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tearing the rag off the bush again
Floating with Alice PDF E-mail

When I brought home yet another slightly substandard report card at fifteen, my father discussed it with me in the way that had become his wont. He grabbed me by the hair, which was getting longish, since the Summer of Love had already gone by, and banged my head against a wall until I repented my underachieving ways and pled for mercy. He was the kind of man that, fortified by a good deal of alcohol and a strong sense that he was one of the few remaining ethically upright men in a world falling apart, approached these parenting tasks with a good deal of gusto, so that my head, when he was done, was as bruised and bloody as my ego. I went upstairs to my room, walked over to my window, slid it open, and, as had become my wont, skinnied through, climbing up and over the dormer.

This was a well-worn route, so much so that the red-flecked asphalt roofing tiles were getting crumbly along the edges, worn down to the tar where I grabbed them. Still, each time I managed this little Houdini number, even under duress as I was that night, I felt a sharp pang of preening pride in my acrobatic ability, appreciated by that imaginary audience I always carried in my head. I slid the window closed with one dangling foot and hoisted myself up, tiptoeing across the peak of the roof and down the other side, where I could lean into a tree and slide down like a monkey. Brushing off bits of roofing and bark, I walked the several blocks to the house where, I knew, my girlfriend was babysitting.  

Her charges were all asleep and their parents not due home for a good hour. I collapsed into her arms, beaten by the indignity of my beating, and wept. She held me in her arms, rocked, and tried to soothe me as I sobbed into her shirt in humiliation and anger, recounting my tale of woe, brutality, and injustice. Her smell, which in retrospect was a combination of store-bought synthetic fragrances—Herbal Essence, Downy, Secret, Cashmere Bouquet, Wind Song—always made me feel like I had entered some secret zone of modern pleasure. Her long dark hair, which she perpetually brushed with Marcia-Brady-like obsessiveness, had an erotic charge that nothing short of naked parts could top. The silky synthetic fabric of her blouse, now wet with my tears, formed a membrane between my face and her breast, and this, I suppose, is the surprising thing:  as I wept, I was enveloped by an exquisite, intense, overwhelming sense of pleasure. My body awash in tears, sweat, a little blood and a lot of hormones, my anguish mirrored and soothed by this young woman, wise beyond her years, kissing the top of my head as I nuzzled my wet cheek against her shirt, I felt not just relieved and comforted, but inundated, burning with a kind of bliss.

The connection between tears and pleasure has not been talked about very much over the last hundred years or so in the U.S., but in other times and places the ecstasy of weeping was well known. The earliest representation of tears, found on clay tablets from the 14th century BC Sumerian desert, is a description, in cuneiform script, of the death of the earth god Ba’al. When his sister, the virgin goddess Anat, finds him she weeps, “sating herself with tears,” the translation has it, “drinking of them like wine.” Descriptions of tears as nourishment, as auto-intoxication, are found in Greek texts, in Roman ones, in the warrior epics of Europe and Japan, in the lives of the saints and mystics, in Romantic poetry and early French, German, and English novels. In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture of sensibility, weeping with a lover was considered the royal road to intimate pleasure. William Wordsworth’s first published poem in the 1780s shows him fond of “thrilling veins” of tears and their “dear delicious pain.” Thomas Jefferson, at about the same time, wrote a letter to a prospective mistress in Paris in which he claimed there was no more “sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven has smitten!” He clearly expects this sentiment will be recognized for its seductive intent, and in fact he offers it as a kind of proof that he is a connoisseur of love. Abbé Prévost, a French monk who left the monastery to become a novelist in the mid-eighteenth century, and whose novels were probably one of the influences on Jefferson’s understanding of tears, said that tears had "an infinite sweetness.”

