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FEBRUARY 2000 (print version)

The stuff of tears:
Crying, our parents tell us early on, is childish. "Use words," our preschool teachers exhort. But adults still cry. Sociologist Jack Katz, JD'69, studies "emotional outburts"--from anger and shame to laughter and crying--to untangle the complex interactions of emotions, body, and language. We cry, Katz says, when words are not enough.

By Jack Katz


Crying is not just a "feeling" nor just a series of effects; it is a subtle range of corporeal doings, such as balking at speaking, resonant markings of pauses between utterances, and a manner of depicting the body as too light or too heavy a vehicle to bear or to hold on to language. If we want to understand what crying is, we must address, as directly as possible, its distinctive ways of doing battle with speech.

The dynamic tension between language and crying gives us an important clue to a necessary condition of crying, whether or not talking is involved. In order to make crying a compellingly sensible thing to do, adults must in effect explain why they can't express themselves in language. This necessity for warranting crying holds whether or not anyone else will observe the person crying.

One cries on the understanding that the situation requires a personally embodied form of expression that transcends what language can do.

People cry in response to music, to pictorial art, to sunsets, and to eclipses. These cryings honor experiences that in their nature go beyond words. When words are present, they risk detracting from the provocative experience. It is not what the tour guide says about the cathedral, not what is written on the placard under the painting, not the phrases that appear on the screen over the opera stage that bring tears; it is something unspeakable, something responsive to the "different keys" in which art communicates. Attending too much to words that purport to describe an experience can stand in the way of a resonant experience.

Where social customs demand a respectfully silent and stationary watching, tears often emerge as the only outlet for an irresistibly responsive grasping of the happenings. Crying is a predictable response by respectfully frozen guests at funerals, children's school recitals, award shows, weddings, and patriotic ceremonies.

Events that mark status passages, like weddings, or that mark status elevations, like awards ceremonies, are common places for crying by the adults who are at the center of collective attentions. A speech act that otherwise is so simple and unproblematic as to pass execution without any serious attention (uttering the little words "I do," recalling the names of people one works with every day) for once carries transcendent implications. The crying body represents an understanding for which the commonplace words seem inadequate.

Less familiar in folk culture, but in fact far more frequent as a part of everyday adult life, are occasions in which crying emerges when a person senses that a situation has transcendent meaning but gets a response from another who speaks of it as mundane. For example, a woman expecting her first child remembers having irregular mild contractions and, worried, calling her obstetrician, only to get an "infuriating" response: "'My dear, you are worrying entirely too much for your own good. There's no need to be concerned.' With that, our conversation was ended, and I began to cry."

Even when all parties treat a turning point in the life of a person as exceptionally significant, crying can emerge when he or she must reenter mundane life. Joan, a Hollywood executive, volunteered a description of crying that emerged to bridge the shock of "coming down" from a great high. The main breadwinner for her family, Joan had left a well-paid job under a difficult boss, living through several months of anxiety as she searched and then negotiated extensively over the conditions for her next job. Her new employer, a "name" star with a record of producing commercially successful, high-quality feminist movies, seemed ideal. In the final interview, the new employer's unmitigated optimism and dazzling superlatives about her qualifications complemented Joan's own extraordinary enthusiasm. As she left the scene, Joan was imagining the spirited conversations with spouse and friends in which she would share her good news. Then, without warning, as she went through the routine of getting into her car and starting toward home, she began to cry. Her thoughts had turned to her terminally ill grandmother, whom she had just visited on the East Coast, and to the "plug pulling" question the family was facing. The practical task of starting the car was the catalyst to a fall from a glittering conversational haven back to dismal responsibilities. Crying made an appropriately shaky bridge between the high and low grounds of her life.

