Very few animals actually cry in the wild. It is believed that the tears people shed evolved from one of the many different facial movements we use to communicate with each other, that crying may have come before speech itself. The two most basic human expressions – laughing and crying – are split from one central braid, from the human embryo’s branchial arch. This is the same section responsible for the creation of the lungs and head, controlling breathing and vocalizing. They all work in perfect tandem together; the muscles, synchronized with the respiratory system, allow us to express the most primal parts of ourselves without words. When our emotions become too large for the tongue to express, we can hear our original language.
My mother jokes: When my daughter came out of the womb, she began sobbing and she hasn’t stopped since.
An anecdote to explain it: My father is a woodworker and has one of those tools that measures the evenness of a surface. It’s called a level. It’s tube with small black lines offering measurements, full of water with a single bubble. If the bubble is centered, then it’s even. I watch him use this tool as a way to show love; he balances it on a wooden playhouse, on a loft bed painted my favorite color, on the matching desk and drawers. I think of my emotional register as something like that. If I’m not somewhere close to center, I cry.
I have always felt a kinship to water, and perhaps it is because it seems as if there’s much more than average within me. I grew up on the Hiwassee, a river in Tennessee, where I believed that water was a place I could trust. My parents can recall a time that I am too young to remember, when we were canoeing down the Hiwassee and I begin crying for no reason other than it felt like the right thing to do. Their memory has become mine, and I can see myself like a movie, holding my paddle, looking out over the water that’s a blue too dark to see below the surface, the overwhelmingness of existence bringing me to tears.
As a small child I was convinced that it must be because in the pit of my stomach, I held an enormous sadness I couldn’t explain. I cried when I read a book about Ellis Island. I cried when my mother leaft for the store. I cried until I was red faced, my throat went sore, and I became exhausted. Words were never enough; my body overflowed.
My mother has never minded it. She’s not a crier herself, but she has always been empathetic to my relationship to tears. My father is a man driven to fix what does not make sense. He hates when things are off center in his workshop. In the same way, he hated when I cry for reasons he can’t understand.
Let her wear herself out, my father would say in the kitchen, where he thought I couldn’t hear him. It is a cadence, over and over through my childhood, They’re just crocodile tears. She wants attention.
No, Paul, my mother says. She’s just sensitive.
The phrase “crocodile tears” comes from the idea that crocodiles cry while they eat their prey, induce themselves into an unearned weep over dinner. The phrase is ancient, and for most of time there’s been some scientific squabbles about the legitimacy of crocodile tears. It’s not really about the crocodiles as much as it is the sentiment.
A collection of proverbs by Greek philosopher Plutarch suggests that by his time, it was already a well-known idiom. He compares the behavior of the crocodile to that of people who secretly wished someone dead, but publicly lamented them. The 16th century writer Edward Topsell took this idea one step farther, comparing the crocodiles to the false repentance of Judas weeping after he betrayed Jesus, the silver in his pocket heavy, yes, but still his.
When I first heard this phrase, I thought maybe it was a nice thing; that the crocodiles felt bad that they had to hurt others for the sake of their own survival. I imagine the single crocodile, his mouth forced into a permanent smile, his eyes as black as the universe itself, unable to stop the pain that comes from the conditions of his existence.
I’m quickly informed that no, no, that’s not quite right, you see they’re just faking the tears, it’s just a performance they were putting on. I can’t help but wonder just who they were performing for, but no one has an answer for me.
There have been many attempts to split crying into a binary, to explain the difference between sad crying and joyous crying. There are three theories, each one attempting to offer a reason for the separate, but similar, emotional phenomenon. Jack Katz explored the concept of crying in his book How Emotions Work, pointing out that crying occurs when language is too limiting. But why?
First: the public-private perspective, or crying as a way to reveal information about yourself. Sad crying in this way is a plea for help, or a method of self-pity, a way one must comfort oneself as a child might. By way of contrast, joyous public crying is a recognition of great beauty or wonder. This might take place looking out over the Grand Canyon, introverted mountains at your feet.
Second: a spatial perspective offers the difference between “here” and “there”. It asks the crier: where are you? Joyful crying is the present, the “here”, one that offers an awareness of location as a reason. For example, crying at a symphony, overwhelmed by the music so beautiful that you have a physical response to it. “There”, the past, is to cry over what has been missed and cannot be replaced; perhaps at a home where a loved one is gone and you are alone with only with the sensory memory of where their shoes once sat, how their clothes hung, what the life with them once was.