In my twenties, blithely unaware of any of this, I "mingled tears" with other lovers, and the first time I let a tear drop, usually at a film, caused me a great crisis of confidence, a fear that my unmanly weakness would be ridiculed rather than comforted, that I would find incomprehension rather than empathy. As the seventies turned into the eighties, I began to intuit that not only were my tears unlikely to be repulsed, they were a sign, under the new dispensations of feminism, of my emotional maturity, my sensitivity, and my general state of enlightenment about things intimate. Although I never fully articulated these things to myself or others, I clearly had begun to take a certain amount of pride in my own openness and fearlessness in the face of conventional vulnerabilities, and I began to take for granted my lover's respectful and enthusiastic response to the marvelous, deep qualities evinced by my tears.

Very early in my relationship with my wife Laurie, though, almost a decade ago now, as we lay together in bed, I finished telling some story of my traumatic youth with my eyes clearly brimming with tears, and as I looked into hers I was a bit taken aback to see that she was not only completely dry-eyed, but, at least to my mind, altogether insufficiently moved. My welling up was not having the effect I had come to assume it would have.

“Look,” she said. “I’ve been around the block. I’ve been cried to before.” Men, or at least some men, she thought, had learned to use crying as a bit of cover whenever the necessity of true self-disclosure presented itself. It might mean something, it might not. The jury was out. I wiped my eyes and blinked. In a flash I saw how insincere this performance of my own deep feeling might seem and, indeed, might have become. However genuine my tears were at one level, they were also a performance, one that could mean both more and less than that I was either sincere or insincere, a neurotic wuss or a romantic hero, enlightened or benighted.

They could mean, for instance, that I was trying to be some kind of New Age Thomas Jefferson, and my wet eyes part of a process of seduction. I remember a conversation in the early 1990s, when a woman in her thirties told a friend and me that she had never seen her husband cry during their three years of marriage. My friend, a bit of a Lothario, was shocked. "After three years!" he said, laughing, "Wow. I cry on the first date!”

Now I don't think I was really an emotional Machiavellian, trying to maximize my advantage through the combined flattery and coercion of tears, and Laurie was not accusing me of that. While I had some vague sense of the allure of male tears, I hadn’t really been fully aware of it until that moment. I was sincerely articulating deep emotion, honestly offering for view what I thought of as my truest and realest self and trying to make someone fall in love with me. Like some form of existential method acting, my tears were the result of real feeling manufactured for a purpose, a simulation of the emotions I wanted acknowledged, a mask designed to represent the person I understood myself, at least sometimes, to be.

And while seduction was undoubtedly an important part of this and the scenes that had preceded it, something else was driving my visible Sturm und Drang, something that, although I could not name it at the time, was also fully and absolutely sincere. That earnest wish, I have come to see, was simply to be cradled and comforted, to experience again the kind of pleasure and safety I felt in my girlfriend's arms at fifteen, and one needn't be a Freudian to suspect that some related desire preceded that event. Groping after sanctuary, expressing my earnest desire to escape from the world and my real life within it, my tears were meant to initiate a warm bath of shared emotion with which to ward off my fears and doubts. I sincerely wanted that kind of comfort, and I honestly believed that it had rewards for both of the actors in the drama. I had experienced the pleasure from the other side as well, comforting my lovers as they cried, and providing cover in their storms of self-doubt and self-disclosure. I knew that there was a potential for mutual pleasure and that I was asking for and proffering what Michael Vincent Miller has called "the promise of compensation" romantic lovers offer each other. But at the same time, and in retrospect somewhat less straightforwardly, I was asking her to believe that we had just reached the innermost sanctum of my feelings, that I was standing before her in complete and uninhibited emotional nakedness. This she was wise enough to discount as false bravado, as premature, as bullshit. We had known each other only a week, after all.


I come by my crying habits, I might almost say, nonetheless, quite honestly.

I was born into a family of criers, a family that cries or at least tears up at graduations, at births, at funerals, of course, at reunions, at partings, at movies, at bad news on the television, and whenever they admit, out loud, that they are sorry for something they’ve done, or that they are very happy, or that they love each other. They cry often, without much embarrassment, and, it began to seem to me later in life, without really understanding why.