We're often brought to tears by the need to bridge a gap of one kind or another. The theme of an ontological gap that blocks communication between fathers and sons is a common one in tear-jerking pop-culture songs. Country music radio channels often keep at least one in circulation. Harry Chapin's "Cat's Cradle" is a standard oldie on American pop music charts. Using the format of a phone conversation, it tells of a father who is too busy to speak to his son and then, as an old man, finds his son too busy to speak to him. On a more everyday basis, mothers are moved to tears as they silently regard their precious children. Today, "men's groups" hold retreats in which one man role-plays a distant, silent, macho-styled father, and tells his "son" that he loves him. As the "father" overcomes the mythical silence of his role, the message of love is received through teary eyes.

In contemporary Western culture, among all the varieties of interpersonal love, parental love lacks a language. Parents often begin to recount iconic scenes that are intended to show others the lovable qualities of their children, only to find, in signs of their correspondents' labored listening, that the storytelling is impossibly inadequate. The parent's appreciation of the child's preciousness also acknowledges the child's existential distance from the adults.

Nostalgic cryings, such as hearing at middle age a song that brings recollections of one's youth, are examples of a similar gap between the generative periods of one's own life. That younger person, the one who was moved by those tunes 35 years ago, must still be around somewhere in one's experience, but the distance is now so great that that younger person cannot be addressed directly. One realizes that one must have had that past, but now it has moved out of reach.

Another and more mysterious variety of nostalgic cryings is of the type that evokes ties with a past that one never had. An example would be finding oneself moved to tears by an ethnic song in a language whose accents one recognizes but whose words one cannot understand.

Stories in which animals or, now, extraterrestrial creatures, develop protolinguistic means of "communicating" their care for people are effective movie conventions for touching viewers. Such events highlight ontological gaps even as they show extraordinary achievements in transcending them. The movie E.T. was famous for bringing grown men to tears. Two powerful moments come when the creature articulates the phrase "E.T. phone home" to explain his desire to build an interplanetary communication device, and when a glow appears at the end of E.T.'s finger as he seeks to heal the cut finger of his ailing Earth friend, the child Elliott. Both moments subtly exploit many traditional representations of heroic attempts to transcend ontological language gaps, such as "Lassie come home" and God's E.T.-like, elongated and relaxed finger as He reaches toward Adam's hand as they float over the Sistine Chapel.

Hindi movies regularly jerk tears from the audience by dramatizing existential struggles to overcome gaps in communication. A recurrent provocation is that of putting the audience in the position of trying to be a silent bridge between two personal worlds that cannot speak directly to each other. The moviegoer watches in a position of transcendent understanding, wanting to shout out clues as two brothers, separated at birth, move through situations in which they are repeatedly about to but never quite succeed in recognizing their common origin.

Dreamlike sequences are often used to set up the most emotionally powerful moments. The metaphysics of dreams make it understandably difficult for the characters to speak directly to each other. Instead, would-be lovers drift-dance toward a meeting that is yearned for but congeals in the viewer's tears long before it appears on the screen.

Some situations provoke crying by stimulating understandings that, if transformed into spoken words, would be intolerably counterproductive. "As my great-grandmother said grace," recalls a young woman about a family Thanksgiving dinner when she was a child, "I remember tears coming to my eyes and not being sure why." She recalls her mother's elaborate preparations and the huge family guest list. Even years later, she could articulate what she gathered everyone around the table had assumed. As her great-grandmother's health was very quickly fading, "we were afraid that it would be her last Thanksgiving with the family." Of course, no one could speak that understanding, and there was a collective silence at the end of the prayer. The embarrassing moment was broken when it was noted by the ancient lady herself, who remarked to the effect, "Cat got everyone's tongue?" Crying here emerges to carry the imagination of what must not be said.

In some instances, a person by crying effectively conveys to one part of an audience what cannot be expressed directly to another part. When the principal of a public school addressed a meeting of parents, teachers, and staff about an upcoming strike called by the L.A. teachers' union, she and several members of her audience shook with emotion and became teary eyed. The local administration, the teachers, and many parents who had been active in the school's planning all wanted to keep the school open and to encourage children to attend so that the school would receive state reimbursement. But in order not to undermine the teachers' union, they did not wish to create a substitute curriculum, even as a temporary measure. Without anyone announcing the plan directly, the meeting, which was not visibly led by either the principal or the teachers, appeared to be drifting toward this outcome.

