Let's Celebrate Crying

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Original Air Date: 
August 05, 2023

We all feel better after a good cry. In fact, humans are the only animals who cry emotional tears. But what about people who don't cry? And have you ever wondered why a sad song or movie makes you cry?

man crying

Hip-hop artist Dxtr Spits realized that his mental health issues were rooted in the toxicity of masculinity, which limited how he could express his feelings. So he started the "How Men Cry" movement, which teaches men how to cry.

a woman with tears

Behavioral neurologist Michael Trimble takes us on an evolutionary journey to unpack one of the few things that make Homo sapiens unique — we cry emotional tears. 

Woman with red lipstick and collar with a single teardrop on her cheek

When an actor cries on stage during a theater production or in a film, what are they really doing? Jen Plants says when an actor cries on stage, it’s a lot more complicated, and important, than you think.


Show Details 📻
August 05, 2023
March 23, 2024
Hip-Hop Artist Dxtr Spits
Hip-hop Artist
Behavioral Neurologist Michael Trimble
Behavioral Neurologist
Jen Plants
Theatre Educator
Full Transcript 📄

- It's To the Best of our Knowledge, I'm Ann Strainchamps. Crying is one of the most human things we do. That's how we respond to intense feelings like grief or pain or even overwhelming joy. Tears actually have a biological purpose. There are times we need to cry, but what if you can't? There is a significant portion of our population that struggles with crying. Many of them are men and some don't cry at all. Ever. ♪ I've been feeling like so in love ♪ ♪ Stuck in transit with the AC off ♪ ♪ Y'all got a few Xs and they hate me ♪ ♪ Y'all, understandably for the man to be ♪ ♪ For the man I been, can I phone a friend? ♪ ♪ I ain't got the answer ♪ ♪ She understand it ♪ ♪ I'm trapped inside what they raised me in ♪ ♪ It's just pain to me ♪ ♪ Like a brassy skin ♪ ♪ She see the light for a future him ♪ ♪ For a future me for a future them for a future us ♪ ♪ If I can keep the trust, but I'm taxing it ♪ ♪ I withdrawal too much feeling load and I call too much ♪ ♪ I got voices filled that I'm addicted to ♪ ♪ When I feel like I didn't had enough ♪ ♪ She's still there and ain't giving up on me ♪ ♪ Daymn, I owe you ♪ Meet Dxtr Spits, a hip hop artist and founder of the How Men Cry Movement. He runs workshops that teach men to let the tears flow. And he told Charles Monroe Kane, it all started with Man Zero.

- Who is man number zero?

- Ooh, number zero. So that was actually me, the real me, not my superhero name, me. I would say that's a man that's been doing a lot of healing, a lot of reflecting, a lot of just personal work around who I want to be in the world and how I want to show up. A man that has definitely had a fair amount of struggles and difficulties and places that I've just had to come from to feel more complete and whole. And that's starting to manifest more and more in my day-to-day life.

- Yeah, we're human beings. We all have ups and downs and problems. But at some point you made the decision that this was an issue of you being a man. This is an issue of masculinity.

- Sure.

- Not just as a human, though that's a leap. I don't think a lot of people take a lot of men, I don't think, take that leap. That must've been a, was that a bell rung or what happened?

- I think that was when I started to go through the process of therapy and started to look at the conditioning, whether that be within the family that I was in, or society, whatever it may be. And I started to look back in that mirror of where did these beliefs come from? That this is what I had to do.

- Yeah.

- One of the big ones is that my value and self-worth is attached to what I produce. That's probably one of the bigger things that I saw that has hugely impacted through a lens of manhood and masculinity.

- In juxtaposition to how you feel, right?

- Yeah.

- Men are what they make. Men are what they do. Men are not how they feel.

- Yep.

- I think that the metaphor, the thing that men who are trying to figure this out come to, is tears, actual crying. It was something we don't do and something we're told we're not supposed to do by our fathers and by society. And that becomes the thing, right? I don't cry, wow. My wife cries, my girlfriend cries. All these women cry. How come I don't cry? I feel it maybe at the movie or in the song, but I don't, do you remember the first time you cried as an adult?

- So one of the first times, was on stage, actually.

- Mm.

- And I was reading something on stage. And you would think that with a bunch of eyes and a bunch of people around that the stories of hold it in bro would be strong enough to overcome it. But for a while, that was the place where tears would manifest the most with me would be when I would perform these things.