Take a typical family Thanksgiving dinner at my parent’s house in the 1980s. The older kids, now in their late twenties and thirties, have come home with their spouses and the gaggle of grandchildren, and there is a boyfriend or two. Twenty people in all sit at a makeshift banquet table stretching into the living room, and my father, at the head of the table, is making his ritual statement of thanks to his god. As he asks for a blessing on the food and the gathering, his eyes immediately well with tears. His voice quavers a little as he thanks God for bringing us all together.

Of the twenty, very few were, at this point, still believers, so the religious sentiment is not widely shared. Still, the signs of deep feeling in his eyes and his voice are contagious. A wave of emotion passes down the table, and I feel the inside of my body warm up and sense my own tears starting to assemble somewhere behind my eyes. By the time he gives thanks that the prodigal son has returned, or that the almost separated couple is back together, or that the latest grandchild has been born whole and sound, his tears have magically spread around the table. All six children are teary-eyed. Some even let out a sob. My blue-haired, good-natured grandmother smiles hard and daubs at a tear with her napkin. One sister scrunches her face like Stan Laurel as tears run freely down her cheeks. The older grandchildren have already caught the bug, as have a son-in-law and daughter-in-law. There is a great snuffling, blowing of noses, and wiping of eyes. The latest boyfriend looks a bit bewildered.

There is no obvious reason why we as a family should be so tearful. Many people explain their own weepiness in ethnic terms, like a casting director in Hollywood who told me that she wept because she was Sicilian, and Sicilians feel everything passionately, or the Greek anthropologist who said, well, you know the Greeks—everything is big drama. My father's roots were German, and he grew up in West New York, a German-American immigrant community across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey; my mother was second-generation Finnish and Irish, and grew up in ethnically-mixed Queens and Irish Massachusetts. While these three national types are known for flashes of temper or intemperance, they are all associated more with the stern, repressed coldness of Northern Europe than the emotional expressivity of the Mediterranean or elsewhere. And although my grandparents had a rusty knowledge of their immigrant parents' native tongues, my parents had almost none. The only thing residually ethnic about my family by the time it arrived in Connecticut was the number, not the culture, of its six children.

Moving from the postwar middle class to the upper middle class during my adolescence in the late 1960s, we fit the basic socioeconomic profile of TV families like those on Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. My father was as typically masculine as his working-class boyhood, hard-drinking W.W.II-veteran profile and Fortune 500 managerial position might suggest. My mother was as uncomfortable with public emotional display as were many white, middle-class housewives in the 1950s and 1960s. The two of them ran a tight ship, agreeing on what now appears to be a somewhat excessive regime of discipline enforced with “the belt” and other humiliations, and as young children we were often noted for our quiet deportment by adult guests. Our rise up the socioeconomic ladder, accompanied by a move from a ticky-tack New Jersey suburb to a hoity-toity Connecticut one, gave the entire family a push into WASPish behavior, which should have included more emotional reserve rather than less. The leafy house, with its Colonial splendor and landscaped yard, the ensuing college degrees and booming careers of the children and grandchildren, the general picture of wealth and well-being, all suggest a success of epic suburban proportions. We should, by rights, have been staying a bit drier around the patriarchal dinner table.

I asked my father once why he always pinched the bridge of his nose at such times. It isn't the nose, he said, it's the tear ducts. If you squeeze them just right you can stem the flow of tears. And appearances to the contrary we all attempted to mitigate the embarrassment of public crying. Our ceremonies of tearful communality were always preceded and accompanied by jokes and disclaimers:  "Uh-oh, Dad's going to say grace, get out the Kleenex," and other verbal attempts at damming up the flood. The vast blowing of noses that followed was often taken as a scene of great comedy.

 Still, the jokes and laughter were always secondary. While we were in the throes of our almost Pentecostal experience, we were in utter earnest. The tears eased our transition first into a powerful, shared emotional experience and then back into everyday intercourse. The snapshots from immediately afterward could be from a funeral, except for the traces of pride and satisfaction that can be discerned. In these photographs of our reddened eyes and enormous smiles, arms around each other, it is clear that whatever else, we were suffused with fellow feeling and a kind of exultation.

