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  Written by
  Jack Katz, JD'69

  Imaging by
  Allen Carroll


  > > Minds at work
  > > The stuff of tears
  > > Native Chicago

image: "The stuff of tears" headlineContinued... 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.

image: Two eyes crying (Allen Carroll)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.

image: One eye crying (Allen Carroll)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.

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