Third: the temporal perspective. It is in this third space that I believe is the truth, at least for me. Under this lens, sorrowful crying comes from looking at a past with deep, open hearted regrets or a future paralyzingly near with. Its joyful opposite is crying to be completely present in a moment, to look at a single second as if it is eternal; immortalizing it in a solitary, blissful state forever.
My father had no idea how to understand how I, his first child, a girl, part-him, is able to hold so much emotion in my body.
A memory: I am sitting on the stairs of my childhood home in Tennessee, not the first or last house I live in but the one that comes to mind when people ask where I’m from. I’m sitting on the staircase, being punished. Why I am being punished has become hazy but sitting on the stairs I am doing something between sobbing and praying, looking for someone to listen.
As a child my punishment it is used as a way to hide me. I sit on the steps, I face the wall, I go to my room and do not come out until dinner and stop crying, goddamnit, you’re not fooling anyone. Whatever indiscretion I had committed, it is exacerbated by my crying, proof that I had done whatever I was being accused of. I learn the importance of invisibility, of how to lean against a wall, blend into wallpaper, and listen. I had never seen a crocodile in person, but I understand that to cry is to show weakness at its best and be manipulative at its worst.
I tried to stop. Through fights, through heart aches, through great pain, I tried, I tried, I tried to stop. I too saw crying as a binary. It was something you did constantly or not at all.
Eventually, I succeeded.
An emotional girl on the cusp of becoming a serious woman, I divined the art of suppression, of how to entomb the river within myself that I had come to believe would drown me.
In high school I learn crocodiles hunt by stalking their prey underwater. Disguising themselves as driftwood, they use their powers of invisibility to ambush their meals as they drink from the water’s edge, heads down, unable to see the crocodile’s jaw open until they are buried within it. Despite common belief, crocodiles don’t kill with their bite – their teeth, though sharp and meant for piercing flesh, are not built for death. What could have been an evolutionary disadvantage has been spun into their power. They kill by drowning, latching onto their prey and dragging it below water until violent thrashing becomes stillness. When the crocodile eats it swallows chunks of meat whole.
Around the time I learn this, I almost drown. My body, in a desperate bid to live, swallowed a river instead of air, drinks until my belly and lungs are full. When a woman I call friend pulled me onto the beach, the water propelled itself out of my body and I found myself gasping over the sand, bowing in a way that could be mistaken for praying. I do not cry. After a lifetime of summers spent swimming, kayaking, facing oceans unafraid, I felt betrayed. I’m hurt. I made a summer-time vow to avoid the water, lest my almost-drowning be a dress rehearsal to my actual final moments.
A teenager now, my tears turned into a righteous, violent anger. My great sadness was replaced by a rage that makes my hands hot and face pink. I fought my dad often and furiously, demanding our living room turn into a verbal sparring ring. It always devolved into screaming matches with my dad’s deep voice paired against mine, which a boyfriend described as “shrill.”
We foguht about everything - tattoos, curfews, petty comments taken as deep-set slights. We speak two different languages, untranslatable to each other. My mother never intruded other than to apologize for him later, when I retreated to my bedroom with my pride bruised and bloody. She would find me, curled into a comma on my bed, eyes forced shut. She asked me to be empathetic to him, but I didn’t want to. I couldn’t understand why he, the adult, my father, couldn’t do that for me instead.
Suppressing emotions can actually heighten them, cause a tidal wave buried in the chest. Biologically, crying offers a catharsis, a moment of emotional and physical release that allows the crier to feel better after, even if nothing has changed. To bury the things that make you cry only helps them grow, and one way or another, the body demands to be heard.
When I go to college, I date a man with red cheeks and a voice is so deep that listening to it feels like being underwater. Once, in a state of weakness, I tell him that I feel like I am always up to my nose in water and have forgotten how to swim. I cry and apologize for it. He doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything, and because of that, I have to wonder if he thinks I am lying.
A few months later, I break up with the boy without crying and read Othello for class. My professor was a woman with gray hair who wears her dead father’s shirts and long skirts that brush the ground. She speaks quickly and never remembers to give us homework or grade the pop quizzes she makes up on the spot. Instead, she demands lively discussions and debates from us.