Yes. We found in our crying, I believe, a validation of our own exceptionality, a validation of our innocence, our goodness. The idea that tears are proof of the goodness and clear conscience of the crier, of course, also has a long history. That the most sensitive and refined people, the exceptional people, were the most likely to cry was already widespread in the 18th century and was a central tenet of Victorian sentimentality, and it is still a part of our culture's background understanding of tears, surfacing in such phenomena as the emotive therapies of the 1970s, for instance, or the daytime television confessional, where the unevolved, unrepentant, unredeemed people are those who cannot work up a good bawl. At our family dinners, among whatever other things we are feeling, we felt special, uniquely endowed as a family, and at the same time reborn in our tears, baptized, pardoned, innocent, crying like the holy children in the fiction of Charles Dickens or Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I say among other things because obviously something else was going on. Other emotions accompanied the rush of elation, lurking behind our self-congratulations. The shadow hovering just beyond our sublime ceremonial togetherness was in fact a kind of fear. Almost never discussed explicitly in those days, we shared a deep fear of our own past, a fear that we were none of us, in fact, innocent at all, and that our ritual tears had availed us nothing, had cleansed nothing. Our tears, I have come to see, fueled and fulfilled our resolute, unflagging desire to ignore our past, to escape the many sordid secrets and painful memories of abuse, despair, and retribution. Like Alice, floating away on a river of her own tears, we hoped to use ours as a means of escape. As we wept, we could turn our attention away from the world and direct it at the sensations of our own bodies, giving us respite from the thoughts, the anxieties, the demands that may, in fact, have brought us to tears. As Sartre argued, emotions are often substitute satisfactions, a kind of magical thinking that remakes the world into one closer to our desires. Our tears remade the world into one where we would never have to face what was wrong with us.

Working at home one day when my daughter was something less than two years old, I had an experience I'm sure many parents have had. She was having an absolutely commonplace, mundane tantrum about something almost immediately forgotten by both of us. As all parents know, every crying jag a young child has presents us with a dilemma--we have to decide whether, this time, we want to be comforting or to be a somewhat less than comforting educator. I tended, in general, to go for nurturing over discipline, as did many in my post-Dr. Spock, peace and love generation, but this day I had decided, for whatever reasons, to let Jesse cry through whatever slight she had felt or whatever privilege she believed had been unjustly withheld. As I officially ignored her, though, I kept checking on her in the other room, monitoring her distress, at first out of a kind of absent-minded habit, and then out of true interest.

Poking my head in the room after a few minutes, I saw her, sitting on the floor, watching herself in a full-length mirror (I was writing my undergraduate thesis on Lacan at the time). She would stop crying and look at her reflection with the disinterest of a scientist. Then, as if affected by her own pathetic, red and tear-swollen face, she would start to cry again. After a while, she began to play somewhat angrily with her blocks, again checking herself in the mirror. She repeated this sequence several times, crying for a while at her reflection in the mirror and stopping, playing with the blocks, crying for a while and stopping. By this time, it was clear, her crying was far from spontaneous, far from an uncontrollable outburst. It didn't seem that she was still actually upset at all, in fact; instead, she was clearly interested in her tears themselves. She was learning what crying looked like, what it meant to stop crying, and how easy it was to start again.

Children don't need to learn how to cry, of course. We come into the world already exercising this innate ability. But we immediately begin learning what crying means and what it means to stop. We learn the power tears have to compel others and the power others have to compel tears. And although we don't necessarily need to learn how to stop, since even young infants stop spontaneously when given the breast, bottle, or pacifier, we all begin to learn to control our crying with our wills at a very young age, however temporarily or incompletely. As I watched my daughter practice with and without the mirror, I saw that she was learning how, for all their naturalness, tearfulness and sobbing were as manipulable as the blocks with which she was playing.