- Well, hold on. I wanna do it back to the first time though. I mean, that must have been an incredible experience. You're in front a bunch of people. You're doing spoken word poetry and you're talking about these issues, and then you cry.

- Yeah.

- And I think for women out there listening, we have to just remind people that sometimes, 20, 25, 35 years old, you could be dealing with a man who's never cried as an adult.

- Yeah.

- Not only in public, but even alone. So what did it feel like?

- I don't even know if I was really ready to, I didn't process it at the time, the way that I think I would process it now. But definitely a release and relief is the first thing that comes to mind about it. But as I reflect on what that is now, is that that was like a small breaking point, because you're absolutely right. Where I feel like I didn't actually learn to talk about or name the feelings that may have even brought something like that on still until years later.

- Yeah, no, I totally, I totally. Well, let's go to your movement. It's called How Men Cry.

- Yeah.

- And the first thing I wanna ask you, it's the word how? We talk a lot about why.

- Yeah.

- But you said how, why how?

- Yeah, the How and How Men cry is very deliberate, because I think that exactly for what you were mentioning before, the fact that we're not given the opportunity maybe to cry publicly or to comfortably be able to do so with our partners or talk about what's going on deeply, that we still find ways to cry out. I use one of my poems, it's called "Boiled," which talks about, essentially it's just the pressure of all these different inputs in life that get us to these breaking or boiling over points. And to me, a lot of the times along the way to get into boil over points, we are crying out, we're crying out in low feelings of mood or you know, depression issues with substances issues, with relationships with our partners, issues with, in my case as well too, just like self harm and just all these different ways that we can start to bleed out what's going on. And we don't label it crying, but when I look carefully enough and also witness from a lot of the men that we'll work with and talk with, I see it as, as as crying now more than ever.

- I was thinking about the name of your movement. We're crying out everywhere. We're crying when we do a shot.

- Oh yeah.

- We're crying when we get high. We're crying when we act violent. If you keep building that up and keep building them, I mean, no wonder we live six years less than women, you know? It's like we've had build up tears in our brains for all those years, you know?

- Yeah, and it's funny because even now, even now, I still find those moments. I talk about this paradox. One of the statements that has stood out to me from doing this work is stop crying before I give you something to cry about.

- Yeah.

- And it's this statement of, okay, this kid, or this young man, or whomever it is, already felt the need to cry from whatever circumstance happened. And then they come to present that to somebody. And then the response is a violent behavior to say, actually stop feeling that. And what I've had to reflect on within myself is even sometimes where it's perfectly justifiable, somebody has passed away, or I'm just, you don't need a overly justifiable reason to cry. For whatever reason, if you felt that going on in your body, I still will have these moments of, oop restriction. Or don't do that or don't let that out.

- It's there, big boys don't cry, gimme, gimme something to cry about. Those are our father's words. Well, let's talk about your workshops because you are trying to unravel this onion of masculinity through this way. How Men Cry is really based on, and I have your comic book, which is amazing.

- Thank you.

- Your graphic novel, I guess, for the workshops. Let's talk about the workshop. That's kind of the core of what you do. What is a How Men Cry workshop? Like if I walk in the door, like what would I see?

- So I'll use a combination of poems and spoken word material, which actually tend to be stories. I kind of tell them in these story forms of different life events. And then I will add in meditation and mindfulness things. I'm a big fan of meditating. Love to incorporate it into work, because I think it's, it goes hand in hand with a lot of therapeutic practices. And then I will also have folks journal and reflect on whatever has actually come up for them. So it's this combination of you seeing the piece, being able to witness those things and reflect.

- Right.

- The reasons why we live less than women is myriad. But I mean, a lot of it from how we eat and what we put into ourselves to make ourselves feel better.

- Yeah.

- How we drink alcohol and when we commit suicide, we commit it violently. We're shooting ourselves, we're jumping off buildings. Where do you think that comes from, why don't we want help? Why won't we take the helping hand? It seems almost ridiculous that we don't get the help.

- Yeah, but see, what's tricky about that point is that I kind of take it back to childhood. So much has to do with these childhood influences and how we're brought up into the world about what's okay or not. If it is drilled down to you. So let's take just expressing my emotion or my feeling, which might be crying. If it's drilled down to you from childhood that this isn't a thing that you do, and you may actually literally be punished for this action. The paradox of, I'll give you something to cry about type of thing. If you receive that conditioning over and over and over and over and over again. And then by the time you get into adulthood, say you're in your thirties or whatever it may be. Oh, my partner needs me to be close right now.

