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Bearing Witness to Our Tears

Bearing Witness to Our Tears

Recently I saw someone who works in radio, like I do, tweet the following: “you say you are telling me a story, but really you are telling me a topic.” I enjoy this sentiment very much and often think about it when I evaluate a piece of writing or a movie, or listen to a colleague’s radio story. I think there is a lot of truth in it. If we are to care about a piece of writing, is it not the stories themselves that bring us closer to a collective, shared, lived experience? Topic-forward writing can bend towards turning the human spirit into dust; we become data instead of a chorus of breath. In my opinion, anyway.

All this to say, when I learned of Heather Christle’s new work of nonfiction, The Crying Book, I was excited but also wary. The gist of it felt top-heavy, potentially academic, almost an oxymoron: an analytical investigation of crying. Having not read any of Christle’s previous work, I was clearly underprepared for what would greet me and my expectations were properly shattered! 

Christle’s piece is a gorgeous, meditative account of crying in all its forms, both individual and collective. She charts experiences in her personal life and weaves them together with strands of other mournful lineages: a canon of writers she admires who themselves are fixated on tears (Wolfe, Plath, Didion.) She forms a cosmological connection to the past. In one part, on Didion, she learns something, quoting her: “‘It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag.’” Christle muses: “Among wikiHow’s ‘How to Stop Yourself From Crying,’ my favorite step is ‘Remove the lump from your throat.’ A surgery by act of will. I imagine it falling into my hand like a doll’s pacifier.” 

The book is also consumed with the physical spaces where crying occurs. Christle probes at the edges of what is acceptable in our world. Why do we hide our tears? Why is it unacceptable to cry in public? “A kitchen is the best—I mean the saddest—room for tears, ” she writes. “A bedroom is too easy, a bathroom too private, a living room too formal.” 

Formally, the book is simple, quiet, but complex. The work progresses in a series of short vignettes—singular stories, but also forming a whole. Often Christle will shift from the individual to the collective from one paragraph to the next, widening or narrowing the aperture of her focus to encapsulate the entire cosmos, or hone in on a personal memory.

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The most profound are the moments she speaks directly about herself. Various biographical details are sprinkled throughout the work: the birth of a daughter, the suicide of a friend, an abortion. But perhaps it’s her formal structure that is the most compelling. Strung together like a little strand of pearls, each piece functions as its own little emotional event, but as a whole they’re all the same. Much like how every time you cry it’s for a different reason, but the feeling of being on the precipice of tears never changes. Formally, Christle has achieved just that: an intense and moving catalog of tears, of stanzas. I started this by saying I hate writing that proclaims to tell a story, while instead offering a take on a topic. Christle has defied the very thing I hate about those kinds of stories. She’s made the amorphous take shape, woven the personal into the analytical, borne witness to something we choose to shrug off. Her book is exactly the thing she is trying to seek out: “I love to find small stains in used books, wondering which ones originate in the lacrimal glands of weepy readers.” The Crying Book is itself a physical record of crying. Bearing witness to both the physicality and emotionality of crying, Christle’s sermon is analytical, elegiac. A watercolor painting. I’m reminded of Mary Poppins’ chalk illustrations, washed away by rain. The colors cohering into something altogether new, sadder, full of sorrow.

Cover image of The Crying Book

The Crying Book
By Heather Christle
Catapult Books
Published November 5, 2019

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