Young Woman with Her Hand over Her Mouth (detail), by Edgar Degas, ca. 1875. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, 2018.

There is a tremor in my upper lip. It quivers, small shifting, plates adjusting. The top lip shimmering, moving my face in uncontrolled waves, unless I clamp my mouth shut, or press my lips together, smiling. An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor, or temblor) is the shaking of the surface of the earth, resulting from the sudden release of energy in the lithosphere that creates seismic waves. 

I remember the burn of pure fury. I can hold moments of it in the tightening of my ribcage, the tingle at the back of my neck. Once, rage lived in the heart of me, once it breathed between my ribs.

When I was nine years old, I kicked Colt Martin in the crotch. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I sunk my elementary-sized foot into the place where his legs met, and he dropped to the ground. Smell of bark chips and tears.

I got in trouble. The teachers told me I could damage him for life, make it so he couldn’t have children. I didn’t see the problem. I thought Colt Martin was terrible. I remember this incident like a mantra, like proof that I have lived in a furious body; I have been so mad I wished to split myself apart.

At home I slammed doors, screamed aloud. I pushed my whole weight into walls and floors. I knew how to rage without crying. I knew how to be explosively mad. Until one day I knew I shouldn’t do that anymore.

Nobody sat me down and taught me that rage was ugly on a girl. My liberal, West Coast, free-spirited private elementary educators never would have said that I couldn’t show anger.

The world taught me that rage was ugly on a girl.

I curated my emotions to look the way they were supposed to: pretty. My anger pacifiable, easily calmed, all pink cheeks and dainty trembling. A whisper-rage that tremored through me. I wanted to behave. I wanted to fit into the mold of girl. And inside my body, alchemy began: when I got angry, truly, rumbling, seismic angry, I began to cry.

*

The human body creates three types of tears: basal tears, which keep your eyes lubricated and functional; reflex tears, which are produced in response to a physical stimulus like dust in the eye in order to remove the irritant; and psychic tears, which are emotionally responsive tears. Other animals make the first two kinds; human beings are the only animal known to make psychic tears.

Everything I’ve learned from the time I was born is essentially some form of control. Basic lessons: how to control my hands, my body. Advanced lessons: how to control my volume, my appearance. Having control over myself allows me to choose. I can present myself as loudly or as softly, as boldly or as meekly, as wildly or as calmly as you wish.

At four years old, I taught myself to cry on command. I remember staring into the mirror in my bedroom, willing myself to cry. It took a long time, endless attempts, until one day, I managed to eke out a tear. I watched it, fat, crocodile, sliding down my cheek.

I had a new control.

My grandfather said that women only cried to get something. I knew some part of that was true: I had cried many times to get something that I wanted, as a device. It gave me a way over the wall of a no. It could be manipulative, but not always. Only when I controlled the flow, and often I did not.

Crying on command was a neat trick, but it was an easy one. The greater challenge, the one I’m still trying to learn, is to stifle tears when I don’t want them.

I can turn them on, but I cannot turn them off.

I’ve learned to warn people ahead of time: sometimes I cry when I’m angry. It’s like hiccups, but more infuriating. Sometimes the tears make me angrier than I was before they started. Unwelcome water, flying out of my eyes while my throat clenches harder.

*

The signal to cry emotional tears comes from the limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion and stores our long- and short-term memories. And people cry in response to many emotions, the most obvious one being sadness. But for over half of women, also anger.

I once worked for a man who covered my drafts in red pen. He lashed disapproval on all of my pages. It was a kind of murder. He would call me into his office. I would sit in the leather chair across from his large desk. He would read through the draft I had given him, and he would tell me what he hated about it. He wrote notes like: “Are you sure you went to law school?” in the margins. After, he would hand my draft back, and I would drop my eyes and shuffle out of his office to my desk.

Then: down the hallway, to the bathroom where I wouldn’t turn the lights on. Screaming into the crook of my arm. I hated that job, that man. I could never keep myself from crying, sometimes in front of him, and I hated myself for that, too.

I have felt tears streaming from my eyes at the angriest moments of my life: while being critiqued, when my boyfriend and I fought, when my boss told me to “give him a spin.” Ear-burning fury in those moments, and also, wet eyes.

I lack control.

