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I recently recommended a novel to a friend with my highest form of praise, one I assumed would make her take it from my hands without hesitation. It moved me to tears, I said, holding the book in my palms like a sacred offering.

Crying has accompanied some of the most profound moments of my life. An airport farewell with no promise of reunion. Getting accepted into my dream university. Heartbreak. Daydreaming about the future. Losing a pet. Adopting a new one. 

When I say that a book has made me cry, what I’m really saying is: This is part of the canon of some of the most profound moments of my life. 

And that’s why, when my friend didn’t want to borrow the book based on my recommendation, it hit me like a sucker punch.

But Rachel, you cry at everything, she said with the same matter-of-fact-ness that one might use when saying the sky is blue.

She has a point. I am a bit of a crier. While crying has featured in some of my most life-defining moments, I can also be set off anywhere, anytime, by almost anything. In the last week alone, I’ve cried looking at a social media account of a husky puppy and older cat (who are best friends), watching a sports documentary about a basketball team I don’t even like, and retelling the ending of my favorite zombie movie.

But so what if I sometimes put on a sad playlist so that I can dance around and cry the big ugly tears? So what if I replay Aragorn’s speech before the big battle in The Return of the King (it always gets me)? Does that make my tears less meaningful? 

While my emotions tend to be close to the surface, there are social codes even I hate to break. I’ve tried on sunglasses while shopping post-breakup to shield my puffy eyes from strangers. I’ve pretended to have something stuck in my contact lens when heading to a scary doctor’s appointment. And I’ve lost the ability to speak in front of my Ph.D. supervisor, all too conscious that standing my ground would open the floodgates. Crying can be cathartic in some settings; in others, it’s just plain embarrassing.

I’ve curated this reading list because I want to unpack our cultural and personal attitudes toward crying. Do our tears mean less if they’re free-flowing? How valuable are the movies and books that move us to tears? From where do we develop our attitudes about crying? How do our cultural upbringings, race, gender, and sexuality factor into our individual and collective relationships with emotional expression? What does it mean to cry in communion with others? Can tears be understood through a lens of rebellion and power?

So gather ’round with a box of tissues—then read ’em and weep, fellow criers. 

For Crying Out Loud: Both Personal and Political, Wailing Disrupts the Social Order (Renee Simms, Guernica, November 2020)

“The usual occasion for public wailing is death,” Renee Simms writes for Guernica. While funerals are ostensibly a time for communal grieving, my own experiences have largely consisted of suppressing emotions to avoid making people uncomfortable. When a sob escapes someone’s chest, it echoes throughout the building unanswered, the rest of us politely averting our eyes from the sobber. At funerals, we share in the knowledge that we are all grieving, and yet, within my own communities, there are limits to how much grief is socially acceptable to display in front of fellow mourners.

In this essay, Simms recounts her uncle’s funeral, where expectations of suppressed grief were punctuated by her auntie’s wailing. As the “disgraced first wife,” as Simms refers to her, Simms’ auntie was expected to suppress her pain. Instead, she grieved aloud, wailing so that no one could pretend otherwise. Other women soon joined in. Situating her auntie’s piercing sobs against the backdrop of anti-Black racism and trauma, Simms explores how individual grief is tangled up with collective trauma, and how the vulnerability of public wailing can repair communal ties along with providing personal catharsis. Simms draws from Black feminists like Patricia Hill Collins and Audre Lorde, scenes from Spike Lee films, and religious traditions to explore public wailing as ritual and disruption.

In hindsight, my aunt’s act of wailing at the funeral was an assertion of her standing within our community. She dared to speak about her love for her ex-husband when everyone wanted her silent. Despite attempts to shame her about her failed marriage, she publicly mourned her loss. Her cries proclaimed that what had been done to her had been done to all of us. By piercing the silence of the church and daring to be vulnerable, she made us feel our connection to each other. Within minutes, other mourners began openly weeping or talking, and embracing my aunt. They acknowledged her pain and belonging. Through vulnerability, she asserted her power and reestablished the communal ties that sexism and racism had torn apart.

