A Brief History of Tears

Fiction / Dawn Tefft

:: A Brief History of Tears ::

In 1964, I began crying.

I can give you the setting of the day it happened, but I can’t tell you why. It was the day of my quinceañera. I remember I was wearing a pale pink dress made of satin, slowly unfolding my napkin, feeling aware that I was sitting at a folding table in front of all the guests. And then, as I wrote later in my journal, “Long, deep heaves. Every breath burning the nose and the throat. Reverberations in the abdomen.” I tried to hide it with my half-unfolded napkin.

Localized Crying
(from an interview with Peter Scatori)

I didn’t know what was going on at first; I would just start crying as soon as I sat down at the computer. If I even looked at the monitor, it would go zig-zag on me. My boss and all my co-workers made me see a therapist until the company’s insurance wouldn’t cover it anymore. I started having to do all my work on paper, figuring out sums by hand. Luckily, I’m good with numbers, so I could do the smallish numbers in my head. Eventually, the whiteness of paper would blind me when I looked at it, and I’d have to turn away. So I started writing on brown paper napkins, the kind with the fibers you can actually see. I used those until they made my eyes red and weepy. My eyes felt like sores in my face. Finally, I went to the doctor, and he tested me for all kinds of allergies. I wasn’t allergic to anything, not even goats. I got really scared at that point because I thought if I couldn’t use paper, I’d have to rely on my head for everything. So I decided to go to a psychiatrist. It was then I was diagnosed with Localized Crying, the kind brought on by stress. It really helped me a lot to know I wasn’t crazy, that there were actually other people out there experiencing the same triggers and symptoms as me. Since then, I’ve lost my job, but at least I know it’s not like it’s because I’m a bad person.

Eventually the napkin disintegrated, leaving only my hands. Maybe paper desires to absorb something. Maybe it needs to make a map of a story, the kind without words. Like when I was seven and my parents gave away our Collie. Because they didn’t even seem upset, I cried over a piece a paper and circled where each tear landed.

The Jesuits were fond of tears. Every three years, they chose one person who was especially burdened and undertook to cry for him for one full year. In 1663, in the village of Monparte, an anonymous monk left a note for Pelier Pele, saying that he would be crying for Pele during the coming year in order to help alleviate the recent widower’s suffering. Pele was a farmer, and after his wife’s death by consumption, word got around that he was having trouble taking care of his seven children. Court documents show that Pele remarried by the end of 1663. According to village legend, the new marriage was facilitated by the slow disappearance of a very large mole on the end of Pele’s nose. Villagers believed it to have been the result of the monk’s astonishing powers of concentrated sympathy. Monparte still holds its annual Festival of Tears, during which people are blindfolded by officials, paired up, and sent into dark rooms made of peat. The pairs sit cross-legged on the ground, inhaling deeply. With each inhalation, the pair take in each other’s scent along with the moist, earthy scent of the walls surrounding them, and by nightfall they begin crying. The tears fall into bowls placed in the lap. Later, the tears are bottled and aged. When one of the pair feels life is going especially well, he brews a tea from the tears which allows him to feel the sorrows of the other.

My mother came over to my chair and put both her hands on my face, just holding it and talking to me in this really low voice. I don’t remember anything she said, except for eventually she called my best friend over to sit with me because she thought Susana might get what was happening. That maybe it was a teenage thing.

I couldn’t stop. Susana didn’t know what to do with me.

According to Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears, “tears usually signal a desire, a wish, or a plea.” Clinically depressed people have “lost the impetus to cry, because without desire, there are no tears”; infants who are neglected long enough never cry again: “It is the infant who believes it will be picked up that wails, energized by its fear that it will be left alone.” Though many readers might find Samuel Beckett’s writing bereft of hope, in psychoanalytic terms, his writing is pointing at the loss of the ability for tears. It is, like a depressive working with a therapist, seeking to explore the sources and effects of the tearless condition. And all explorations are undertaken with hope. If, as Beckett once stated, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness,” perhaps, then, Beckett’s words are his tears. Though in “Endgame” some of his characters live in trash cans, it is not as if to say, “Yes, let us all, now and forever, live in trash cans.”

