I haven’t cried, yet.
“The first thing you ever did was cry,” counters Heather Christle, early in The Crying Book.
In an interview about the unfolding emotional effects of COVID-19, “death and grieving expert” David Kessler suggests that grief is “not a map, but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world.” The scaffold he offers is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five-stage theory of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Kessler takes care to note that the stages are not linear, before advising that “acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies.”
I cannot imagine.
The Crying Book is a roving history, spanning a remarkable cast of grief experts showcased in wide-ranging vignettes. There is Yi-Fei Chen, who designs a gun that shoots frozen tears. Damini, an elephant held in captivity, starves to death after a younger elephant friend dies giving birth to a stillborn calf. Astronaut Alan Shepard cries on the moon, while doctors in the 1700s debate whether one can cry in the womb. We learn that lachryphagy is the word for tear-drinking, and that tear vials are properly called lachrymatories.
With a poet’s touch, gentle and delightfully promiscuous, Christle moves fluidly across disparate disciplines and between her sources’ professional and personal lives. A recurring thread is Silas Weir Mitchell, who appears in the interwoven roles of physician and bereaved father. Christle finds his journals and poetry at the Philadelphia College of Physicians’ Historical Library. “My little maid died at 02.30 this accursed day—we are left alone,” reads an 1898 diary entry, following the death of his only daughter, Maria.
At the time, Mitchell was renowned for prescribing rest to patients suffering from “weakness of the nerves.” Yet Mitchell also mocked “hysterical girl[s] as vampire[s] who suck the blood of the healthy people.” When Mitchell goes to Constantinople to visit its sarcophagi, he declares the marble coffins, decorated with images of weeping women, to be “the finest things here—as far as the Turk goes, they are pearls before hogs.” In effect a grief tourist, Mitchell was in what is now Turkey to distract himself from his daughter’s death.
“The doctor who held actual tearful women in such suspicious regard looks at weeping stone women abroad and sees they are weeping according to his code and his need. Again my tenderness for him vanishes. His grief grows too smooth and too white,” writes Christle.
On March 18, 2020, a 17-year-old boy dies in California following cardiac arrest. Los Angeles Public Health initially reports that he is the youngest US victim of COVID-19, before backtracking hours later: “The case is complex and there may be an alternate explanation for this fatality.”
The following day, the mayor of the boy’s hometown takes to YouTube: the teen had died after an urgent care clinic denied him treatment for lack of health insurance.
It is estimated that COVID-19 treatments will cost an average of $73,000 for Americans without health insurance. We know this death toll will fall most heavily on those of us who are racialized or Indigenous, poor or already ill, confined in immigration camps or in prisons, crowded in modern-day tenements or unsanitized factories. In both Chicago and Louisiana, for example, Black Americans account for 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths, despite making up only 30 percent of the city and state respectively.
In its ubiquity, the virus has shown up every inequality in our social order: janitors are lauded as heroes, while continuing to receive poverty wages. Nurses stand in formation, 6 feet apart, protesting the lack of protective gear. Grocery workers are memorialized in death, while their multibillion-dollar employers reap increased profits.
We are in crisis and the crisis is capitalism. It is killing us, and our grief is neither smooth nor white.
As calls for social distancing intensify, I have been thinking about the contranymal nature of the word “grieve.” The verb operates at two levels: it means to mourn, often alone and in private; and to agitate, as when a worker, supported by follow union members, files a grievance against an unjust employer. It is this latter level—the level of the collective and the organized—that is largely missing from The Crying Book.
The book’s snippets are linked only loosely, and sometimes not at all, to each other. Christle cites Anne Carson in defense of this fragmentation: “How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” Christle adds: “I have been afraid all the connections are wrong.”
It isn’t that Christle’s connections are wrong so much as that they are often not discernible. The analytical limits of the book’s fragmentation become particularly acute when Christle attempts to chart broader social issues that cause grief. The book tackles apartheid, slavery, and police killings in the same fleeting and disjointed style that it talks about other, more individual grievances. So while the book is not unwilling to tackle mass mourning, it finds itself trapped by its own stylistic conceit, stymied from giving the causes and consequences of state violence the depth and time that that examination requires.
Reading the book now during a pandemic, this limitation feels especially stark. In these months of mass death and isolation, when we are increasingly starved for connection, the book’s disconnectedness prevents it from doing justice to how wide systemic violence arches or how deep collective grief cuts. The relative disjointedness across the book’s internal chasms often seems to replicate and entrench the atomization of grief, rather than illuminate it or release us.
We are bracing for the gargantuan grief these coming weeks will visit on us. It mushrooms, one day to the next. On the phone, my mother tells me about the videos someone at the clinic showed her of trucks in different countries carrying bodies of the dead.
I am silent with my questions about death workers—these trucks’ drivers, the people who wash the dead, who lift these bodies, who note the names, who light the pyres or dig the graves, who lead the prayers—who are they, how do they come into this work, what are their lives like, who are their children, where do they come from, how are they celebrated, how they are protected.
How are they protected.
I haven’t cried yet, but it shivers along the underside of my skin.
“I mistook myself for a researcher, when I am a weeping subject,” writes Christle.
The deaths are beginning to encroach into my immediate circle: a friend’s father dies alone in ICU, a former neighbor and her two children have disappeared into ICE detention camps, fare enforcers are patrolling the buses even now, and governments that have overseen genocide are sending out police and the military into our barren streets. Some are calling this a war, as if all of us had known peace before.
“What if I could hear among the songs of grief a refrain of sweetness too?” asks Christle.
“We find control in acceptance,” proposes Kessler about grief and coronavirus. “I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.” Kessler’s checklist operates entirely at the level of the individual. State culpability does not factor in the terrain of his grief: no mass testing and no health care for all, no housing for the homeless or masks for the workers, no debt relief for the impoverished or freedom for the incarcerated.
Kessler wishes to add a sixth stage to grief: meaning. “People are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought,” he says. Kessler is correct here, though we might disagree about why: what he calls “meaning,” any organizer can tell you is community.
Solidarity and mutual aid flourishes around us. From tenants starting building-wide care groups to teachers coordinating food banks to replace suspended free school meals, from health workers running illegalized safe injection sites to Indigenous land defenders fighting to protect the water we’re supposed to be washing our hands with and the land we dream of returning to, regular people are rejecting governmental refusal to value life.
Our power lies not in acceptance of the preventable, but in our collective resistance, in our coming together in the face of grief and with the power of anger and imagination. Neither smooth nor white, may our grief help us create the world we’d been told just last month was impossible.