I realised that I could no longer cry one Wednesday afternoon as I tore around a department store, desperately trying to find Christmas presents at a time when it felt as if my life was falling apart. I didn’t have time to stop and cry, so I just carried on shopping with tears streaming down my face. Except they weren’t.
I found a mirror and looked at myself: some red blotchiness, a runny nose, but not a tear in sight: my eyes were dry, dry, dry. Something very strange was happening to me.
From earliest childhood I had been a copious crier. According to the quaint definitions offered by the American psychoanalyst Phyllis Greenacre, and cited by Thomas Dixon in his Aeon essay on crying, I’d say I was a shower crier – noisy and conspicuous. I had a friend who was more of a streamer, and wonderfully discreet: you could be talking about the most ordinary thing – an exhibition, where to go for lunch – and you’d notice that she’d gone quiet, no more than that. But then if you glanced at her hands on the table in front of her, you’d see a rain of tears spattering down onto them.
I used to cry on every occasion, from grazed knees and perceived slights to full-blown heartbreaks. My older sister taught me to accept the comfort that tears offer. After an early romantic disappointment, she said that if you lie on your back while crying you’ll soon stop because the tears find their way into your ears, which tickles and makes you laugh.
Tears are definitely a comfort. Recent research by British neurologist Michael Trimble and Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets questions the popular claim made by the US biochemist William H Frey II that crying is ‘an exocrine process’ to release toxic substances from the body: for Trimble they’re linked to empathy, while for Vingerhoets they’re largely a matter of social symbolism. But crying certainly feels like a purification. A good cry, like a rainstorm, happens and then is over. Afterwards, you feel different, and better.
‘No more tears’ promises the well-known baby shampoo, as if that’s a good thing. The brand should instead be promising ‘no more suffering’, because tears themselves are not the problem, but the solution. In Book Nine of his Confessions, St Augustine touchingly wrote of the comfort of tears:
I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at will, spreading them out as a pillow beneath my heart. And it rested on them, for Thy ears were near me – not those of a man, who would have made a scornful comment about my weeping.
That last remark is particularly telling. Society clearly frowned on men crying, even in the fifth century. And yet women and girls are positively encouraged to weep. This I realised in a police station in Assisi. Fresh out of school, I had hitched a lift to Italy with a friend. In the great basilica of San Francesco we stood, gazing at Giotto’s frescoes, whereupon an enterprising pickpocket efficiently relieved us of all our money, passports and tickets home.
Directed by unsympathetic monks, we headed to the carabinieri, where the officer was startlingly disinclined to be of any help whatever. We pleaded, tried to assert ourselves, and appealed to his finer feelings. Then we cried. Faced with two blubbing 17-year-old girls, no effort was too much for him. He was transformed from a surly jobsworth to a solicitous father-figure.
In Europe, and especially in Italy, the link between tears and compassion is rooted in the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary who is portrayed everywhere in sacred contexts doing what she does best: breastfeeding and crying. The BVM’s tears have inspired some of the most beautiful music ever written, including Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater’. Paintings abound of the mater dolorosa weeping as she cradles her dead son. In Titian’s ‘Mater Dolorosa’ (1555), Mary’s tears appear like pearls on her cheeks. And Michelangelo’s Pietà depicts Mary as a streamer rather than a shower crier: we don’t see the tears, but her expression is heart-rending.
These images give potency to the sight of a woman crying. Mary’s are tears of compassion – for her son, partly, but for all of us as well. She is our cultural source of pity and mercy.
Marian miracles frequently involve tears so special that they are believed to have healing qualities. In 1953, a cheap mass-produced plaque depicting the Virgin was hanging in the bedroom of a labourer and his wife in Siracusa, Sicily. The plaster Madonna appeared to be crying and the tears were found to have miraculous healing properties. Soon the surrounding streets were clogged with jostling, shoving people wanting to be cured of sundry maladies.
I’ve seen flickering, black-and-white footage of this event, showing young and old, hobbling, limping, even dragging themselves to the house, then throwing away their crutches and striding away smiling. Watching the joy and astonishment on those weathered faces is deeply moving, whether or not you believe that this was a bona fide miracle.
how can you measure tears? In oceans, rivers or streams? And what do you do when they’re not there?
It’s not just in Christian iconography that female tears heal. The Egyptian goddess Isis used her magical powers to bring her brother and lover Osiris back from the dead. In some versions of the story, her tears were said to heal him. In others, the tears she shed at his death caused the Nile to flood, and so made the land around it fertile. These are powerful associations, connecting femininity and the universe, the goddess’s tears with life-giving rain, and with the river that transforms the desert into an abundant, verdant plain.
Finding myself no longer able to produce these symbolically charged tears that dreadful Christmas made me feel doubly bereft: not only could I no longer enjoy the relief that crying brings, but I was somehow excluded from all that mythological female potency. Curiously, with no tears on show, I found that sympathy, too, had dried up. There are times in public places, such as department stores on Christmas Eve, when you want a complete stranger to stop and comfort you. If all you’ve got to show for yourself is a blotchy face and a runny nose, you don’t stand a chance.