Crying, a Dissertation (Éireann Lorsung, Memoir Land, April 2023)

What does it mean to exist both as a scholar and as a feeler? Can you even be both, or do emotions and intellect not mix? In this personal essay, Éireann Lorsung reflects on her years as a Ph.D. student—a period when she cried regularly—and wrestles with the claim that there’s an “either/or” when it comes to thinking and crying. She writes:

My tears seemed like a sign that I was unsuitable for serious scholarship. But that isn’t quite right. In my experience, crying was not divorced from knowing; it was simply farther out, past the language I had at the time. I knew; I just couldn’t talk about it yet

While Lorsung’s essay resonates with me because I had a similar Ph.D. experience (lots of tears and tissues, lots of justifying human emotions in academic writing), her observations and insights extend beyond academia. In everyday life, people find ways to invalidate emotions, dismiss feelings as irrelevant to knowledge, and ultimately disempower feelers altogether. This is especially true for those of us who are marginalized in some way. Have you ever had an argument and been told you were too emotional? Has someone ever said that you should be more objective? That people would take you more seriously if you weren’t so hysterical? I hope Lorsung’s essay gives you the same permission it did for me—to embrace those parts of yourself that are moved to tears as your most sacred sources of knowledge.

There’s a long tradition of thinking about intellectuals as somehow disembodied, ideal minds that can have ideas about things without being affected by those ideas, or without their ideas affecting the things they think about. Of course, no such person exists: it’s just that certain kinds of people—well, white, educated, cisgender, straight, relatively wealthy, generally Christian men, to put a point on it—get to walk into literature and history and philosophy as if they are that ideal mind. This isn’t about laying individual blame; it’s that if everyone around you speaks like you, you probably won’t notice that you have an accent, but you’ll be able to hear the accents of anyone whose ways of speaking are inflected by some difference in place or family or language. You get the picture. If the model for being a serious thinker is someone who never cries, well, what happens to the person for whom tears are always close to the surface? 

Crying Shame (Carl Wilson, Slate, June 2014)

Droves of teenagers fled to the cinema in 2014 to watch The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS)—not for fun-filled popcorn parties, but to have an ugly cry. Critics referred to the film as a “tearjerker with genuine emotion” and “exploitative … yet sincere.” 

In this piece of cultural criticism for Slate, Carl Wilson pushes back on the implication in these takes: That movies that make a deliberate attempt to elicit tears are cheap, manipulative, or disingenuous. Wilson asks, “What might we imagine the teens are seeking, and why with this movie in particular, and how if at all do we factor its power as a tear-delivery system into its value as an artwork?” In a challenge to this idea that tears diminish art’s worth, Wilson explores how emotional responses like crying can factor into value. 

You might say that the teen weepie picture is cathartic of all these adolescent anxieties, but theorists are increasingly dubious about whether or not catharsis exists, at least where tears are concerned. Do you actually purge emotions when you cry over art? Perhaps instead you acquire some emotions you’ve never had before, in response to unfamiliar situations, as if in a kind of rehearsal—for instance, for the eventual experience of losing someone you love. Maybe screen sorrow provides practice at both feeling and channeling feeling.

After all, a teenager is at best a few years past phases of childhood when crying fits weren’t something she could consciously manage. What a pleasure, then, to choose to cry, perhaps along with your friends, and then have the movie end and come slowly back to neutral. And then do it again. It might relate to potential emotional trauma the way a climbing wall or a roller coaster can act upon a fear of heights, as a kind of exposure therapy.

While I’ve never seen TFIOS, I’m no stranger to crying in a cramped, dark theater (perhaps one of my favorite places to cry). Most memorable was the time I saw the kid-friendly animated film Inside Out with my mom; with one look at each other, we completely lost it. Good thing she always carries tissues.

Crying While Reading Through the Centuries (Pelagia Horgan, The New Yorker, July 2014)

Inspired by the debate about the merit of Young Adult novels happening at Slate (including the discourse surrounding The Fault in Our Stars), Pelagia Horgan asks in this essay for The New Yorker, “What does it mean to cry over a book?” When I recommended a novel to my friend on the basis that it made me cry, what I was trying to say was that the book was profound, and that’s why she should read it. My friend, on the other hand, took my crying over a book as something about me (namely that I’m a boo-hoo kind of gal).

Beginning with the 18th-century sentimental novel, Horgan approaches the question of what it means to cry over a book through the lens of literary history. 

Tears have had a surprisingly prominent place in the history of the novel. Readers have always asked about the role that emotion plays in reading: What does it mean to be deeply moved by a book? Which books are worthy objects of our feelings? In different eras, people answered those questions in different ways. In the eighteenth century, when the novel was still a new form, crying was a sign of readerly virtue. “Sentimental” novels, brimming with tender and pathetic scenes, gave readers an occasion to exercise their “finer feelings.” Your tears proved your susceptibility to the suffering of others. 

Ultimately, Horgan argues that the books that make us cry reveal something about ourselves, whether that’s who we are or who we want to be. “Talking about what makes us cry is also a way of talking about ourselves,” she writes. I think that’s why others connecting with the same books we do resonates with us; it’s a way of seeing and feeling seen. And it’s why you hope that your friends might click with the books you’re moved by. It’s not because it suggests a shared taste in literature, but rather a mutual understanding of who we are—and who we love and what we fear—in the real world.