- Yeah, right.

- I don't know what to do with all of this input that I'm having right now. And I need to find some way to talk about it. But the act of expressing yourself has literally been something that's been shut down so often. I think it's what leads to this level of confusion where guys literally want to do so, they've, like you said, they may have never done so in their entire life.

- So I was thinking, ever since I knew I was gonna interview you, I've been thinking a lot about this issue. And I'm 55 and thinking about my father. And his father had died when he was 41. And he cried. And he told me this because it was a revelation to him. 'Cause he realized that the first time he ever cried, he was 41.

- 41 Years old, wow.

- Jesus, and at least he was aware, he was telling me the story. 'Cause he's aware that that was a problem.

- Yeah.

- And I said, dad, why? Why didn't you cry? And he told me this, I don't have any male friends.

- Hmm.

- I don't have any friends. And I think that the men who are trying to figure this out, they have acquaintances, they have buddies that cheer the NBA on with and drinking buddies, but friends. That's what he made at the root cause of his issue. How do you help the guys in your workshops understand that they need to have guy friends, so they can talk stuff about it.

- One of my friends was going through a breakup, or no, she wasn't, her friend was, and she's like, "Yeah, my friend is going through this breakup and she's gonna come over later. We're gonna to spoon. We're gonna eat ice cream. We're gonna do this, this, and that. And just basically come over to be a presence. And for me to console this individual." And really not that difficult of a concept.

- No, no.

- But it's not that crazy of a concept. Oh, I'm having a tough time. I had to sit back and reflect. And I thought to myself, if I would ever, even with the work that I'm doing now, like this isn't that long ago. This is a real recent time. Even with what I'm doing now, would I have thought to turn and say, "Hey man, I'm going through this breakup and I'm having a tough time and I don't know how to keep it together right now. Can you just come keep me company?"

- Right.

- Even if it's just that.

- Men don't ask that.

- And I didn't even don't, you're certainly not gonna ask to spoon. That's a whole nother level. That's a whole nother level man.

- But even just that small thing of turning to say I'm in a moment of difficulty. So now I've been making more of a cognitive effort of Jordan, check in within you, window of tolerance or check in within what your state of emotion is right now. Are you in a moment of difficulty and working on making the cognitive choice to actually ask for help? And I said, Jordan, that's my government name, Dxtr, that's my superhero name. Ignore my superhero.

- I go out drinking every third, tonight, tonight. And I go with my buddies. There's five, six of us total, and we're all in our fifties. We all have a couple kids and we have that in common. And there's a local dive bar. And we go there and it is a lifeboat. It is a salvation. Half the time it's dirty jokes and doing shots. Sometimes someone's getting divorced, sometimes someone's dad died. Someone's kid didn't graduate from high school, somebody went to a mental hospital. And when that happens, the group gathers naturally and changes the attitude. The dirty jokes are gone, right? And you go to the thing. And there's a guy, one of my friends, and he still does this, his wife died some years back, and he started being a hugger. And I'll be honest with you, and I tell other men this all the time, I'm like, hug your friends.

- Oh yeah.

- I love when he comes in. It's not a hug. It's not the hug 'cause your team won. It's the high five crap. He's giving me an authentic, like a real hug, not a pat back hug.

- Yep.

- And it's so powerful that it's from another man.

- Yeah.

- What do you do with the men you talk to about physical contact? Because I think we haven't even talked about homophobia.

- Oh yeah.

- Let's be real. I mean, you and I spooning is a problem for other men.

- Yeah.

- So, one thing that just came to mind that I definitely wanna share is that I still recall one from doing this work, but secondly, from working on our relationships more, I vividly remember when my father and I even started really, really giving each other hugs. And this is within like, the past few years, but I deeply remember even one of the last times that I saw him, just the difference in how we embraced. And you're right. I mean, that was, it was healing on so many levels.

- I think about bro culture and I think about where it goes and it makes sense. I totally understand it. The women in my life don't understand it, but I totally understand it. The arm punch instead of the hug.

- Yeah.

- The how many girls can you lay in a month?

- Yeah.

- Lots of muscles and working out and protein shakes, whatever, I look at all that and what I now see, I see pain.

- Oh, yeah.

- And I can see why you would want an Andrew Tate to look up to or being the proud boys because it's easier, it's easier than being vulnerable. And it's easy as hell.

- Yeah, yeah, it is. And you're right, and it's easier. And here's the other thing, it's also familiar.

- Oh yeah.