As the years went by, Jesse lost interest in the blocks, but her emotions continued to fascinate her as ours fascinate us all. The intense sensations flooding our bodies during emotional experience, the effect of glandular secretions flowing through our veins, our heart rates speeding up, muscular tension increasing, and, often, facial membranes swelling and tears running down our cheeks, can overwhelm any other consciousness, and, as I’ve said, can provide their own pleasure. Then the problem is not how to stop, but how to keep crying. (As Dostoyevsky says, “the trouble was that the fit of hysteria had to pass in the end.”)   However much Jesse's original tears were the result of an overwhelming disappointment, her subsequent tears were caused by an enchantment with her own emotional responses. Such enchantment, whatever else it means, undoubtedly goads us into understanding our own emotional life, whether we understand it as an arena for control or an uncontrollable fact of life, or, as is most common, some combination of the two.

Jesse tells me she does not remember this day; her earliest memory of crying comes somewhat later. My own earliest memory comes after I already had shed many, many tears—a study by Blatz and Millichamp estimating an average of 4000 crying sessions by the age of two--and I must have been closer to three, maybe four. I was out playing with the kids in the neighborhood, most of whom were older, already in school, and all of them seemed to have an adult-like ability to be in control of their own lives, and when they wanted, of mine. My memory of all of this is pretty hazy, but I know that they were laughing at me. It may have been because I was trying to butt into a game they felt I was too young for, it may have been for any of the thousand reasons kids humiliate each other. I went running into the house, crying, and ran to my mother's room. She was in bed, in mid-afternoon, as she often was during those years, with an ailment--she may have been pregnant and having some trouble, she may have been ill, she may have been depressed--I of course, at three, was oblivious, not even aware I should perhaps wonder why she was in bed so often. At any rate she was not in a very good mood, and when I ran in and told her the boys were making fun of me, she said angrily, pointing at the wet stain at the front of my pants--"Of course their making fun of you, you wet your pants!  And they'll keep making fun of you as long as you do!  Now go change them!"

I don't know whether I had any inkling that I had wet my pants up until that moment; I don't know whether that was, in fact, why the boys were making fun of me. But I knew the new humiliation of this moment:  I had run in unconscious of where I was going or why, not even aware that I was looking for comfort until it was denied. And more to the point, I wasn’t aware that I was crying as I ran to my mother for comfort, although I must have been. I became aware that I was crying for the first time when my mother rebuffed my plea for comfort. I was pushed into a consciousness of my own tears when I was thrown back upon myself, when my sense of my own emotional needs no longer pushed me toward another person, but led me to experience my own state, alone. Fear can make us run, anger can make us fight; if both fight and flight are denied us, if we lose the objectives our emotions are motivating us toward, we turn from the outside world to the internal one. Our mission aborted, we stop to take stock, and the first thing we notice is our wildly deranged bodies, flooded by sensations from all of the bodily systems involved in the particular emotional state. My consciousness of my own crying, like my daughter's as she played with her blocks, came about because the demands we were making with our tears had been rebuffed. Once my overwhelming desire to escape the jeers of the boys on the block and to be comforted by mother disappeared, I had nothing but my own tears.

Our accidental encounters with the luxuriant sensations of emotional experience are not, of course, the only way we learn what it means to have and control that experience. Jesse's petulant playing with her blocks and her examination of the mirror are other typical paths--in the first case, reinterpreting her emotional experience, in the second reinterpreting herself. In both cases, learning involved a narrowing down of the uncomfortable complexity of her original feelings. After my mother barked at me, I not only became aware that I was crying, I watched myself stop. I stopped because when my desire for comfort was denied, the feeling of humiliation I had been running from came to the fore. What had been a very mixed bag of emotional drives and understandings was simplified when my mother rejected my tears.

As our emotions conflict, they often control each other, and this everyone learns, however subconsciously. Boys learn to feel and express anger rather than cry. Girls learn to replace anger with frustration or inadequacy or, sometimes, tears. I can only assume that Jesse, at that tender age, was already examining the relation between anger and tears, as she clearly alternated between the two.