Then a father stood up and began talking in the thinking-out-loud spirit that the meeting's crisis atmosphere seemed to invite. He stressed how precious the children were and how all in the community must be committed to providing children with uninterrupted education. Perhaps parents could come in and develop curriculum, sue the state to provide an alternate staff, pool resources to hire temporary teachers, set up minischools in parents' houses.

At this point the principal rose, taking the microphone for the first time. Jaw rigid with emotion, voice wavering, gaze steady but thick with tears, her torso shook as she announced, "There will be no scabs here!" and delivered a stirring defense of the union principle. Several parents were moved to tears.

When asked what had so moved them, they indicated an understanding that the principal was responding to "this dumb man" who himself did not understand the subtext of the meeting. What they sensed at stake was the survival of a 20-year-old set of collective arrangements among parents, teachers, and the principal, a woman of almost mythic reputation who had founded the school. The strike had been discussed elaborately for months. Now the "bright ideas" of a casual participant threatened the collective understanding. The moved parents also saw reflections in the director's rhetorical dilemma of their own struggles, in their own work worlds, to remain polite when dealing with destructively insensitive troublemakers.

What was moving about the director's speech was what it did not say directly. In content her speech was directed toward the community of solidarity, but her talk was implicitly directed at the "dumb man." The response of crying carried an appreciation of just how what was explicitly said reverberated with heavy meanings of what could not at the moment be stated.

Crying sometimes emerges from an understanding that a situation calls for the expression of something unsayable. Unsayables do not occur randomly in social life. Social stratification shapes their distribution. People at elite levels in organizations are often limited in what they can say because, in a kind of bureaucratic noblesse oblige, as part of their work they must be diplomatically indulgent in their public relations work with ignorant outsiders.

For converse stratification reasons, pariah people often cannot speak things they understand because their status in society entails an everyday suffering of indignities in silence. Elias Canetti provided the unforgettably bitter (fictional) example of tears filling the eyes of a "blind" beggar who had to suffer the humiliation of publicly thanking people who had thrown buttons instead of money into his hat.

In the vividly real setting of Unity Church in Los Angeles, pariah people--parishioners in drag, AIDS sufferers, recovering addicts--are regularly moved to tears as they rise to take the microphone to tell the church of their problems. As services start, church leaders parade to the stage, carried forward by a rhythmic hymn that the entire assemblage creates through song and movement. Then the microphone is given to members of the audience, who rise and are immediately moved to the brink of an inability to continue speaking. One parishioner struggles against tears and, through a whispered voice, asks communal prayers for her upcoming lung operation. A young man shakes with emotion as he delivers a political speech criticizing homosexuals for failing to support their public action organizations more vigorously. A woman cry-talks the story of her recent and still tentative recovery from years of disgraceful neglect of her children while she supported a cocaine habit through prostitution. As speakers rise to cry-talk, their emotions are inspired by the understanding that the church community pushes them, as multiply pariah people, to dare to say publicly what they are elsewhere encouraged to deny.

Consider the familiar scenes of crying by people receiving awards, being honored at retirement parties, or being interviewed because of their celebrity or notoriety. Technological developments have given unprecedented force to the challenges that are faced by people who are placed at the center of collective attentions and are then asked to make personal responses in public recognition of their glorious or inglorious achievements. Even in a two-person, face-to-face interview situation, a rolling camera encourages an interviewee to anticipate an infinitely large and eternally observing audience. Whether rising before the academy to accept an award that recognizes one's superlative contributions to a professional community, or responding to questions on one's bloody criminal career, the person who breaks down in tears is likely to break down at much the same narrative points. Crying emerges where he or she attempts to utter words that bridge relationships between an infinitely large communal audience and intimate regions of private life.