I remember sitting there trying to figure out what was happening to me. Running through the day’s events, hoping to find whatever it was that was bothering me. I remembered going to the bathroom and taking a bath after my mother woke me up. Carefully doing my makeup and hair for two whole hours. Spraying myself with some rose water, putting on the gold cross necklace and little gold post earrings, pulling on pantyhose. Catching my pantyhose on a fingernail, having to take them off, putting on another pair. Slowly. My mother zipping up my shiny, full-skirted dress. Looking at myself in the mirror from different angles, and then standing and staring, trying to decide what I looked like: good, bad, okay, sexy, innocent, innocently sexy, young, old. Eating oatmeal for breakfast. Riding with my parents in the sedan to church. Listening to them talk about Father Hernandez, the price of fruit, whether or not Tía Theresa would move out of the neighborhood. Arriving at the church and walking in. Listening to the Father. Sitting at the metal folding table for everyone to see. Crying.

a short story by Felipe Fitzcarraldo

In the town of Carancas, high in Peru’s Andes, Mayor Nestor Quispe is perplexed by a meteor. The meteor fell in the night. The next morning a farmer came into town, reporting a huge, stinking rock in one of his outlying fields. He asked the mayor to put together a party of men to remove the rock, which he claimed poisoned all of his animals. When the mayor arrived, he saw so many dead sheep on the ground, it looked like the clouds had come down to rest. He knew the sheep were dead because he kicked a few.

The farmer was right. The fields stank. They smelled like rotten eggs, tons of them. The mayor decided it would be best to dynamite the thing. He made plans with the farmer to come back with the explosives the next morning. That was before the outbreak.

Slowly, over the course of the day, all the townspeople had fallen ill with crying. When the mayor returned home, his wife, Maria, was sitting on the porch, knitting and crying. When he asked her why she was crying, she just shook her head. She didn’t even look up, just kept working the needles, looping and looping. He never understood how those loops held.

He shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get some water. He opened the cupboard and reached for a glass. When his hand returned empty, he wondered what had happened. He tried to look for the glass, but everything was blurry. Then the first tear fell, thick like mucus. When the next one fell a couple minutes later, he rubbed one hand into an eye, but it didn’t help; his eyes were already clouding up again. He kept rubbing and trying to clear a path for his vision, but it was like looking through a windshield in a heavy rain. He could only see clearly for a few seconds, and only every couple of minutes at that.

When Maria walked inside, she asked why he was just standing in front of the cupboard.

“I can’t see. I keep crying these thick tears.”

“Well, sit down, then,” Maria said, pulling a chair over to him.

“I’d rather sit by the phone.”

So Maria walked him into the next room and settled him in the chair next to the phone table. When she walked out, he was rubbing fists in his eyes and staring at the dial.

The mayor called the town’s doctor, Jorge.

“I can’t stop crying, Jorge. What’s wrong with me?”

Jorge told him people had been coming into his home all day, complaining of eye afflictions. One old woman who came in with her whole family thought they all had devils in their eyes. Jorge recounted the old woman’s memory of a similar incident when she was a child. She said that a man with money had come to the town and offered to pay for a bride. None of the families would give their daughters to him, no matter how much he offered. Before the man left, he stopped in the street in front of one particularly pretty girl and stared at her until she started crying. The girl cried for a week straight. At the end of the week she died, her skin like a corn husk, drained of all her girlish fluids.

Jorge told the mayor about other people, too. People who came in saying they were being visited by saints, laborers who thought they’d gotten particles of wood, dirt, or rock caught in their eyes, and lots and lots of children. The children cried harder than the adults. Jorge thought it was because they were so worked up about their incessant crying, they were crying in addition to crying.

When the mayor hung up the receiver, he couldn’t think. He sat and cried without having any thoughts at all. After a while, his thoughts returned, bearing his mother. He remembered when he was twelve, his mother giving him a package wrapped in brown paper. He remembered untying the string, carefully, letting the rough strands of it scrape against his fingers. Running his hands over the scratchy surface of the paper. Finally, unfolding the paper like little girls practicing at unwrapping babies.

Some people have told me it’s because I’m a woman, or that I’m just weak. But that’s not it. It makes me strong in ways most people aren’t. For example, I can stay all day at a funeral, whether I know the person or not. As a professional mourner, I earn a lot of money to share people’s sadness while following funeral etiquette. The thing is, I don’t have to fake it. I just have to remember not to mention I didn’t know the deceased. I study the deceased’s life, share some of it in conversations, hand around my own personal supply of heavy-duty tissue. People like to talk to me; they feel comfortable collaborating.

          Allow me to cry.
          I am not          the neglected infant.
          Fear me if I am silly 
          or silent,
          if I refuse to take         lessons,
          though I am a novice.
          It is also bad 
          when I make         no argument.
          The Generalissimo will have won
          and flies will soon swarm
          the village.

The Dictionary of Tears tells us that both men and women cry. Historically, men have cried at heroic deeds or because they lost someone close to them. In the former case, men cried to express their emotional reaction to a stirring event. In the latter case, men cried not to express, but because there was no other reaction available.