Parents, of course, know, or learn as they go, that one emotion can replace another. They clown around with their babies to pull them out of crankiness, or make them feel safe and loved to allay their fears, or shame them to stop their tirades or demands. Learning not to cry, then, is often a matter of learning how to feel something else. We learn not to cry in the same way we learn how not to be angry in certain situations, how not to be afraid, how to not feel hatred. In each case, as Sartre suggested, we substitute other emotions:  pride in our self-control or our superiority in not returning anger for anger. Sometimes, in other words, we simply reinterpret how we are feeling--we are not afraid on the roller coaster, we are excited; we do not hate the partner who beat us in tennis, we are proud that his lead was smaller than last time. Sometimes we reinterpret our tears of entreaty themselves, pace Ignatius of Loyola, as marks of our incipient sainthood.


Weeping may constitute an impossible demand, directed against the fates, as in the case of inconsolable mourning. But it may also be a more answerable demand for solace or redress, a reasonable appeal for attention, for apology, for comfort, for an end to hostility, for help, for concessions. However unclear the demands of wailing or the more tentative requests of a whimper might be to their audience--however much less clear than a verbal demand, perhaps--tears nonetheless have their own eloquence. We all learn the power that crying has to communicate our desires, the persuasiveness of the rhetoric of tears, early on, before the breast as it were. And eventually we learn to be careful about overuse, about crying wolf, and, as in these cases, about crying's frequent impotence.

And when that happens, tears can provide us a very different kind of service. Rather than communication, they function as a reward. My daughter’s indulgence in tears, like that of my younger self, was compensation for quashed desires. After I refused Jesse’s tearful demand, she continued to cry in consultation with herself, developing her emotional options. She learned to replace her sobbing demands, directed angrily toward the world, with the tears of consolation she directed at her own mirror image, expounding some baby version of Nietzsche's slave morality to herself in the pure language of tears.


But if I, as I say, erred on the side of coddling, my parents’ generation tended to err the other way. Our childhood tears about bruises, slights, or frustrations tended to be reprimanded, as these stories suggest, and as childrearing experts from John B. Watson to Doctor Spock had suggested they should. In fact, both of my parents often responded to our childhood tears with anger or disdain, suggesting gesturally or verbally that we were overreacting. Thus disabused of the idea that the common terrors and injuries of childhood merited parental comfort or sympathy, we learned to cry in the privacy of our rooms, to the imaginary jury. As was true for many families in the fifties, my father was the prime disciplinarian, and in accord with the findings of my parents' child development courses in college, punishment consisted of a whipping of the buttocks with his belt; this had the blessing of many child psychologists as an advance over old-fashioned hand-spanking, since (the argument went) the child was being hurt by the inanimate belt rather than the animated parent. (I must admit this fine distinction was lost on me at the time.)  Our punishment would not end until we had fully confessed our crimes, fully repented, and then fully stopped crying.

Of course Dr. Spock would not have recommended my father’s later techniques, during my teenage years, when the even less bland and homey aspects of the sociology of suburbia--the dark side of the TV image--made their way into and sometimes through our lives. My role was to act out, which meant the regulation attempts at running away, a smattering of drug possession and shoplifting arrests, and increasingly regular visits to the principal's and priest's and psychologist's offices. The various forms of interpersonal and masochistic violence that have since become the stuff of Jerry Springer, the memoir, and the self-help industry, took us all, my parents included, by storm and by surprise. The social turmoil of the 1960s swirled around us, luring us children with images of freedom and pleasure, while aggravating my parents’ fears of corruption and failure. My father attempted to correct my sisters' moral lapses with verbal abuse and mine with physical violence, having by now long forgotten the idea of the belt. Slapped, screamed at, sometimes, as I say, with my head batted against the wall, I cried in humiliation, my body bruised and aching, and as I could see even then, the entire family's spirits in defeated tatters. Repeating this violence with each other, my siblings and I learned the stoicism of cruelty, and helped build, brick by brick, what felt like the appropriate confines for our growing tension and apprehension, the emotional stuff of everyday dysfunction. Many tears watered this garden of mundane monstrosities, never, as we sometimes seemed to hope, washing it away.