- It's familiar because all you've been receiving is toughen up within your life anyway. And then I think societally, one of the things I talked about earlier is a lot of men not necessarily feeling heard. And I think what ends up happening is, so if you are a young man new into the world, there's a lot of criticism that goes towards men now. And I get it. I'm not even trying to argue against what the criticism is, but I'm just saying there's a lot of criticism that goes towards men. So if you're a young man going into the world, social media wise, it seems like there's criticism that you're not doing anything right. If you want to try to talk about something that maybe you have complex feelings around, if you don't word it just right, you might receive this negative onslaught on social media. Hard for me to talk to my friends about it because I may not even know how to communicate with them in the first place. It's like, where are we expecting these people to turn? And I think that's more of where my frustration comes.

- Yep.

- We have so much criticism for where these individuals are supposed to turn. And then when it comes to, well, where are they supposed to go? Then we're like, I don't know. Just don't be like that. Whatever you do, just don't be like that.

- Good luck kid.

- What else are you supposed to do? Yeah, good luck out there, buddy. But don't do that.

- Hey, I'm wondering if you could end for us. I would love to hear one of your poems.

- Sure.

- And let's say for men, let's do a poem for men. What's a poem that you would like to share with the men out there listening?

- Hmm. Let's go with "Water," actually, because I know that's one that you've read or kind of interacted with. And even for the listeners, I think it's a good summation of where I was when I really started doing a lot of this work. So, all right. "I learned how to swim when I was 26 years old. I don't know if y'all know, but there's a stereotype that American Black folk can't swim. And we didn't really have the best introduction to crossing waters. So I get it. But I try to take the Will Smith approach in life, though. No, not the whole slapping Chris Rock thing, but the taking on of a mentality of challenging things that scare me. I was a bit embarrassed, but I was determined. So I signed myself up for an introductory swim class. My father could swim quite well actually, but he never really took the time to teach me, a couple of passing lessons here and there, but he never really made sure I could. So unfortunately, like many things in life, I had to learn how to do so by myself. Sometimes I get tired of swimming alone. So here I go. I learned how to dive into the deep end first. They make it like a rite of passage. I was trying to pretend like I was not afraid, but I could see in this moment that I'm this scared little boy all over again, heart racing and nervous saying the mantra that they teach you. The water is your friend. So I'm starting to panic. So I look around for any means of safety, and I see a life raft on the wall. So I'm like, well, at least they can throw it to save my ass, if this really goes south. So I squeeze my nose and I close my eyes and I jump in. I'm actually a pretty good swimmer nowadays. But every once in a while, when standing at the bottom of the pool, I swear that I can feel the pressure of the droplets weighing down on me, seemingly stealing the oxygen from my lungs. Starts to feel like I can't breathe. Or I wonder what'll happen if I can't take a breath in time? See, I struggle with treading and I'm not all that great at floating. And I know it deep down. So in the worst case scenario, I panic and I have to push my way back to the surface. I tend to swim alone. It occurred to me that there will be no one that can throw in a life raft. I should probably be a bit more responsible. But it feels embarrassing to ask for a pool buddy when you're grown. My boy Darren drowned at 22, actually. When I was in my worst bouts of depression, I dreamt of water a lot. Saying the mantra that they teach you, the water is your friend, but it doesn't always feel like it. See, sometimes when standing at the bottom of the pool, I swear that I can feel the pressure of the droplets weighing down on me, seemingly stealing the oxygen from my lungs. Kind of like how it feels to be a man sometimes. When I really start to sit back and think about all the pressures that I've taken on in the world according to others, just for fitting in the man category. It starts to feel like pressure from all sides being told in one moment that it's okay to ask for help. And being told in the next that I need to work my way out of this trauma while being scolded for my shortcomings. And I know that I'm responsible for me, I'm responsible for the harm that I've caused, but I'm also responsible to work my way out of this trauma and teach myself how to swim. And what I'm saying is it feels like a lot of water. And I'm tired of swimming alone. So when I tell you, no baby, I'm tired when I say, no man, I'm good. When I say, baby, I don't want to talk about it today, but I'm really telling you is that I'm drowning. When I was in my worst bouts of depression, I dreamt of water a lot. Saying the mantra that they teach you, the water is your friend, but it doesn't always feel like it. I started dreaming about just jumping into the water and not trying to win the fight for the oxygen at all. There's an eerie silence under the water. There's an eerie silence under the water. The pressure of the droplets don't make a sound. But how is it that they've been so loud? They've been so loud for so long. He bullies you. You fight back. You need to know how to be tough. Crush the competition in business. No quit attitudes. You need to work a good job. Your self-worth is your net worth. Strengthen your network. Work out, bro. Get your gains. Build generational wealth. Oh, Black man, be a pillar for your community. Be yourself, but actually be the version that we all want you to be. Show up. You are so toxic. Heal yourself, get girls. What's your 401K looking like? Ask for help, but not too much, 'cause then you're too soft. You're too soft, you're too hard. Why are you so angry? Why are you being short with me? Be gentle, love me back. Just wait, hold on. It's too much water. It's too much water. And I know that I'm responsible for me. I'm responsible for the harm that I've caused, but I'm also responsible to work my way out of this trauma and teach myself how to swim. And what I'm saying is it feels like a lot of water. And I'm tired of swimming alone. So when I tell you, no baby, I'm tired. When I say, no, man, I'm good. When I say, baby, I don't want to talk about it today. When I say, please just hold on, please just love me through this. I know I need to be better. I know I need to be better. What I'm really telling you is that I am drowning and sometimes I just need a life raft." And that's that piece.

