clinton, said Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be president because “there could be a time when there is such a serious threat to the United States that she breaks down like that.” A right-wing blogger asked, “Is this how Hillary plans to negotiate with Kim Jong Il?”
Former Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, was notorious for crying. Boehner wept at the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan, and in 2007 during a floor debate over military spending. He cried in 2010 when the Republicans took back the house in midterm elections. That same year, while receiving the Henry J. Hyde Defender of Life Award, he wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. “I have 11 brothers and sisters. I know it wasn’t convenient for my mom to have 12 of us, but I’m sure glad they’re all here.” He cried during a 2010 interview on 60 minutes, moved by “chasing the American dream,” but also when denying that he used tanning products to achieve his amber complexion.
Boehner was crying-shamed by the female hosts of The View. Joy Behar called him “Weeper of the House,” and Barbara Walters said, “This guy has an emotional problem. Every time he talks about anything that’s not ‘raise taxes,’ he cries.” About Boehner’s lachrymosity, Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, said, “He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on Bills.” Pelosi admitted crying over personal losses, but when it comes to politics, she said, “No, I don’t cry.”
Seemingly unflappable Barak Obama welled up when he won the presidential election in 2008, after his 2012 victory, and in 2017 as he thanked his staff for the last time in his presidency. Obama teared up while addressing the nation the day a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Some conservatives called his response “fascist fakery.” On the alt-right news site, Breitbart, John Nolte noted how Obama touched his eye before he cried, insinuating that Obama “[put] something in his eyes to create the fascist tears.” Fox News commentator, Andrea Tantaros, suggested checking the podium for “a raw onion.”
Questioning the sincerity of Democrats’ tears is a stock response for some Republicans. After Senator Charles Schumer teared-up when talking about Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees and immigrants in 2017, Trump nicknamed him “Cryin’ Chuck,” and tweeted, “I’m gonna ask him who is his acting coach.” But Trump had no such criticism for Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who cried in 2018 while testifying before the Senate Judiciary committee after Christine Blasey Ford accused him of attempting to rape her in high school. Michael Lista in The New Yorker accused Kavanaugh of “weaponizing” crying. Kavanaugh’s tears, Lista writes, were not like Obama’s after the Newtown Massacre, or those of Boehner, who cried “sweetly” and “never really in self-interest.” Kavanaugh’s tears were “entirely in self-pity.”
On the day Donald Trump won the presidential election, a blogger wrote, “ABC’s Martha Raddatz Fights Back Tears While Discussing the Implications of a Trump Presidency.” The story ricocheted around social media, morphing into the “Martha Raddatz Meltdown.” Two weeks later, after Trump criticized her for crying, Raddatz — who’s reported on wars and terrorism from some of the most dangerous places in the world — told Trump to his face, “Mr. Trump, that story was bullshit.” But Trump repeated the lie to a crowd in Ohio. Raddatz told her side of the story to Elle in an article titled, “Big Girl. Didn’t Cry.”
I’m a big girl who did cry at Trump’s election, and I’ve cried often during his corrupt, ruthless presidency. There’s much to cry about, but most often I grieve the assault on our planet, mining in national parks, drilling in the Arctic Refuge, “beautiful clean coal,” oil exploration along the entire coastline of the country — nothing sacred — lifting protections on streams, wetlands, clean water, clean air, exacerbating climate change, the most urgent problem facing every single human being. I cry because we are destroying our home. I cry because the destruction is irreparable. The Eastern cougar, or puma, is gone, declared “extinct” in 2018. The white rhinoceros, too, gone forever.
Psychiatrist Julie Holland wrote in the New York Times, that, “Women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease. Women, she said, are “under constant pressure to restrain our emotional lives. We have been taught to apologize for our tears, to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.” Women are diagnosed with depression or anxiety more often than men. One in four American women take a psychiatric drug; men, one in seven. The most common antidepressants, S.S.R.I’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), can flatten emotions. We cry, Holland writes, when feeling “scared, or frustrated, when we see an injustice, when we are deeply touched by the poignancy of humanity.” But SSRIs, she says, “promote apathy and indifference.” They smother our instinct to cry.
One of the benefits of growing old is growing old. I’m in my late 50s now and rarely have epic sobs anymore.
In the film, Broadcast News, Jane, a television producer played by Holly Hunter, cries at her desk every morning for 10 minutes. When I watched Jane sobbing in that film, I felt relief and validation. A fellow crier! Maybe I didn’t have to be a closet weeper, ashamed of my “faucets.” I remembered little else about the movie except for Jane’s ritual crying. I didn’t even remember that the film was released in December 1987, a few months after Steve died.
Happiness tends to decline as people move into middle age, hits bottom around age 44, and then steadily rises in our 50s, 60s, and 70s, according to global surveys from more than 70 countries. As we grow older, we cry less about pain and physical discomfort, and more about the suffering of others, about happy events and tender feelings.
The decline in crying is also physiological; our lacrimal glands shrink as we age. By the time we are 65, we produce only 60% of the tears we did in the prime of our lives; by aged 80, only 30%. If I live to be 103 like my grandmother did, will I run out of tears? A heaving bout of sobbing produces only a “thimble full of tears,” or about one-half teaspoon. Sobbing every day for a year, as I did after Steve died, I shed about 183 teaspoons of tears, or about 4 cups. I feel like I cried him a river, but it was only a quart.
One of the benefits of growing old is growing old. I’m in my late 50s now and rarely have epic sobs anymore. Mostly I tear up, or catch my breath in emotional moments. My crying is more like virga, the rain you can see in the distant sky, which evaporates before it hits the ground. Sometimes I miss those powerful crying jags of my youth and early adulthood, the depth of feeling and the pleasant sleepiness after the release. William James, brother of novelist Henry James, wrote in Principles of Psychology in 1890, that crying has “a certain pungent pleasure of its own.”
These days I get teary-eyed from acts of kindness and generosity, by acts of courage, and by the abundant suffering in the world. Sometimes my heart is pierced by evanescent moments of beauty — when at dusk a wheat field glows like in an impressionist painting, or when a rare leucistic, an albino junco, visits my bird feeder, or when light sparkles on Harmon’s Harbor across the street from my house, through a filigree of snow-gilded branches, under a pearly moon, as if time was reversed and the moon was the sun instead of a mirror in the sky. Most often these days I am moved to tears because I am alive, still.
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Maureen Stanton is an award-winning nonfiction writer. Her latest book is Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood, which People Magazine called “a blazingly important memoir about the possibility of change.” Her first book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting, won the Massachusetts book award in nonfiction.
Editor: Sari Botton