Did we have plenty to cry about? Yes, I suppose, although as the ante has been upped in the culture of confession the dysfunction in my family seems less and less extreme. My father told me later that I would have ended up in jail or dead had he not administered the justice he did in what he assured me were very rare physical beatings—we didn’t have a dysfunctional family, he said, we had a dysfunctional son. He felt vindicated by the fact that I had managed to have a semi-normal life as an adult, after a ten-year or so detour into drugs and debility. I have always assumed the ten years were spent recovering from his brand of justice, but I don’t know, of course. There is no control in this kind of experiment in child-rearing. In either case it was painful enough, and I can remember my sisters crying with me after I returned from a session with my father, as I remember my mother crying silently as she watched him do his work. And we have all cried many times, not only during childhood but for long after, with each other and with our husbands and wives and lovers and ex-husbands and ex-wives and ex-lovers, in therapy, in despair, in anger, in frustration. We children have all long since left home and we all have our own memories of those years, which don’t exactly match. We have each dug our own wells, each given and received new personal wounds that, when touched, can make us weep. But those familial wounds can still call forth the old, desperate, infantile, salty dread and desire. It was only after I sat down and wrote a book about weeping, in fact, that I was able to think deeply about my family without tears.

Not that such tearlessness is any kind of general prescription. One needs to develop some fairly bad crying habits before quitting becomes a cure. Or perhaps I should just say that one has to cry quite a bit in order to experience the pleasure of stopping. And our Thanksgiving dinner tears were different, anyway. They were never ostensibly due to any such grudges or regrets, all of which remained submerged. Instead, we primarily felt them as tears of joy, tears of happiness, something like the tears of gratitude of homeless fugitives taken in, unsuspecting, to join a real family for dinner. And we felt blessed by the emotions we were feeling. Just as in my father's tearful saying of grace, our hopes for communion were answered in the tears we shared. And we felt that our ability to share such intense emotion was a mark of the remarkable intensity of our relationships. The teary eyes were our red and puffy badges of emotional courage, and the outward signs of our multiple bonds.

The two kinds of tears, the tears of rage and anguish and remorse shed during our emotional traumas and the tears of joy and thankfulness that celebrated our emotional connection:  these tears are more closely related than I had originally thought. My family's Thanksgiving tears would not have had the intensity or the meaning they had were they not fed by our memories of past tears. And our dinner table tears, however much they commemorated the emotional bonds that had survived our dysfunction, served somehow to help us ignore the past. When we cried at dinner we both repeated and obliterated the tears we have cried before. Our tears were indeed marks of our unique bonds, bonds for which we were, indeed, thankful. But they were also our escape from and an emblem of our shame. They are the absolute melding of acceptance and denial, of engagement and escape. Like Alice’s tears when she gets small, ours were our distress and our deliverance. And they were, among other things, our sincere, inarticulate attempts to rewrite the past in the present.


As this image of rewriting the past with salty water suggests, the message of any weeping is very difficult to read. The obvious physicality of tears, the impossibility of ignoring them when we see them, is obviated by their ability to quickly evaporate, leaving only the slightest of crystalline traces. But tears are also difficult to read because they are always overdetermined. Infants who are severely neglected stop producing tears, while infants who assume they will be attended to immediately cry without producing tears. Only an infant who believes it will be rescued, and yet has its doubts and fears will actually weep. The mixture, like a mother’s at her daughter’s wedding, her pride of accomplishment and fulfillment combined with a grieving sense of loss, is what makes tears appear. My tears with Laurie were, in fact, a pure expression of felt emotion, and they were manipulative, purposely provocative, my own true self playing a part, a part, I realized, that I’d accidentally written for myself:   The True Tom Lutz, Crocodile of Love.

People these days find this combination of sincerity and artificiality, of engagement and escape so pleasurable that an enormous industry here in Los Angeles has developed over the last century, dedicated to producing the effect. The tearjerker is our implicit acknowledgement that tears are a form of pleasure, one that allows us to both loiter with and evade real tragedy. In my girlfriend’s arms at fifteen I wept myself free of one disturbed bond and found at least temporary safety in another. I wept myself out of and into being. I sated myself with tears, drinking of them like wine.

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