In Act IV, Scene I, Othello convinces himself that his wife is cheating on him. During a soliloquy, he says, “If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears, each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.”
“What does this quote mean?” she asks us.
I know the answer, but I didn’t want it to be true. I already know how the play ends, with women dead from disbelief.
Afterwards, I go back to my dorm room and tried to force myself cry by watching videos of rescue dogs meeting their owners and soldiers coming home, surprising their kids on Christmas morning. I know that the pit of sadness in my stomach has morphed into a dam in my throat, breaking up the synchronization my body requires. There has to be destruction for the body to find harmony again. So I try to induce myself into crying, pull down my saddest books and look through old photos in an attempt to create nostalgia so powerful it breaks.
Finally, sitting alone where no one can hear me, a river releases from my body. I stain my pillowcase with big, ugly tears thinking about how long it had been since I had called home.
A fact: the average woman cries between thirty to sixty-four times a year, while the average man cries at most six to seventeen times.
When I think of how when I cry with women, I think of my mother - I am held, I am comforted. I can hide my face into the soft fabric of their shirts and know that I am cared for. When I cry around men, my father is the blueprint.
The statistics speak to the differences, the way crying is taught to children. Is this why my father, a man of clearly loved me, made me out to be a liar? Is there something in the core of who he is that is too incompatible with me, his sensitive child? Could he not understand, or did he not want to? Perhaps his experience was the ruling one, and it was easier to claim I was crying as part of a selfish performance than to admit that I was crying and there was nothing he could do to fix it, because there’s actually nothing to fix. It simply had to be.
Crocodiles themselves are actually the most vocal of all reptiles. They are communicative creatures, speaking to each other in five distinct different styles through various types of inflection. When a female crocodile has laid her eggs, she lets out a hatching call, and announcement that new life is on the way. Hatchlings chirp like small birds when they are hungry. The males are actually the loudest; bellow in a chorus together, so loudly that the ground around them may vibrate, the onlookers may believe they are experiencing an earthquake.
So it could make sense that they might cry. It is a communication deeper than any language offers, a way to share their deepest emotions without words or inflections but simply being, their bodies existing in the simplest way there is to be.
As an adult woman, my boyfriend and I go to the beach together. I dive under the rolling water and the saltwater stings my eyes red. It forces tears to drip from my eyes as my body tries to cleanse itself. He worries I’m going to drown; I promise him that I won’t. I’ve come to terms with the water and what it can do.
I don’t fight with my dad anymore. But the same day we go to the beach, my boyfriend and I get into some petty argument over coffee and I start to tear up.
I didn’t mean to cry, I say. I don’t want you to think I’m trying to manipulate you into agreeing with me.
I asked him once why he thinks I cry so often.
I think you’re just sensitive, he says.
When we leave the beach, our feet cover the inside of my car with sand and we pass the alligator farm, where crocodiles and alligators live in reptilian harmony. His sister worked there for a time. His sister and I get along easily. She thinks it’s funny that I cried when we watched half of a bad Hallmark movie, and I have to agree.
I ask her if crocodiles really cry or if that was a long-held myth. She tells me: “A couple of years ago, they studied the crocodiles at the farm, to see if they actually cried. And some of them really do! They think it’s triggered by feeding.”
I look it up later and find out she’s right. It’s so simple it feels silly. When they eat, a warm air hisses its way through the sinuses, stimulating the tear glands. It is a deeply physiological reaction; without sound, they communicate.
In mythology, crocodiles stand for massive power, endurance, and a deep primalism, the understanding between their cores and the nature they live within. At least, that’s what it says on the info card that came with my coffee mug, which shows the reptile in 3D baring his teeth, a background made of trees and a lone river behind him. I hold the mug with both hands and wander through my apartment in New Orleans, past the table my father built for me and the tools he gifted me. I go and sit on my balcony as the sun rises over me. Below, people begin their morning routines. It is about to storm and the air is vibrant with the possibility. I think of the water nearby, the Mississippi River, moving without care about who or what maybe be carried with it. I find a tear moving down my cheek for no reason other than the power of the single, eternal moment, and I do not hide my face.
Kirsten Reneau is currently working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. A Pushcart nominee, her work can be seen in or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review, Hobart, Hippocampus Magazine, (Mac)ro(mic), Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and others.