*

Whether produced in response to pain, sadness, or anger, the mechanism of emotional tears is the same. The lacrimal gland, located between the eyelid and the eyeball, creates the tear. The eyelid blinks reflexively and spreads the tear across the eye, creating a film. The tear is then channeled into the lacrimal punctum (a small drain that empties into the nose, which also explains why your nose runs when you cry). When the volume of the tears overwhelms the drain, tears spill over the bottom lid and down the cheek. That is the anatomy of crying.

The problem with rage tears is that they’re not composed. They are decomposition, falling apart. I do not know how to unleash what’s in my throat some days, and I do not know how to keep it all inside. At the earth’s surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and displacing or disrupting the ground.

Things that have made me cry in rage: waiting for late people; traffic; mansplaining; cleaning my room; getting my period; kissing a boy that I didn’t want to kiss because I didn’t know how to get out of it; broken mirrors; spilled breastmilk; my mother’s derision; my partner’s stubbornness; lines in supermarkets; the NICU nurse who threatened to keep my daughter; my broken foot; parenting; the 2016 election; my father; my best friend kissing my ex-boyfriend; hunger.

While over 51 percent of women have experienced angry tears, under two percent of men have. Even as crying has become more socially acceptable for men, it is only acceptable in response to sadness or pain. When angry, men are much more likely to act out physically in aggressive ways. Women are more likely to cry.

I asked on social media about rage tears. Almost every response I received was from a woman. Some of them talked about their shame in not being able to control themselves, in looking weak, in losing their power in an argument. One woman said she thought of them as a decelerator, something that kept her from going all the way off. Almost every woman said their rage tears made them avoid arguments or leave them once the tears came. Many, many women mentioned having to deal with their rage tears in professional settings. Crying at work is practically outlawed in employee handbooks. The filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier said that she’d recently embraced the power of her rage tears. “They can blow everyone out of a room if necessary.” I loved her regal take on what feels to me like an impossibly girlish problem.

*

One study suggested that women’s tears carry a scent that slows testosterone production in men, deescalates aggression, and kills their sexual response. The limbic system is the same place that fight, flight, freeze, appease comes from. It is the part of us wired for survival. Does crying help women survive?

“Depression is rage internalized,” my second therapist told me. I had squelched and winnowed and edited my rage down to something that looked like sadness. Something that didn’t shimmer like anger, but glistened with a dull, flat endlessness. I had stuck my burning so deep that I couldn’t feel it, not for years. I had to go down into the dark of me, where I’d shoved rage, and call her back up. I entered the labyrinth, walked without string. And when I found her, I let her breathe.

I recovered my fury and I found my writing voice at the same time. You could say rage is the root of everything I’ve ever written. Rage is the fuel of my voice. Now I’m afraid to be soft. I’m afraid to stop yelling. I’m only comfortable growing hot behind the ears, prickling.

I still cry all the time.

My top lip vibrates. I clamp the lower in my teeth. Left side, small bite, a malformed pillow of pink flesh curling right. I dig my incisor into the fleshy bottom lip. I swallow the furious ball in my throat, but it does not go down. I feel like an electric line, snapped from the pole by the wind. A live wire. I spark against the ground.

*

Earthquake size ranges from those that are so weak they cannot be felt to those violent enough to toss people around and destroy whole cities.

I want to light the trees on fire with my eyes. I begged for powerful, to have some magic in me. I wanted to lift a house with my fury. I wanted a heart full of vengeance, but what I got was a handful of tears.

But crying is our first language; it is the original sound. Before we know words and their meanings, before we know consonants from vowels, a book from a ball. Before the before, on the first exhale, we cry. Lidia Yuknavitch says that crying is articulate, it is language. Then we have narrowed the language of the body, the ways we speak without words. Not all tears are sadness. Not all rage is yelling. Sometimes the wires between one thing and another get crossed, synaptic fizzles. Sometimes it comes out as a sigh, or a thud, or a whimper. Sometimes it looks like tears and tastes like fury.

Excerpted from Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger. Copyright © 2019. Available from Seal, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Marissa Korbel

Marissa Korbel is the creator and author of The Thread, a monthly essay column for The Rumpus. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney on issues affecting campus and minor sexual assault survivors.

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