The Crying Book by Heather Christle. Catapult, 2019. $16.95, 208 pages.
In her author’s note, Heather Christle writes that The Crying Book began as a map of all the places she has cried. Over many years, the book grew to encompass far more than her own experiences with crying, but the effect of the read remains startlingly intimate, personal in a way rarely found in nonfiction. There are no chapters or parts, but a free flow of prosaic fragments that are at turns physiological, historical, scientific, but also confessional. The skeleton of the text comprises those fragments from Christle’s own life, documenting the emotional gymnastics of mental illness, grief, pregnancy, postpartum and the overall banalities of existence.
We follow Christle through the grieving process after a close friend and fellow poet commits suicide. In a flashback, Christle describes a medical crisis that occurred after an abortion: “I bled for weeks. One evening so much it frightened me. I called the clinic and they said to go to the emergency room, but I didn’t have any money. I called Bill and he said he’d come over. He spent the night in my bed while I cried and bled and cried” (6). Six pages into the book, Christle establishes that the discourse on crying always starts with introspection, with her own tears. The form she chooses for this hybrid text—forgoing neatly organized chapters or parts—allows her to zoom in and out seamlessly between cultural commentary and her lived experience. It is a mosaic rather than linear method for investigating why we cry.
The fragments that use secondary sources alternate among the historical, sometimes mythic, instances of crying—like the English Christian mystic Margery Kempe’s reputation for “madness, or bedevilment” because of her frequent fits of despair—and astute social commentary (66). A prescient example of the latter is Christle’s discussion of “white-lady tears,” as author and Professor Brittney Cooper puts it. “Whether they exist on the face or in the mind, the tears of a white woman can shift a room’s gravity. They set others falling to help her, to correct and punish those who would dare make her weep,” Christle writes (12). Often those folks under threat of punishment are people of color, because the “weaponization” of white tears “has so often meant violence toward people of color, and black people in particular” (12).
In a fragment that comes a page or two later, Christle writes, “I fear that to write so much about crying will tempt a universal law of irony to invite tragedy into my life” (17). The fear is understandably superstitious, if illogical. That internal fear waxes and wanes throughout the book, and adds a certain urgency to Christle’s work. The research in the text took years to cull, hours and hours of barreling toward (or through?) crying as a subject, all while living with the fear that, maybe, she was tempting fate.
Christle carries certain source material through large swaths of the book, and with others, she offers low-touch, high-impact facts that feel oddly satisfying. For example, people often cry on planes: “A survey of Virgin Atlantic passengers found that 41 percent of men ‘said they’d hidden under blankets to hide their tears,’ while women ‘reported hiding tears by pretending they had something in their eye’” (27). In another example, she references a unique solution for dealing with tears in Japan: “If you have the money for it, you can rent, in Japan, a handsome man to wipe away your tears. And you can rent a hotel room designed especially for crying. There are days when it feels like happiness is a man I am renting for a fee I can no longer pay” (80). Like a vulture high in the sky, circling its prey below, Christle is zeroing in, bit-by-bit and fragment by fragment, on arguably the most interesting aspect of crying—that it is a universal human act. Like sleeping, eating, or having sex, crying is a biological deed that connects all humankind. Long thought to be “a sign of powerlessness, a ‘woman’s weapon,’” Christle’s sprawling discourse renders tears as one of the only remaining human connectors. To read and study these fragments is to know, for certain, the far reaches of despair. If despair were a bird, its wingspan would encompass the entire Earth.
In several passages, Christle interrogates the historical figures (men) thought to be the first scientific experts on crying. These men include Allen Borquist, the first psychologist to conduct a detailed study on crying, and who in 1908 wrote a letter to W.E.B. Du Bois to openly question, “whether the negro sheds tears” (59). Christle cites Borquist not to take his early findings at face value, or even to privilege his research in any regard. Rather, invoking Borquist’s letter to Du Bois allows Christle to shift seamlessly from a so-called “authoritative” view of crying to a more earnest, human account from the poet Lucille Clifton.
In the fragment following Borquist’s letter, Christle writes, “When Lucille Clifton learned of Borquist’s question she composed her own ‘reply’: ‘he do / she do / they live / they love / they try / they tire…they moan / they mourn / they weep’” (60). Clifton’s response-poem ends with three repeated lines, “they do / they do / they do.” According to Christle, Clifton almost shifted the last line from “they do” to “we do,” but decided against it. In a fragment that closes the loop on Borquist, Christle takes her focus even further away from him, focusing on Clifton’s choice for ending the poem: “She left no record of why she made that decision, but the choice engenders in me a sense of the speaker’s exhausted question to the white audience: how many times must you be told?” (61).
At times, reading The Crying Book is like exploring a memory palace of the author’s own design. Christle doesn’t position herself or her life as the book’s subject. In fact, to read the book as memoir does a great disservice to the dialogue Christle has created—one that spans centuries, disciplines, and art forms—in an effort to better understand human despair. And yet, the economic use of moments from her own life undergirds the theoretical conversation she’s having with the reader. Many of the fragments are facts, amusing stories, or commentary on crying in different media forms. But the pieces from the author’s life act as talismans—dark, confusing, messy moments that Christle shapes and refines into emotionally arresting vignettes. Like an old map with many folds, The Crying Book undulates with prose that is at times technical, anthropological, historical, and lyrical. From rigorous close readings of poems by Frank O’Hara and Sylvia Plath to similarly rigorous readings of Yahoo! Answers threads and the WikiHow page for “how to stop crying,” there’s something here for every human (read: every crier) to hold onto.
Erin Little (Loyola English ’15) is a poet and essayist based in New York. She works for Penguin Random House, on the Crown imprint. Most recently, her book review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward was commissioned for Cengage Learning’s 2018 anthology of contemporary literary criticism.