We Americans are quite possibly disastrous sympathizers, afraid of one another’s feelings. They’re an affront. I have to admit to paralysis anytime I come across someone weeping openly — in a conference room, on the subway, wandering around an airport, at a bar. What’s needed here? Maybe I’ve monitored the situation from afar, until a sense of voyeurism compels me either to look away or to just check on the person already. Rare are the inquiries smarter than: “Are you OK?” It’s a question that then obligates the sufferer to pause her distress and issue an “I’m fine,” which is sometimes meant to reassure me, to swear that I can delete the message her red eyes and swollen face have transmitted to my empathy. Offers of relief have been declined with pride, with testiness, with tender uncertainty because somehow we’ve learned that a stranger’s offer of concern still amounts to an invasion of privacy. This is why watching artists cry is easy. No one is implicated. We’re excused from the potential awkwardness of conferring comfort.
It’s been two long years of spotty attendance at our cathedrals of crying. I can’t pretend that moviegoing was in great shape before theaters became a pestilent vector. We now have access, for instance, to a galactic load of Korean television fully equipped to well us up while we knit scarves or fold clothes. It’s simply easier to stay home and sob when, say, Mahalia Jackson graces the stage in the middle of “Summer of Soul”; and for a while it was far safer. But absent a more robust moviegoing culture, we’ve forgone a ritual of shared expression, a communal roost in which all tears are OK, be they shed for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” or Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” each its own style of weepie that — as the industry watchers among us will eagerly point out — are not hits. That might be how estranged from the commingling of our emotional lives we’ve grown in 40 years. The man who made “E.T.,” the sentimentalist to whom we once flocked for emotional sensation, now can’t lure us out of our homes.
For a long time, we’ve been numbing ourselves. Even our lacrimal surrogates in Hollywood have been turning their backs on us and toward age-defying procedures that culminate in faces that can no longer approximate our sorrow. A crisis of deadening is being passed down to the next generation. The renewal of book bans on works of fiction, by the likes of Toni Morrison and Art Spiegelman, ensures the alienation of children from their feelings, the disconnection of those feelings from a shared history of hardship and the extinction of the moral imagination. We are running from ourselves, evading the inevitability of emotional difficulty. What if my mother had yanked us up that day at “E.T.” and insisted that my crying was inappropriate? What other beauty would I be dead to? What kind of truth? Before a single person had died of Covid-19, we were succumbing to an addiction to pain relief; the pandemic has only expanded our capacity for overdose and compounded our aversion to grief.
How many funerals and memorials have we not attended in the last two years? How many of us mourners remain ungathered? More mass bereavement feels warranted. And if I’m talking about an event grander, more national than the small, private ceremony my family has postponed for my aunt Geri, my grandmother and her little brother Marcellus, what would such a gathering resemble? I can’t say. I do know, though, how it would sound. Wounded. 865,000 times over. It’s a sound for which we’re unprepared and with which we are strangely unfamiliar. A sound that no one wants to hear, whose rawness remains unbidden. A sound, in art, like Anjelica Huston with minutes to go in a movie called “The Grifters,” down on her knees, howling and gasping over a dead body — her character’s son, whom she has just wantonly killed. Huston heaves with a despair that the movies rarely show us.
I once did that sort of crying, on the day my mother died. She was ill, so her death was anticipated. Still, there’s no preparation for the foreign force that takes over. I had always imagined her death drawing out calm sobs, something “dignified,” like the old movie actors. What came up, instead, was violent and wild. I stalked around a hallway outside the bedroom where I found her, as though I were hunting for something that had been misplaced — my mother’s life, her soul. The wailing was disbelief. It was helplessness and futility. It was abandonment and finality. I cried so loud that I worried her neighbors would call the police: Yes, I’d like to report a murder at 1044. My eyes had shriveled to raisins; all I could see were tears in a queue patiently awaiting their drop, an infinity pool of anguish. Her death was peaceful, almost as we had planned. And yet — only an actor prepares. It’s a peculiar experience, crying that way: undammed, with your entire self, with everything in you, roaring out. I felt as if I had died, too — because, in a way, I had.
It’s here that I’d like to amend that biochemical assertion about how our crying distinguishes us from animals. Crying arouses the animal in us. I didn’t know such a creature, a werewolf in my case, resided in there. Not a hulk but a hurt, kept far from the surface. For safety. You don’t access it. The wolf finds you. It drags immense sorrow through these tiny openings — nostrils, eyes, the mouth. It’s the animal in us that needs to speak now. It’s waiting, ready for a mass howling when we are.