- Man. Thank you that, I mean, I get it. You're trying, man. Thank you very much, that's beautiful.

- Thank you. I appreciate it.

- Yeah, me too.

- [Narrator] Hip hop artist, Dxtr Spits is the founder and director of the How Men Cry Movement. And that was Charles Monroe Kane talking with him. Coming up, the evolution of crying, how tears made us human. I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is to the best of our knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio. NPRX. There are a whole lot of unspoken rules about crying. Like if you're in a staff meeting and somebody tells a sad story, is it okay to cry? Not without making everybody really uncomfortable, but if you're in a movie theater watching some kind of tragic love story go down, half the audience is gonna sniffle happily along with you. It's even why they went, to cry. So if you shed tears at work, you get a call from HR. But if it's at a movie theater, you're having a good time. Steve Paulson put the conundrum to Michael Trimble, a neuropsychiatrist and author of the book, "Why Humans Like to Cry."

- What struck me about crying is how embarrassed people are about crying and working in the medical profession, how do doctors approach people where the consultation seems to be going quite well, and then the person starts to cry and the doctor immediately will go onto a different subject? And there have been some studies showing this is a problem in consultation. So I spent some time thinking about the whole issue of why I cry and the things that may most lead people to cry with the knowledge. And this is the most important point, that homo sapiens, we are sapiens. Homo sapiens is the only living species that cries emotionally. Now, when I say that, somebody will always say, "Well, my dog cries, or elephants cry," or whatever, they don't. Of course, animals or any creature with eyeballs, if it's irritated, will produce tears. But we homo sapiens, humans, cry emotionally and crying emotionally, I believe, is one of the distinctive features of being human. And so, people over the years have said, "Oh, the things that we do that animals don't do is make tools." Well, that's been shown to be not the case. Well, animals don't have social communications in the same way that we do." That's not the case. "Well, animals don't have theory of mind that we do." Well, again, you can question that, but animals, non-human species do not, or are different, I should say, from all other animal species because of crying emotionally.

- Now can I just say I find that very surprising that our close primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas do not cry emotional tears. 'Cause we know they have deep emotions, they can experience grief and joy and all of that.

- Yep.

- So why don't they cry?

- The answer is they don't have the right neuroanatomy. And so part of the book "Why Humans Like to Cry" was pulling out the neuroanatomy that linked certain areas in the brain. Loosely, you can describe areas like limbic structures and cortical structures, but also what is most relevant is the descending pathways from the higher areas of the brain and the emotional related areas of the brain brain down into the brainstem, where from the brainstem, there are fibers which go out of the brainstem exactly to the nuclei that lead to tearing. And those in the human are linked pretty directly. Whereas in the primates, there are connecting waste stops, which don't give that clear direction. The other one is extremely relevant too, is the differences in working memory between animals and ourselves. So we have fairly efficient working memory, and that is one thing that leads to ideas within the mind or representations in the mind, which are held there for a sufficiently long time. And the chimpanzees don't have any working memory for music.

- Interesting.

- For example. But the issue is, it's the neuroanatomy which connects our various areas of the higher brain into the areas of the lower brain where the outlet goes to stimulate crying.

- Yeah, so is crying fundamentally a mechanism for showing or feeling empathy?