Movies and television have enormously increased the frequency of events in which people struggle to make themselves a live, immediately observable, visible bridge between the largest and the smallest social worlds that they inhabit. The juxtaposition of the solitary figure addressing an infinite audience--a classic and early example of which was the isolation of Lou Gehrig as a tiny figure addressing a packed Yankee Stadium at a day honoring him on the occasion of his disease-occasioned retirement--once required extraordinary organizing efforts to create. Now an analogous interaction environment can be created for a speaker by the introduction of a video camera at the most casual retirement party.

It is, however, rare to catch a glimpse of the inverse crying situation: occasions in which people privately cry as they sense the public ramifications of something that is quietly transpiring. A creative arrangement of one such moment was described by Christopher Buckley, as he recounted the mechanics of dedicating a book he authored: "I was finishing The White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, 'Now, type, "For my wife, with love."' And she cried." Presumably the immediate emotional force would have been somewhat blunted had Buckley asked, "What do you think of this as a dedication for my book?" providing Lucy with an occasion to speak her sense of relating their private and public identities in this manner.

Instead Buckley invokes a multilayered, interaction-triggered, and deeply implicit irony to give the moment explosive force. He uses an ending, of the book writing, to mark a beginning, of their public identity as a couple. She is honored, by being asked to perform a menial clerical task. He makes her a partner in his professional life. And he instantly summons a larger audience to their wedding than any caterer could conceivably handle. As Lucy performs the task, the two become married before either gets to say "I do," at least in the sense that the dedication commits them to an eternal public revelation of their commitment to each other, making a record that, compared to the legal force of the papers they will soon sign, is eternally irreversible.

Any investigation of how limitations on speech occasion crying must include a consideration of the many silences created by death. Cultures have responded by creating traditions of loud, histrionically elaborate, and collective funereal or mournful crying.

Crying provokes a conversational voice that death would deny. Members of a Walt Whitman club were audibly moved to tears as they listened to a previously undiscovered recording of the poet reading one of his texts. When Whitman speaks, devotees who have only known him through his writings and through others' voices suddenly are being addressed in the poet's own rhythms and tones. The occasion for discourse is surprising in more than one respect. The prior communicative asymmetry of the relationship is turned on its head. Now that the long-imagined speech of the dead immortal can finally and truly be heard, the spoken response of his living followers is muffled by tears.

Being alone is nicely suited to crying, at least among people who presume that speech requires someone else to talk to. Of course, being alone, like any of the other factors in this list, is not a sufficient condition for crying. But in any case the being alone that often is a basis for crying is loneliness as a phenomenological and not merely as a physical fact. The key sense is an existential aloneness, a matter of having no one to speak with about a particular problem, or no longer having the possibility of speaking with a particular other about anything.

Often crying emerges as a person senses compound barriers to speech. Writer Brent Staples [AM'76, PhD'82] provided a poignant example as he recounted his reactions to the death of his younger brother, Blake, at the age of 22. Shortly before his brother's murder, Brent had seen Blake laughing about having made fools of the police while bearing a line of stitches on his hand that he, Blake, attributed to a recoil from a shotgun. "I lacked the language simply to say: Thousands have lived this for you and died." They arranged to meet the following night, but before Brent could try another strategy to change Blake's life, he got a call informing him that Blake was dead.

As I stood in Chicago holding the receiver...I felt as though part of my soul had been cut away. I questioned myself then, and I still do....

For weeks I awoke crying from a recurrent dream in which I chased him, urgently trying to get him to read a document I had, as though reading it would protect him from what had happened in waking life.

His eyes shining like black diamonds, he smiled and danced just beyond my grasp. When I reached for him, I caught only the space where he had been.

There is here the silence of language that tries to reach another's soul but becomes stalled and minimized in conversational maneuverings. There is the silence sensed in the wish to continue a conversation with the dead. And there is the silence of a conversation held in dreams, and in this dream, the additionally silent language of a document's unread text. Indeed we may suspect that the sleeper's sense of the mute nature of his dreaming body itself played a role. Staples, his body too heavy with sleep to speak, dreams up a frustrated communication that captures his impossible wish to speak with a correspondent who has become too insubstantial to respond to language.

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