Why Cry?

Do you cry after reading? I do, if the book I just finished was good enough. Correction: the book I’m just finishing. The tears don’t usually start after I close the cover. They come as I’m immersed in the last pages.

This can make reading in public awkward. I tried reading a novel while I worked out at the gym once. And only once. As the finale unfolded, the tears flowed, and I felt caught.

Should I let loose and humiliate myself in front of my work-out buddies, or should I try to suppress my response, and spoil a good climax? Neither option appealed. I decided: no more literature on the elliptical.

I had a similar problem the one time I drove from Rhode Island to Vermont and back by myself. I figured a good story would help the miles pass more easily. The first half of Charles Baxter’s Feast of Love was great for the ride up. When conditions got dicey, I paused my iPod, so I could pay attention to the road. Listening to the second half on the return trip was trickier. Just south of Boston, the story reached its climactic crescendo, I could hardly see the road through my tears, but I couldn’t turn the thing off, because I needed to know what happened. Damn, that was a good. If dangerous. My new rule: no more driving under the influence of fiction.

David doesn’t get any of this. “Why do you like to torture yourself like that?” he asks.

“It feels good,” I tell him.

He thinks I’m weird. I know that I’m not alone. What I don’t know is why books make me cry. Or why those tears feel so good.

Maybe you read Anne Murphy’s piece in the Times, in which she summarizes studies of what goes on in people’s brains while they read. Words associated with smells (leather, lavender) activate the brain’s olfactory region. Descriptions of bodily movements ignite the cerebral sites that make those body parts move. The same neural networks we use to understand fictional characters in literature also come into play when we interpret interpersonal relationships in real life. It seems that our brains don’t distinguish between fiction and reality.

Anyone who has ever been immersed in a good book already knew this, of course. But it’s nice to know that perennial precepts of good writing such as “Use Active Verbs” and “Show, Don’t Tell,” can be backed up scientifically. What I would like to see is a study explaining why a great novel will leave so many of us reaching for the tissues, even if – and sometimes especially if – everyone lives happily ever after.

David has suggested that it’s a form of grief. I’m saying goodbye to characters who have come to feel real to me. I’m sure that’s a part of it. But I’m also sure it’s only a part. The full answer has got to be more complicated. And primal.

For me, crying at the end of a book can feel a lot like crying at a wedding. Or over that Amica commercial where the father hands his daughter the keys to the car, or those videos of people in the armed forces coming home. That swelling in my chest and watering of my eyes can feel like longing. But they’re not really sorrow. They’re surges of chemical empathy.

Blame it on the oxytocin, says neuroeconomist Paul Zak. Explaining why we cry at movies, Zak says, “Oxytocin engages brain circuits that make us care about others, even complete strangers…We cry at movies,” he says, “because the oxytocin in the human brain is imperfectly tuned. It does not differentiate between actual human beings and flickering images of human beings. Either one is enough to kick oxytocin into high gear and impel our empathy.” Why shouldn’t the same thing happen when we read riveting writing?

The oxytocin theory would also explain why this kind of crying feels so good. The empathy hormone evolved to help mothers bond with their babies. The rush it provides is Mommy’s reward for cuddling and carrying for a helpless child. We’re hardwired to crave compassion – not just getting it, but also giving it. Cry-worthy books tap into that same innate circuit.

If this is true, why does it happen most at a novel’s ending? Maybe because that’s just how this sort of book is written. The early parts of the book conjure the characters and create the situations that will pay out in a satisfying emotional punch at the end. And because we’ve been taught to expect this pattern, we’re primed to help make it happen. Finally, the goodbye factor David suggested pushes us, happily blubbering, over the edge.

That’s my theory, anyway. I’m sticking with it until some scientist comes along and tells me it’s fiction.

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11 Responses to “Why Cry?”

  1. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    Wow. You have workout buddies?

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Did I say workout buddies? I meant, random people who go to the gym when I do, and might make eye contract if our paths cross between machines. And who I know would secretly judge me if they saw me weeping while working out.

  3. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    Oh, and I cry at the end, too. Not weeping tears, like you, but more kind of misty like when I’m leaving someone off at the airport. I know I’m going to miss being in the world, being with the characters that I just spent a few hundred pages with.

  4. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    I just don’t go to the gym, because I’m positive I don’t have to do anything more than walk in in my too-tight sweats with my flabby self bulging in all the wrong places to be secretly (or not so secretly) judged by the skinny people who work out all the time. I probably should adjust my attitude.

  5. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Or find a different gym.

  6. rhondasaunders Says:

    Off topic, I stalked Charles Baxter for a couple of years. I wanted to be him and/or marry him and/or keep him in my basement to write just for me. When I started teaching college English, Feast was required reading. Obviously.

    Baxter’s first teaching gig was in a podunk town near my podunk hometown. Later, he taught at Wayne State for a while. I dropped out of a PhD program there, so we’re practically exactly the same.

    Ahh, thank you for that opportunity.

  7. rhondasaunders Says:

    See what your writing does? It stirs things in people.

  8. Bill Mitchell Says:

    (Hi, Ruth!) I very seldom cry during or after reading, though I sometimes feel a tightening in the back of my throat when fully engaged with a book. I do regularly tear up at the movies or while watching television (the silliest things). Even more regularly, music (a song by Aretha Franklin, for example, or a Bach violin concerto) stirs up tears. And I’ll mist up when I’m enchanted by some combination of music, choreography, and performance. If oxytocin is the proximate cause of many of these tears, I wonder whether it increases as we age. My tears do.

  9. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    I seldom cry at the end of a novel. What would get me were some of the kids’ books I’d read aloud the babies were younger, things that would have me just blubbering away. And recalling, ruefully (no longer ruthlessly) the way, as a child, I’d snicker at my own mother crying over a book

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