- This word empathy has been so misused and so misunderstood, and it has become a high point of looking at neuroscience underlying this, but if you just look at empathy, Ausflug, in feeling. So there's a difference between seeing somebody falling down in the street and you would think, "Oh gosh, I hope he's all right, but I've gotta get on." But that's different from actually being with somebody, seeing the emotional expressions of somebody in difficulty or in pain or whatever, where you actually have the in feeling the empathy empathic. And that's a different, form of empathy from that, which a lot of people say, oh yes, that's empathy. He doesn't have empathy, he doesn't have this and the other. But empathy, because by crucial, it's very closely linked with theory of mind. And Chris Frith, who is very well known in this area, commented that theory of mind was one of the greatest developments of human cognition.

- Theory of mind is the idea that we have some sense of what someone else is to thinking.

- We have more than a sense, we actually have a feeling of what others are feeling. So at theory of mind, and a lot of the empathy issue comes down to bodily experiences, not some kind of empathic Cartesian mind, which is floating around, which you can identify with. But the whole relationship of crying, but also other emotions, is a bodily experience. We bodily experience emotion. Now, I don't want anybody to go away thinking, "Oh, he doesn't believe that other animals have emotions." It is quite clear that they do have emotions, but you don't know what kind of emotions they have. We can anthropomorphize and say, "It must be like ours." And it maybe, but no way you can find out. But clearly the elements of empathic experience and even theory of mind have been shown in higher primates.

- Right.

- And then to come back to crying, because we are such visual animals and such social animals, we respond very strongly in social situations. It would seem that when we see someone else cry and the empathy kicks in, it seems to trigger an emotional response in us. And we are more likely to cry too at that point.

- Hmm.

- Does that make sense?

- Yes, it does. There are emotional triggers which become idiosyncratic, if you like, for each one of us. But also there are emotional triggers which are embedded within our human responses. And one of which is the tears. Again, some colleague of mine did some interesting experiments of looking at feelings, empathic feelings in a number of images of people with tears, often coming from paintings, but with tears. And then they showed the same image, but they remove the tears. And the difference in that, in terms of the response was dramatic. So the tears bring a pro-social effect, which again, is so relevant for those very, very early infant bonds.

- Oh, that's fascinating. Now, the other thing that happens when we cry is it seems to inhibit our ability to speak. So recently, for instance, I was giving a toast at my son's wedding, and I just, I broke down, I couldn't go on. And I cry very easily when things get really emotional. I mean, I am just very emotional in those situations. So I guess I'm wondering, why do I do that? It's sort of like, it supersedes language in some way, which I don't know what's happening in the brain there for that to happen.

- Yes, they say, oh, "I'm choked."

- Yeah, right.

- I dunno how to express what I need to say, but the answer is, language is really, well, it's wonderful that we have this thing called language, but actually the language that we have is totally inadequate when it comes to emotional expression. So when people have done studies of music, for example, or reading, and what emotions do you get? Here's a list of six or seven or 10 or whatever, the things I'm talking about don't come up to do with loss, to do with bereavement, to do with tragedy and whatever.

- You mentioned that you were particularly interested in crying in response to art. I know you've studied theater and tragedy, and of course there are all kinds of things that make us cry. I mean, we love sad songs. We cry at movies, we cry at certain kinds of plays. Why do we seem to have this compulsion to not only create art that makes people cry, but then when we experience the art, it prompts us to cry?

- The word you might want to use is being moved.

- Yeah.

- Movement. Moving, to be moved is embedded in the language. And in the study that we did, we looked at quite a number of people in several different centers of the world looking at differences in crying to several of the arts. We've looked at the novel, poetry, buildings, paintings, statues, and music. Now, if you think about those, what are the arts themselves that are moving? Well, music, music pulls you forward, it pulls you into what is coming next, what's the expectation? Where is the, this particular musical phrase going to go to? What are the ambiguities? So that's a moving art, another moving art, actually. Well, you could say poetry is moving in terms of everything that's set up there. But if you think about architecture, and if you think actually even about paintings or statues, there's no movement. And in the studies that we did, we found that the two things that were most associated with crying were music and very close by was reading novels. And of course, the whole point about reading is that you are actually going on a journey. Now, it is visually created, but there are within the central nervous system pathways that relate to movement, that actually become activated when in a text, you read a word like moving. And so there are anagrams or something like that. I haven't quite got the words, but there are issues to do with reading a text, certain words that activate movement ideas within our brains, which are linked again to those emotional relationships, limbic structures, and the pathways out of the brain, down to the areas I've talked about.