I took myself off to see a doctor. A frazzled GP misdiagnosed me: thinking it was blepharitis, she suggested a regime of washing the eyelids with a cotton bud dipped in diluted baby shampoo twice a day. This was enough to make anyone weep, but still didn’t produce any tears. In the end an optician recognised the symptoms of Sjogren’s (pronounced Show-grens) syndrome – a surprisingly common autoimmune condition, which attacks the glands in the body that secrete fluids such as tears and saliva. It remains obscure despite the fact that the tennis player Venus Williams is a sufferer.
Sjogren’s affects mainly women (90 per cent of sufferers) from the age of about 40 upwards. There is no known cause and no cure, and not very much interest in finding one, in spite of its more serious complications, which include eye damage, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and pregnancy defects. I was referred to the rheumatology department at a leading London hospital where they asked me a lot of demoralising questions: ‘Are you very tired? Experiencing fatigue? Depression? Aching joints? Dry mouth? Eye infections? Deteriorating eyesight?’ Then I was sent to a nurse to do a tear measurement. I cheered up at this, thinking it sounded intriguing and somehow philosophical: how can you measure tears? In oceans, rivers or streams? And what do you do when they’re not there?
The answer was prosaic. Schirmer’s Test involves putting little strips of blotting paper underneath your eyelids, which hurts, and making you sit there for five minutes. They then measure how moist the blotting paper is, in millimetres. Sitting still with painful bits of paper sticking out of my eyes was miserable, and while the nurse watched her clock, I cried and cried. After five minutes, she removed the papers and was amazed to find them completely dry. ‘Your eyes really are very dry, aren’t they?’ she said, almost admiringly.
All the doctors can do is give you eye drops, or ‘artificial tears’, as they chillingly call them.
In 2013, the LA artist Rose-Lynn Fisher put tears under a microscope and found that they look different according to the emotion that provoked them. Her ‘Topography of Tears’ depicts tears of anger and tears of heartbreak, and the tears brought on by chopping an onion, which are different again. Whether this really is caused by varying levels of water, proteins, enzymes and minerals is unclear. But it feels poetically true, no matter that culture and history have tended to play down any attempt at taxonomy in favour of viewing tears simply as feminine. Indeed, women’s tears have been seen as so much the norm that women who don’t cry are thought socially deviant – except in the corporate world where crying is a sign of weakness.
Shakespeare’s archetypal evil woman Lady Macbeth is often regarded as more monstrous than her husband because, to heighten her bloodlust, she has to deny her femininity:
…unsex me here
But these tears only come after he has lost both his authority and his sanity. He would never have been seen to weep when he was still powerful.
Similarly, Elizabeth I, when addressing the troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached, felt it necessary to renounce her female qualities in order to become a viable leader of men: ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too…’ Her words eerily echo those of Lady Macbeth. But since Elizabeth is being judged as a leader of men, rather than as a pushy wife and social climber, her words are wholly appropriate.
For all the balm and comfort they offer, tears are really a form of submission. They are the biological equivalent of sending up a white flag, admitting that you surrender, that you are powerless, that you’ve given up the fight. They are also, invariably, infantilising. Perhaps that’s why a patriarchal society so loves to see a crying girl, but tells a boy to ‘man up’. In our passive, post-X-Factor show world, people would always rather we burst into tears in moments of conflict than that we shout at them, demand our rights or punch them in the face. For bosses, political leaders, even boyfriends, it’s much nicer to be able to just pass the tissues and give us a hug.
Arguably, there has been a positive result from reality TV’s enthusiasm for tears. We’re becoming used to men, from Andy Murray to Barack Obama, crying in front of millions. This new-found talent for crying in public can be a genuine catharsis, in spite of the performative element involved, or the fact that tears are now almost prerequisite to winning hearts, if not minds. But how much does this conscious, decorative display help anyone express their emotions in private? And how about crying for those darker and more shameful emotions – defeat, rejection, failure, despair? Raw, angry crying isn’t pretty; you can’t do it and keep your mascara intact.
Compare this with the way that women in the Middle East use their grieving ululations to such powerful effect. At the funeral of a fallen Palestinian, Syrian or Iraqi father, son or brother, or in Egypt at the announcement of the death sentence for some 500 Morsi supporters, the women’s wailing is an expression of the profoundest rage. Though it might not be pretty, you sense that genuine relief lies on the other side.
But while a good cry can be restorative, I need to remind myself that it can also be a distraction from getting to the root of the cause. Not crying doesn’t mean not feeling: but maybe at my age it does mean learning to articulate feeling in a different way. When you know it’s going to lead to the offer of a shoulder to cry on, it’s tempting to go for the easy let-out and dissolve into tears. Maybe there’s a clue in the word ‘dissolve’; crying makes the crier break up, disperse, melt, liquefy, disintegrate, fade away. We all, women included, have to learn a new resilience and aim for more than just comfort. If a grievance or a grief is real, it needs to be resolved, not just dissolved.
To be described as ‘stony-hearted’ is not a compliment, but perhaps something of the quality of stone could be cultivated if the waterworks have dried up. Like one of those great, smooth, boulders that have withstood millennia of weather, we might be eroding slowly, but we won’t be washed away by a mere rainstorm.