Heather Christle turns to poets, historians, psychologists, Medieval mystics, philosophers, scientists, and pseudo-scientists in her search for clues to the mystery of human tears. She considers performance art pieces, silent films, and NASA missions. She interviews researchers and digs through the archives of a turn-of-the-century physician famous for pioneering “bed rest” as a medical treatment.
But The Crying Book isn’t merely a study, or even an abbreviated cultural history. It’s also a memoir about motherhood, mental illness, grief, and (naturally) tears. “Most days I cry more than I write about crying,” Christle writes. “First that strikes me as sad, but then—as if fashioning a life vest from an iceberg—I decide it strikes me as funny.”
Christle presents herself as coming from a long line of notable criers. And though she cries a significant amount, she’s more interested in the larger mystery of human tears. She offers up many past and present theories about the role of emotional tears, the cultural (and typically gendered) socialization that surrounds crying, and then wonders what their often-unexpected arrival means. Avoiding solid conclusions, she asks readers to look at the odd beauty and general strangeness of these assorted ideas and facts.
Because of this, The Crying Book lends itself to a particular kind of reader. Christle is known as a poet, and this is her first work of prose, but while the book is similar to other creative-nonfiction prose books by poets—like Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies—The Crying Book feels looser and less concerned with narrative.
Outside of the research, the book’s most striking moments are when Christle sounds like a poet—where she mixes the sadness of her subject matter with a playful and surprising freedom on the page. “To break into tears seems the right verb,” she writes, “as if one leans on a membrane until it gives way, until the boundary between the body and its tears dissolves, until the citizen self falls into the nation of cry.”