- Why are we drawn to tragedy, to these very sort of powerful things that happen, but tragic things that induce crying? Why do we want to see that kind of art?

- Because it's life. It's life, it's altered. But the book that I have just written on this is called "Love and Death in Opera." And it's do with unexpected death in opera. I dunno if anybody listening's interest in opera, but there's all kinds of questions, why does his older die? But the idea of tragedy is deeply embedded in the whole of our culture and homosapians, the traps that people are in the relationships that are possible and not possible. But there are few fundamental things in human life, which the king faces and the poorer faces, and you and I face. And one of them is a son getting married that leads you to cry. Yes.

- Well, professor Trimble, this has been absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much.

- Well, it's been a pleasure. You see, so few people are interested in crying. I'm delighted to meet somebody actually has cried themselves and understands what I've been talking about. But thank you for inviting me.

- Michael Trimble is a neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Neurology University College London. His book is called, "Why Humans Like to Cry, Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain" Steve Paulson talked with him. Coming up, you're sitting in a darkened theater watching an actor cry. Are the tears real or fake? Does it matter? I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is to the best of our knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. There aren't a lot of places Where it's okay to cry in public. One of them is the theater.

- Several years ago, I was in a play called "The Guys." It's based on a true story about a fire captain in New York, on 9/11 who loses eight of his 12 men and has to write eight eulogies, reaches out to a journalist to help him write them.

- Theater, artist Jen Plants.

- The play starts with a monologue from the character I played. Joan is the journalist, and she comes on stage every night alone, no elaborate set, and spoke to the audience, taking in where I was, who was in the room, and the collection of trauma and grief and pain that they all brought into the room that would move me to tears. There's two kinds of silence in the theater to me. There's that bored silence, which is brutally painful, but there's another kind of silence that feels a little bit electric. And when audiences are crying, they're often deadly silent.

- Were you supposed to cry?

- Sometimes folks think the script will say, and now Jen's tears start flowing. And sometimes it does say that, but I think that crying like in life comes unexpectedly. But that comes from listening. And that's acting to me versus performing. One night after the show, this guy much taller than me, strong guy. First thing he says to me is, "My wife dragged me to the theater here tonight. I had never seen myself on stage before. I didn't know that was possible. I didn't know that those kinds of stories could get told." And I think we only got that feedback because we were willing to tell the truth.

- Crying on stage can be a kind of shorthand for great acting. In the movies, tears win Oscars. Here's the question, though. Can you tell when an actor's tears are real versus when they're performed? As a theater artist and educator, Jen Plants works hard to teach her students the difference.

- There's a lot of fakery. There's a thing in the theater we call TIV, Tears in Voice, which is a way of speaking where you can make it sound like you are just holding back tears. It's very difficult to get through what you have to say, but that's all fake. I just performed that. I'm not near tears. You can do that on stage. But I think one reason why, and I hate to say it because of dedicated my life to the theater and live performance, is that sometimes why people are bored at the theater is because it is fake.

- So if you are directing a play and you wanna produce that kind of emotion for real, how do you talk about that with your actors? What do you say?

- I think when you're first starting out as an actor, you're very results oriented. So crying seems like the thing, right? That's a result, a tangible result. So sometimes an actor will get to what would be a very emotional speech in the play. And the thing that to me, a young actor will do is try to turn on the tears, right? Turn a little bit of the fakery on, try and make themselves cry. And one thing I always say is, why are you crying in a play? So if I'm an actor, I think, well, why am I crying right now? Am I crying because I wanna show the audience all the emotion that I'm feeling. I wanna show off my great skill. Or am I crying because I care so much and something is moving through me and I'm moved to tears. A lot of times in life, we're trying not to, if you're trying to get this person to marry you, you're trying to get this person to leave the country and never speak to you again, focusing on that action and sitting on the emotion, because you're a human and you care, that emotion's gonna simmer anyway. And so it's a little bit of reverse kind of thinking, but I think somehow you have to get an actor's mind off the results.

- I'm thinking about what it must be like to be an actor and night after night, maybe for weeks, if it's a long running play, you're going out on stage. And if you're successful, if you're good at what you do, you are having an unbelievably intense, maybe kind of searing emotional experience on stage night after night. How do people do it?

- I think everybody has their own coping mechanisms. And I think sometimes that's why there's a stereotype of actors drinking or using drugs, because it is a way to release, right? It's a coping strategy to sort of escape what you went through. Because to me, acting, if you're doing it right, you are you, you don't become this other person.