Crying in Public (Esme Blegvad, Rookie, February 2016)

A friend once joked that they wanted to make a map of all the places they’d cried in public to create a personal geography of tears. My own geography of tears would use so much ink on the page for Oxford, where I’ve lived for the better part of a decade, that it would look more like a coloring book than a map.

For further reading on public crying, check out Maureen Stanton’s Longreads essay, “Through a Glass, Tearfully.”

There’s the High Street (voice-noting a friend about an emotional meetup), outside and inside the Sheldonian Theatre (looking enviously upon people in graduation gowns as I applied for another degree extension; then, years later, when donning the scarlet and blue robes myself), my favorite café (probably just hormones), some public toilets (wouldn’t recommend), and on the bus ride home (wearing a mask makes tears easier to hide).

In this tender 13-page comic for Rookie, Esme Blegvad shares her experiences of crying in public—anywhere from the city bus to the nail salon to the bagel shop—in order to contemplate the virtues and hazards of public crying. Blegvad acknowledges that crying is always somewhat public, given that it’s “an outward display of anguish.” So, why does doing it in front of others feel so embarrassing? And why does watching others cry in public make us feel so uncomfortable? Although crying among strangers can be a humbling experience, Blegvad admits that there’s also something freeing about letting go when you’re surrounded by other people but are still anonymous, and ultimately, alone. 

Sometimes it feels like that ‘stark reality’ itself actually facilitates these ‘public displays of anguish’ – there is something a bit liberating about really feeling your shit in front of a bunch of strangers, because despite being physical surrounded by other bodies, you are in fact still technically alone, and totally anonymous. Like sometimes moping quietly to myself among the tangled limbs of rush-hour commuters on the G train … feels like I’m safe and cozy in a sheltered glen in an enchanted forest, or something! Quite the comfy place for a cathartic cry …

I love Blegvad’s sketches, which add a rawness and surrealism to her words. And given my own propensity for crying in public, I’m inclined to agree that there’s something liberating and rebellious about committing this faux pas. Cry, baby, cry!

The Pain and Joy of Rediscovering My Trans Tears (Dawood Qureshi and Editors, gal-dem, February 2022)

Initially, I wanted to curate this reading list to destigmatize crying and demystify the shame that accompanies letting it all out. Crying, to me, feels like a natural outpouring of expression when words are insufficient. Something elemental, natural, even animalistic.

But what about the people who can’t—or don’t—cry? What does this inability say about them?

“Tears are a gift I feel I’m forever watching others granted,” Dawood Qureshi writes in this deeply personal essay for gal-dem. Qureshi, who was socialized as a boy in a South Asian Muslim family, is now exploring their identity as a trans Muslim and grappling with their difficulty performing femininity in the way that cisgender, white women do: Expressing emotions and crying with abandon is a vulnerability (and a privilege) that Qureshi can’t access so easily. They grapple with the question, “If I cannot cry, and I struggle to show my deepest emotions, and if I am only able to rip this sadness from within myself when I am alone…does this make me less…feminine?” 

All these years later, as I explore my identity as a trans Muslim, I am plagued by the harsh words from the men of my past. The identification of crying as a ‘feminine’ trait, and the links this has to being vulnerable, are particularly damning. If I cannot cry, and I struggle to show my deepest emotions, and if I am only able to rip this sadness from within myself when I am alone…does this make me less…feminine? Am I so infected by the male toxicity of my youth that I can never hope to be feminine in the way I choose? Will I ever learn to dance freely through my emotions as I see women on TV and in books do? As I see my white, cisgender friends do? This is as much a race issue as it is a gender issue; people of colour often grow up with a premature set of responsibilities thrust upon them, and this can create a barrier between them and the freedom at which they express themselves.

Qureshi’s essay shatters the illusion that crying is inherently natural and divorced from the ways in which we are socialized. In exploring their personal struggle to cry freely through the lens of gender, race, and religion, Qureshi illustrates how tears are entangled with femininity and whiteness. Ultimately, it is a privilege to access vulnerability. Still, Qureshi doesn’t believe that crying should only be reserved for people with various social and systemic privileges. The real question, then, isn’t why some can’t cry; instead, we should ask, if we live in a world where not everyone can cry freely, what does that say about the world we’ve built? And how can we foster a world where expressing vulnerability feels safe for everyone? 

Rachel Dlugatch is a UK-based writer, researcher, and crier. She holds a DPhil in anthropology from the University of Oxford, and she publishes a newsletter that explores the intersection of power, culture, and the self.

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy Editor: Peter Rubin