During the reign of the Vikings, tears were thought to be becoming to warriors. If a warrior went into battle without wetting his beard, he wasn’t fully aware of the consequence of battle. Warriors traveled with a bard, who wailed battle epics while the warriors slept. It was thought that if he wailed in just the right key, and if he paid each moment in battle its due honor, the songs would infiltrate the plans warriors make while sleeping. When burying the dead, the bard would cry for the entire community, channeling the force of the emotions of all in attendance. The Kjula Runestone states that when a ship was sent to sea empty, without a body for a missing warrior, cries were so loud that enemy camps thought the dead were trying to enter the bodies of animals.            

The Mongols were, perhaps, the most fearsome criers. When they charged into battle atop their steeds, it was with tears scouring their cheeks. Russian legend has it that one Mongol warrior cried terribly while gutting a young girl and then rubbed her viscera on his wet face. To the Russians attempting to keep the Mongols at bay, it looked like the warrior was actually crying pieces of the girl. Eventually, Mongols turned to crying silently, the sight of which was said to be hard to discern, but harder to forget.

Of all the ways of going through the world, crying isn’t the most untenable. Can you imagine going through life acting happy no matter what’s happening around you? Like even when the window worker at the Burger King hands you soggy fries with that look that says her bills are piling up but she really doesn’t want to have to move back in with her abusive ex-boyfriend. And then you realize she forgot to include packets of ketchup. Now that would be weird.

The Dictionary of Tears says that tears were perfected by Madame Curie in 1773, the year she infused them with lavender. Having distilled lavender buds, robbing them of their essences, she added this fragile water to the sturdier salt water she milked from the ducts of volunteers. Madame’s Salts became so popular that she eventually produced a series of ready-to-wear tears, some of the more popular of which were Rose, Chamomile, and Jasmine. Today, a vintage Rose is reputed to cost in the millions, not only for its age, but for the chance to partake of a quaint French villager’s tristesse, circa late 1700s.

The ready-to-wear line was often used to add a seductive sadness to one’s hair or clothing, but the original lavender tears remained by far the favorite of Curie’s inventions. Imbibed and left to fall from the eyes as they may, court goers were especially fond of them and considered them an essential accessory for attending plays, concerts, dances, and other artistic and social events. The potentially unexpected oncoming of tears was one of the attractions, but usually the tears made their appearance at particularly dramatic emotional moments. Known for its calming properties, lavender was prescribed to soothe the nerves of many an overwrought funeral goer.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was said to incite so many tears from the audience that the concert hall would become humid. More than one audience member was reported to have become delirious, imagining themselves in the highlands of France, chasing a younger sibling through the fields. In 1779, Maria Tina Binoche, a patron of the arts and an asthmatic, choked on the lavender-heavy air in a Paris concert hall and died in the middle of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Following a string of similar deaths, Madame’s Salts were outlawed in 1822. Nearly two hundred years later, Jonas Salk would read about Madame Curie and attempt to inoculate excessively emotional patients with tears, only to find that the vaccine didn’t work. Devastated by the failure of his idea, he became deeply depressed and died of alcohol poisoning.

I started crying once, and I just haven’t stopped since.


From the writer

:: Account ::

Pop psychology often conveys that any one issue has a single or at least primary cause, but we’re all the products of history, unique biochemistry, material circumstances, and all the stimuli we’ve ever encountered over the course of our lives. The frame for the story is a short first-person narrative intended to explain something inexplicable: the sudden onset of crying that never stops. The story contains no dialogue, and the first-person narrative is interspersed with fictional encyclopedia-like entries about historical events, cultures, or phenomena related to crying. The entries tend to further complicate the narrative rather than provide clarity. But I like to think that further complicating something truly complex is a form of clarity.

I enjoy less traditional forms of storytelling, and I thought it would be interesting to explore something as universal as crying from both a personal and a (completely fictional) historical perspective. I was particularly drawn to crying because some cultures label it as weakness even though it serves many necessary functions, likely makes us stronger in the sense that it helps us keep going in the face of hardship, and is a permanent feature of our lives.


Poems of Dawn Tefft are published in Fence, Denver Quarterly, Witness, and Sentence, among other journals. Her chapbooks include Fist (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), The Walking Dead: A Lyric (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Field Trip to My Mother and Other Exotic Locations (Mudlark, 2005). Her first fiction piece was published recently in Pioneertown. Her nonfiction has been published in cream city review, PopMatters, Truthout, Jacobin, and Woodland Pattern’s blog. She holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and works as a higher-ed labor organizer and representative.