- How do you feel at the end of the evening? You know, we talk about, oh, somebody will say they feel really good after a big cry, I don't know. What does it feel like?

- I think it depends a little bit what resolution the play gives you. But I think it is utterly exhausting. I know another play I did that was about the Bosnian war. It was a very emotionally gut wrenching play. And when it was over, I used to just sit in my dressing room with the light off and eat from this giant can of cheese balls. Just have a couple minutes to sort of reconnect with my own reality. Because the thing about acting is it's not therapy, shouldn't be, but acting problems are life problems and life problems are acting problems. You cannot go through life as a closed person, closed off to other experiences, lacking empathy, and then get on stage and expect it all to open up. It doesn't work that way. So you kind of have to figure out, how do I open up on stage and keep myself open in life, but keep myself safe in life too? I can't be that open in real life.

- Do actors ever need therapy after playing a difficult role?

- Of course. Of course they do.

- Really?

- I don't mean to laugh. In my graduate school program to get an MFA in acting, we had weekly therapy, which is the smartest thing that graduate school ever did. And I think the industry has gotten better over time in realizing that you're not another person if you go on stage and get murdered every night. Even though it is a fictional story, it's still my body out there that's getting "murdered" every night. I have to go through that experience. How do I process that afterwards? How do I keep that in a space that isn't impacting my everyday life? And so I think the idea of emotional safety in the theater is becoming much, much more important. Whereas I think when I first started acting, it was a bit, here's this horrific scene that you have to do. It's you're gonna experience trauma every night, and then we hope you join us for a beer afterwards. There was no sense that you might need to process it.

- Yeah. What is the larger value to the culture, to society of tears and grief in theater? I mean, we're talking about a tradition that goes back to the ancient Greek tragedies and beyond. So I think it's more than just, people will feel better after they've cried.

- And there is that the ancient idea of catharsis. But I also think the theater serves as a container for things that we just can't express in real life. And so we carve out these spaces where you can cry, you can cry at a funeral, you can cry in the theater, you can cry at a film. But what's interesting about those spaces is they're all collective. And the spotlight is not on you. The spotlight is on someone else. I think about it in teaching sometimes too. I had a few years ago, a student that I was close to died by suicide, heartbreakingly.

- I'm so sorry.

- And I was close to him as a teacher is to a student. And since then, at the beginning of every semester, I talk to my students about kind a basic needs statement in my syllabi saying, look, there are a lot of things way more important than any class you'll ever take. And I always mention this student because I want them to know that what I'm talking about is real. I'm not just reading something off a piece of paper that was boilerplate provided by the university. I know what it's like to experience pain and loss. And sometimes I cry when I talk about this and sometimes I don't. But one thing I have learned is I don't apologize for crying when I do, which I think is often our first impulse is to say we're sorry.

- Yeah.

- I saw a production of "Mary Stewart" on Broadway many years ago and as I was leaving, I went to the bathroom and a woman was just weeping uncontrollably, just sobbing, sobbing, sobbing, leaning on the kind of table where you put your makeup on. Sobbing sobbing. And I just asked her if she was all right, everybody went by her. And I said, "are you okay? Do you need anything?" And she said, "Yeah, I just was so moved by the play, it just really, really affected me, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." She kept apologizing. And I thought, why are we living in a time where you are apologizing for being moved by a piece of art?

- Why is that shameful?

- Yes.

- And how do we have a culture in which she's apologizing when the people who should be apologizing are all the people who weren't moved enough in some ways, right? The problem is a culture that can't deal with it, where we're supposed to suppress the actual real tears, but then we'll celebrate fake tears.

- It's why I've said this before too. Listening is a radical act. For that woman to sit in the theater and really listen to that story with really amazing actors. It was an amazing production, really powerful and truthful, to really listen to that kind of pain, to really listen to that kind of betrayal, to let yourself sit with it. And because you're human, you also know pain, you know betrayal, you know grief, you know fear, you know shame. So if you're fully listening, something is gonna move through you. And I think it says something really interesting about our culture that she hid in the bathroom, apologized for crying. And like you said, most people just ignored it.

- Jen Plants teaches theater and dramaturgy at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She's also the founder and artistic director of Third Ridge Theater. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is made each week by Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Riechers, Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hartdke. This week with help from Angelo Bautista and Sarah Hopefl, additional music from Dxtr Spits and Solo Flair. Thanks to all of our guests and to you for listening. Be well and come back often.

- [Narrator] PRX

Last modified: 
March 14, 2024